'We the Peoples': The Global Origins of Constitutional Preambles

40 Pages Posted: 29 Nov 2013 Last revised: 3 Apr 2014

Tom Ginsburg

University of Chicago Law School

Nick J. Foti

University of Washington - Department of Statistics

Daniel Rockmore

Dartmouth College - Department of Mathematics; Dartmouth College - Department of Computer Science

Date Written: November 27, 2013

Abstract

We like to think that constitutions are expressions of distinctly national values, speaking for “We the People.” This is especially true of constitutional preambles, which often recount distinct events from national history and speak to national values. This article challenges this popular view by demonstrating the global influences on constitutional preambles. It does so using a new set of tools in linguistic and textual analysis, applied to a database of most constitutional preambles written since 1789. Arguing that legal language can be analogized to memes or genetic material, we analyze “horizontal” transfer of language across countries and “vertical” transfers within a single country over time. We also examine the circumstances in which countries introduce new terms into preambles, showing that countries innovate when neighbors innovate, and that innovations come in global waves. We show that innovation in language is something like punctuated equilibrium within an ecosystem. For long periods of stasis, countries borrow from one another and restrict their language to a set of common terms and phrases. Then, at particular junctures (likely associated with global conflicts), the equilibrium becomes disrupted and a period of innovation ensues. This eventually generates the “new normal” in terms of the set of language that constitutional drafters use. The article provides an example of how text analysis can help us understand the ways in which legal texts are interrelated across space and time.

Suggested Citation

Ginsburg, Tom and Foti, Nick J. and Rockmore, Daniel, 'We the Peoples': The Global Origins of Constitutional Preambles (November 27, 2013). George Washington International Law Review, Forthcoming; University of Chicago Coase-Sandor Institute for Law & Economics Research Paper No. 664; U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 447. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2360725 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2360725

Tom Ginsburg (Contact Author)

University of Chicago Law School ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

Nick J. Foti

University of Washington - Department of Statistics ( email )

Seattle, WA
United States

Daniel Rockmore

Dartmouth College - Department of Mathematics ( email )

United States

Dartmouth College - Department of Computer Science ( email )

United States

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