Which country was the first to adopt a codified constitution by a reasonably democratic public referendum?

I'm including in this non-binding referendums, such as those held in the Australian colonies during 1898 and 1899.


Massachusetts arguably pioneered the constitutional referendum and the constitutional convention. An initial project for its Constitution was rejected by a referendum in 1778, leading to the election of a new constitutional convention. The new project was submitted to popular review in 1780, but to my understanding the final decision was taken by the convention following approval by the towns rather than by a formal popular vote.

New Hampshire followed a somewhat similar process. Several drafts were submitted to popular review, and the third draft was approved by all towns in 1783, leading to the constitution being established the next year. Insofar as town meetings were democratic, I think this counts as the first constitution adopted by referendum. However New Hampshire was part of a Confederation, not an independent state.

A constitutional referendum was held in France in 1793, establishing the “Constitution de l'an I” (Constitution of year 1 [of the Republic]). The voting rule was universal male suffrage. Participation was poor, only around 30%, in large part because of doubts as to whether voting would be secret; however it is likely that the constitution would have been adopted even if participation had been higher (it passed with about 99% approval). What makes this example not completely fit the bill is that the ratified and promulgated constitution was never applied, as the Terror regime suspended its application and the subsequent regime formalization (the Directory) instated a different constitution.

The Directory Constitution (“Constitution of year 3”) was adopted by plebiscite. I don't know in what circumstances this plebiscite was held, so I don't know whether it counts as democratic.

Switzerland held its first constitutional referendum in 1798, establishing the Helvetic Republic. Although dubbed a referendum, voting was organized canton by canton, and in some cantons it was the council that voted rather than public assemblies of all (male) residents. So this may count as democratic (inasmuch as the ongoing French military occupation allowed) but not completely as a referendum.

A second constitutional referendum was held in 1802. What makes this example also imperfect is that I do not know whether it was adopted by any reasonable democratic standard. Non-voters were deemed to have approved, so the result of the referendum (56% of actual votes in favor) does not accurately reflect voters' opinion.

A third constitutional referendum was held in 1848. It is known as the “total revision” and established the current federal Swiss state. Like in 1798, there were cantons where the council voted rather than all voters.

  • One might quibble that technically speaking, both of MA/NH were not sovereign countries. OTOH, I think French example is excellent - the constitution was meant to be adopted, further historical contingencies didn't change that. +1 for a great set of facts.
    – user4012
    Jan 3 '14 at 16:18

If you including Australia's constitutional referendum that needed the UK's Parliment to ratify it, then Australia was the first in 1901

The Constitution was approved in a series of referendums held over 1898–1900 by the people of the Australian colonies, and the approved draft was enacted as a section of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (Imp), an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (Imp) became law on 9 July 1900, and entered into force on 1 January 1901. Even though the Constitution was originally given legal force by an Act of the United Kingdom parliament, the Australia Act 1986 removed the power of the United Kingdom parliament to change the Constitution as in force in Australia, and the Constitution can now only be changed in accordance with the prescribed referendum procedures.

I am going to assume that by reasonably democratic, you weren't including women. Women's suffrage wasn't really adopted in most countries until the early 20th century. Women were allowed to vote in some colonies in Australia, but not all.

If you don't include Australia's non-binding constitutional referendum, then Chile in 1925 is a close second, with the standard Woman's Suffrage caveat


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