The seventeenth century, which witnessed the development of absolute monarchy, also saw the appearance of the constitutional state. While France solved the question of sovereignty with the absolutist state, England evolved toward the constitutional state.
If we could assign a very simple definition of the term of the term constitutionalism, it would be the limitation of government by law. Constitutionalism implies a very delicate balance between the authority and power of government, on the one hand, and the rights and liberties of the subjects, on the other. In essence, the law is embodied by a set of precepts and principles – a constitution.
A nation’s constitution may be written or unwritten. It may be embodied in one basic document, occasionally revised by amendment or judicial decision, like the Constitution of the United States. It also may be partly written and partly unwritten and include parliamentary statutes, judicial decisions, and a body of traditional procedures and practices (like the English constitution). Regardless of whether it is written or unwritten, a constitution gets its binding force from the government’s acknowledgment that it must respect that constitution – that is, that the state must govern according to the laws. Likewise, in this state, the people look on the laws and the constitution as the protector of their rights, liberty, and property.
Modern constitutional governments may take either a republican or a monarchical form. In a constitutional republic, the sovereign power resides in the electorate and is
exercised by the electorate’s representatives. In a constitutional monarchy, a king or queen serves as the head of state and possesses some residual political authority, but again the ultimate, or sovereign, power rests in the electorate.
The constitutional government at this time period has sometimes been perceived to be the same as the democratic form. However, such is definitely not the case. In a complete democracy, all the people have the right to participate either directly or indirectly (through their elected representatives) in the government of the state. Democratic government, therefore, is intimately tied up with the voting populace. When constitutionalism came into fruition, most men could not vote until around the late nineteenth century; and women weren’t given the right to vote until the twentieth century. Consequently, although constitutionalism developed in the seventeenth century, full democracy was achieved only in very recent times.