The Popular Constitutional Canon

39 Pages Posted: 10 Dec 2021

See all articles by Thomas Donnelly

Thomas Donnelly

Princeton University - Princeton University

Date Written: May 1, 2019


Popular constitutionalism scholarship has often left out the American people. Sure, ordinary citizens make cameo appearances—often through the actions of elected officials and elite movement leaders. However, focusing on high politics among elite actors—even if those actors aren’t judges—simply isn’t enough. If popular constitutional views do, indeed, matter, then we can expect constitutional partisans to try to manipulate the processes through which these views emerge. Some constitutional scholars have made a start, reflecting on the importance of the constitutional canon. However, even these scholars focus mostly on the legal canon and often ignore its popular analogue. At the same time, other scholars have worked to bring the American people back into constitutional theory—by studying the constitutional views of ordinary Americans and explaining the ways in which key social movements shape constitutional doctrine. However, even these scholars have largely ignored the pathways of constitutional socialization, the ways in which citizens learn about the Constitution. An important part of this neglected project is tending to the set of stock stories transmitted by key institutions to ordinary citizens—in other words, tending to the popular constitutional canon. In this Article, I turn to one site of constitutional socialization—American public schools. This visit to our nation’s classrooms highlights the various ways in which the lessons that we’re teaching our schoolchildren undermine popular sovereignty, including through mythologizing the Supreme Court, promoting “Founder worship,” and downplaying the constitutional achievements of successive generations. In the end, if public opinion matters to constitutional doctrine (and reform)—as many scholars argue—then these sites of constitutional socialization are worth studying.

Keywords: constitutional law, constitutional theory, judicial review, judicial supremacy, popular constitutionalism, civic education, public opinion, popular sovereignty, Supreme Court, American Founding, Reconstruction, textbooks

Suggested Citation

Donnelly, Thomas, The Popular Constitutional Canon (May 1, 2019). William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Vol. 27, No. 911, 2019, Available at SSRN:

Thomas Donnelly (Contact Author)

Princeton University - Princeton University ( email )

United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics