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By Jake Berry August 8, 2011

Huntsman says the U.S. Constitution is the oldest

As he toured New Hampshire last week, Jon Huntsman wore his patriotism like a lapel pin.

Even as he condemned President Barack Obama over what he labeled failed policies and leadership, Huntsman, the former Republican governor of Utah, saluted the American work ethic and the United States Constitution, which he touted as the world’s oldest.

"We've got some great things going for us here that we forget sometimes," Huntsman told workers during an August 2, 2011 tour of Cirtronics Corp., a manufacturing firm in Milford, New Hampshire. "We have rule of law. We have the longest surviving constitution. … What we don't have is leadership."

The rule of law in America is hard to question, and as for presidential leadership, we'll leave that to the candidates to debate. But, does America really have the world's longest surviving Constitution? That sounded like a question for PolitiFact.

To start, we went straight to the source, the National Constitution Center, located on Independence Mall in Philadelphia.

At 222 years old, America’s governing document is broadly considered the world’s longest surviving constitution, according to Dr. Steven Frank, the Constitution Center’s chief historian.

Ratified in 1789, it beats out Norway’s constitution, which took effect in 1814 and Belgium's, implemented in 1831, according to a list compiled by Tom Ginsburg and Rosalind Dixon, constitutional law professors at the University of Chicago.

"It's the most durable constitution in the world today," said Frank, of the Constitution Center. "Historians agree. It's been around longer than any other written constitution."

But, that left us to wonder, what constitutes a constitution?

The definition of the term is a significant question in political theory, according to Ginsburg, the University of Chicago law professor. But the term is loosely defined as a collection of laws or governing statutes that "sets fundamental norms about the structure of government and its relationship with citizens," Ginsburg wrote in an e-mail. He also serves as one of the lead investigators for the Comparative Constitutions Project, a research project launched at the University of Illinois to analyze governing documents around the world.

In their study, project researchers have found that enduring constitutions are usually made easy to amend to allow for growth and re-interpretation, Ginsburg said, and they are typically written by large cross-sections of people to encompass many points of view.

"The funny thing is, the things which make constitutions endure aren't really found in the U.S. one," he said, pointing out that the United States Constitution was written by 100 rich, white men. "It seems to be very exceptional, the reason it endures."

Elsewhere around the globe, many countries don’t follow a single constitution but instead operate under what historians call a "multi-text approach," in which national laws are based on different documents and statutes, many of which pre-date the United States Constitution.

The United Kingdom, for instance, derives its constitution from a large number of documents, including the Magna Carta, which dates back to 1297, according to Jef Ruchti, editor-in-chief of World Constitutions Illustrated, a publication of William S. Hein, & Co.

"All told, it is traditional to consider that the U.S. Constitution is the oldest surviving one-document constitutional text. However, the others models do outdate it," Ruchti wrote in an e-mail. "And that is not even getting into the continuing debate as to whether the form of government of the Iroquois Nations had an impact on the writing of the U.S. Constitution or not."

The republic of San Marino  is often considered to have the earliest written governing documents still in effect. The republic, an enclave surrounded by Italy, has no formal constitution, but instead is governed by the Leges Statutae Republicae Sancti Marini, a series of six books, written in Latin in the late 16th Century that dictates the country’s political system, among other matters.

Our ruling:

Historians and legal scholars alike may debate the definition, but most of us are clear in our concept of a constitution as a single governing document. As long as that’s the case, there is little room for argument. The U.S. Constitution is the longest surviving constitution in the world. Still, there are other countries that have multiple governing documents that are older than the U.S. Constitution.

We rate Huntsman’s claim Mostly True.

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Update: After this item comparing the longevity of the U.S. Constitution to others around the world appeared, two  readers noted that the Massachusetts state constitution is even older. Ratified in 1780, it served as a model for the authors of the U.S. Constitution, which was written seven years later, according to an account provided by the Massachusetts Judicial Branch.

Our Sources

National Archives, "Constitution of the United States," 1789

Tom Ginsburg and Rosalind Dixon, "Comparative Constitutional Law," 2011

Internet Portal of San Marino, "Statutes San Marino," 2011

Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, "Basic Law of Governance," 2011

Interview with Tom Ginsburg, professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, August 3, 2011

E-mail interview with Jef Ruchti, editor-in-chief of World Constitutions Illustrated, August 3, 2011

Interview with Steven Frank, chief historian of the National Constitution Center, August 4, 2011

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Huntsman says the U.S. Constitution is the oldest

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