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U. of I. scholars collecting,
analyzing constitutions from around world
Business & Law Editor
photo to enlarge
by L. Brian Stauffer
Elkins, above, a professor of political science,
is working with Tom Ginsburg, below, an Illinois
professor of law, on
a project to collect and analyze some 760 constitutions
used worldwide since the U.S. Constitution took effect.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. —
Thomas Jefferson believed that a country’s constitution should
be rewritten every 19 years. Instead, the U.S. Constitution, which Jefferson
did not help to write (he was in Paris serving as U.S. minister to France
when the Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia), has prevailed
“Jefferson thought the dead should not rule the living, thus constitutions
should expire frequently, but the fact is that the U.S. Constitution
quickly became enshrined by the public and is the oldest constitution
in the world,” said Zachary Elkins, a professor of political
science at Illinois.
Many other constitutions do not last very long, according to Elkins,
who is working with Tom Ginsburg, an Illinois professor of law,
on a project to collect and analyze some 760 constitutions used worldwide
since the U.S. Constitution took effect.
“There is a lot of infant mortality,” Ginsburg said, noting
that the average age for a national constitution is only 16 years.
The typical African constitution lasts only about 10 years, while those
in Latin America average 12.4 years, and Haiti writes a new constitution
about every three years. On the other hand, constitutions in western
Europe typically endure for 32 years, and those in Asia for 19 years.
Various Socialist constitutions have tended to follow the installation
of new leaders in the Soviet Union (1936, 1977) and China (1982).
Despite the importance that most nations place on having a written constitution,
there is little agreement on exactly what the document should contain.
The U.S. Constitution is an example of a document that specifies “negative
rights,” or the rights of citizens to be free from government
Many constitutions, especially those written after World War II, emphasize
“positive rights,” or the rights of citizens to decent housing,
clean environment and good education from their governments.
Another difference among constitutions is the amount of detail contained
in the document. The U.S. Constitution proclaims general principles
(in part because the original framers were divided on key political
issues) that have been interpreted by the U.S. courts. In some countries,
institutional practices have been accepted as “constitutional”
even though they were never written into law, while in other countries,
such as in Mexico, actual governance did not match the principles propounded
in their constitutions.
Remarkably, according to the Illinois scholars, no systematic data exist
on the content, provisions and structure of constitutions. This gap
in research limits the comparative study of what types of constitutions
make for more durable and efficient political institutions.
“Our objective is to improve the science of constitutional design
by developing a comprehensive data set that records the characteristics
of constitutions, both contemporary and historical,” they wrote.
Even describing the contents of a constitution is difficult given the
wide variations among countries and time periods. In a working paper,
Elkins, Ginsburg and James Melton, an Illinois graduate student in political
science, argued that constitutions are valuable by restricting the behavior
“Without a commitment to higher law, a state operates for the
short-term benefit of those in power and leaves those out of power more
likely to resort to extra-constitutional means of securing power,”
they wrote. “By limiting the scope of government, constitutions
make government possible.”
Another function of constitutions is to define a nation and its goals.
This function is particularly important in countries where citizens
have strong ethnic or communal identities that compete with a national
“Even a dictatorship needs established institutions through which
to govern,” the scholars noted.
Aided by a number of graduate students, the Illinois team has finished
collecting data on current constitutions from 192 countries. The researchers
plan to collect information on historical constitutions working back
to the early 1800s.
“Our object is to improve the science of constitutional design
by developing a comprehensive dataset,” Elkins said. “Apart
from answering research questions, the dataset promises to pay significant
dividends for the design of constitutions in states transitioning to
Ginsburg noted that drafting a constitution has been an important U.S.
policy objective in Afghanistan and Iraq. While written constitutions
are now in place, whether these documents will help resolve the institutional
and ethnic complexities in either country is difficult to predict, according
The constitutions dataset project is sponsored by the Illinois Center
for the Study of Democratic Governance. The project has received
a two-year $197,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.