Rethinking the American Constitutional Tradition: National Dimensions in the Formation of State Constitutions
California Supreme Court Historical Society Yearbook, Vol. 1, p. 103, 1994
20 Pages Posted: 26 Oct 2012
Date Written: 1994
In this review essay of David A. Johnson's Founding the Far West: California, Oregon, and Nevada, 1840-1890 (1992), the author locates the book within an overwhelming tradition of studying the American constitutional tradition through the lens of the Federal Constitution in contrast to the comparative neglect of state constitutions. Johnson's work provides a notable departure from the traditional federal focus by examining the political and ideological context of the framing of state constitutions in three far western states. Johnson's achievement lies in his richly textured and nuanced reading of how the three states differed significantly from each other in terms of their political culture and societies, while placing the process of statehood and post-statehood developments within a broader context of western and national events.
Despite its strengths, Founding the Far West overlooks the existence of a shared American tradition and culture in constitution-making that influenced how delegates created state constitutions and articulated. Convention debates for the period reveal that virtually no nineteenth-century constitution-making occurred in isolation but that delegates had access to many constitutional models. Moreover, such constitutional borrowing hardly occurred haphazardly or without serious reflection. One recurring them in that borrowing process recognized that the present generation of constitution-makers should profit from the constitutional experience of other states and incorporate the best ideas from the existing constitutions. In the final analysis, the wide awareness of constitutional models and the discussion of their merits often provided a thoughtful process of comparison and borrowing that helped create a shared culture of American constitutionalism.
Keywords: State Constitution-Making, State Formation, Constitutional Borrowing, California, Nevada, Oregon, Convention Debates, Constitutional Revision, Nineteenth Century
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