Constitutional Innovation and Imitation in the American States

Published date01 March 2022
Date01 March 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 75(1) 244 –258
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912921991673
The widespread adoption of written constitutions is one
of the most notable developments in institutional design
in politics over the past 250 years. Constitutions are com-
mitment devices intended to overcome principal–agent
problems among political actors and between representa-
tives and the represented, and which establish and
entrench political powers, institutions, and rights (Hardin
1989, 2013; Hirschl 2013; North and Weingast 1989).
Yet, constitutions are also subject to revision and replace-
ment. Indeed, although the U.S. Constitution is often
taken to be a model, in actuality it is an outlier among
nations in several respects. Unlike the U.S. Constitution,
most constitutions endure a short time, are considerably
longer and more detailed, and undergo frequent revision
and replacement (e.g., Elkins, Ginsburg, and Melton
2009; Versteeg and Zackin 2014, 2016). The frequent
revision and replacement of constitutions makes possible
the diffusion of institutional design as states learn from
one another (Goderis and Versteeg 2013).
To examine constitutional innovation and imitation,
we turn to a particularly rich area for studying the origins
and spread of constitutionalism: the American states.
Today, there are about two hundred sovereign states
across the world, and only a handful do not have written
constitutions, notably the United Kingdom. The near uni-
versal adoption of written constitutions is part of a trend
stretching back over two centuries. Fifty years ago, there
were about 150 written constitutions for approximately
170 states, and 100 years ago, there were about 60 written
constitutions for approximately 75 states (Lutz 2006, 4).
In turn, if we go back 250 years, there were precisely zero
written constitutions. As Zink (2009, 442) explains, “The
worldwide prevalence of written constitutions today may
obscure the fact that written constitutions were virtually
unprecedented in America’s revolutionary and founding
era.” The principal incubator of constitutional develop-
ment from the revolutionary period forward was the
American states. These early state constitutions were at
the forefront of a lively experiment in constitutional
design that produced sixty-four constitutions by the Civil
War, as compared with about twenty written constitutions
PRQXXX10.1177/1065912921991673Political Research QuarterlyEngstrom et al.
1University of California, Davis, USA
2Florida State University, Tallahassee, USA
Corresponding Author:
Erik J. Engstrom, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA 95616,
Constitutional Innovation and Imitation in
the American States
Erik J. Engstrom1, Matthew T. Pietryka2, and John T. Scott1
The widespread adoption of written constitutions is one of the most notable developments in institutional design
in politics over the past 250 years. The American states offer a rich place to study constitutional innovation and
imitation as being among the first political bodies to adopt constitutions and also given that they often replaced
them, in both cases innovating and learning from one another. In this paper, we use quantitative text analysis to
identify constitutional innovation and to investigate patterns of imitation. First, we find substantial textual borrowing
between state constitutions. On average, 20 percent of a state’s constitutional language was borrowed directly from
another state constitution. Second, states were more likely to borrow text from geographically proximate states,
from temporally proximate state constitutions, and from states that shared similar partisan profiles. Finally, we offer
a brief discussion of the most influential constitutions as an exploratory example for extending our approach of
identifying textual innovation and imitation. These findings offer new contributions to both the study of constitutional
design and institutional diffusion.
policy diffusion, policy innovation, constitutional change, state constitutions, state politics, federalism, federal, state,
text analysis

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