Research Spotlight: Constitutional Innovation and Imitation in the American States

Today virtually all sovereign countries have written constitutions, but such documents are only a recent innovation. A century ago, roughly 60 written constitutions existed and 250 years ago there were none. While the US Constitution serves as a prominent early example of these documents, it was far from the first written constitution. By the time it was adopted, the newly independent US states had each adopted their own constitutions. 

How did the framers of state constitutions decide what institutions to include and how to encode them in text? Many detailed historical accounts of these decisions exist, but such research focuses on individual cases and therefore cannot reveal the systemic patterns that shape constitutional design. In a new article, published in Political Research Quarterly, researchers provide the first systematic, quantitative study of the decisions made by the framers of US state constitutions. 

For this analysis, researchers relied on an algorithm that detects text copied from previous constitutions—much like the algorithms that instructors use to detect plagiarism. This analysis reveals widespread imitation, as shown in this plot:

In the plot, each new constitution adopted from 1776 to 1859 is shown along the horizontal axis (x axis). The dotted line shows the proportion of text from that new constitution that we found in previous constitutions. By this metic, an average of 20 percent of a state’s constitutional language was borrowed directly from one or more existing constitutions. In some cases, such as California’s 1849 constitution, this form of imitation was almost 50 percent. The plot also reveals the most influential constitutions in this era, including some that have received little attention in the existing literature. For instance, the light green ribbon shows the proportion of each constitution’s text that was first used by 1799 Kentucky. By this metric, Kentucky’s constitution was highly influential in the years after its adoption and it continued to shape new constitutions through the Civil War. This approach, exemplified in the plot above, provides a basis that future work can build on to identify the geographic, temporal, and political forces that shape constitutional design.

Dr. Scott is professor of political science at UC Davis. Dr. Scott studies the history of political philosophy, with a specialization in early modern political thought. You can learn more about Dr. Scott here.

Dr. Engstrom is a professor of political science and the chair of the political science department at UC Davis. Engstrom’s research focuses on legislative politics, political parties, and American political development. You can learn more about Dr. Engstrom here.

Dr. Pietryka is an an associate professor of political science at Florida State University. Dr. Pietryka’s research examines how individuals’ political attitudes and voting behavior are influenced by the people around them. You can learn more about Dr. Pietryka here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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