History, Tradition, and Democratic Theory in American State Constitutions

July 7 to August 2, 2002


The Meyner Center will conduct a four-week institute at Lafayette College from July 7 to August 2, 2002, for 30 teachers of American government, civics, and history. Together with the director, seven visiting scholars, and a master social-studies teacher, the participants will study, discuss, and develop pedagogies for (1) the history of America’s state constitutions from 1776 to 2001, (2) traditions of state constitutional design, (3) theories of democracy, rights, popular government, political liberty, and representation in the state constitutions, (4) state constitutional successes and failures, and (5) the impacts of state constitutions on public and private life. Given the dominant emphasis on the U.S. Constitution in most teaching, plus the need to understand the federal and state constitutions in relation to each other, the institute will also contrast the two constitutional experiences, emphasizing (1) America’s dual federal-state constitutionalism, (2) similarities and differences between the federal and state constitutions, and (3) the federal and state constitutions together being two pillars of America’s “complete constitution.” Brief attention will also be given to Native American constitutionalism as a precursor and resurgent tradition emerging as the third pillar of America’s “complete constitution.” The participants will develop techniques for using state constitutions and constitutional history, as well as judicial and legislative interpretations of those documents, in their teaching. By working with the institute’s faculty, exchanging ideas with each other, and, then, contributing to a website and other communications designed to foster follow-up and dissemination, the participants will form a teaching and sharing community focused on the entire constitutional framework and history of the United States and of their own states.


Constitutional illiteracy is a serious problem. A 1991 national survey by the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations found that 48 percent of adult Americans did not know that their state has its own constitution. Most Americans are aware of the U.S. Constitution, but their knowledge of it is limited. The recent creation of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia reflects a recognition that the constitutional literacy of Americans needs remedial attention. Likewise, many states (e.g., New York) now mandate the teaching of their state constitution, although good teaching materials for this purpose are scarce in most states.

Subject Focus

That knowledge of the United States Constitution is crucial for understanding American government and history requires no argument. The U.S. Constitution establishes the federal government, delegates powers to it, allocates powers among its three branches, places limits on the federal government and on the states, provides for interstate relations, identifies fundamental rights, and reserves all other powers to the states or to the people. The U.S. Constitution is fundamental to our federal democracy and to the ways Americans think about government. Furthermore, virtually all significant political conflicts in the United States have triggered constitutional debates.

Usually less obvious is the importance of America’s 50 state constitutions. Yet, these constitutions have been the people’s primary governing documents for most of American history, often having more impact on citizens than the federal Constitution. Eighteen state constitutions preceded the U.S. Constitution, and the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 is the world’s oldest written constitution still in effect. Even today, the state constitutions govern more aspects of daily life than the federal Constitution. Certainly for public school teachers, such matters as curriculum requirements, licensing, personnel policies, school financing, and administrative mandates, are rooted almost entirely in the basic rules set forth in their state constitution.

Furthermore, because the federal Constitution is one of limited, delegated powers, the state constitutions independently and coordinately complete the constitutional structure of the United States. Compared to other national constitutions, the U.S. Constitution is, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1830s, “incomplete.” It is silent about many things, such as education and local government, because such matters are left to the people to establish through their state constitutions. The U.S. Constitution and its government cannot function, moreover, without the coordinate action of the state constitutions and their governments. This is one reason why the states are referred to 50 times in 42 separate sections of the U.S. Constitution.

It is the state constitution, not the federal Constitution, that establishes the state and its local governments, limits the scope of state power beyond the few limits set forth in the federal document, allocates powers among the branches of state government and between the state and its local governments, and mandates certain state duties (e.g., education). The state constitution structures political conflict in the state and provides mechanisms for its resolution. The state constitution provides for rights protections, too, which are not merely redundant of those found in the U.S. Bill of Rights but are also different and sometimes more expansive. The Equal Rights Amendment, for example, was not ratified for the U.S. Constitution, but ERAs were incorporated into 18 state constitutions. Express privacy provisions are embedded in ten state constitutions. The U.S. Supreme Court has left it to the states to decide the question of physician-assisted suicide, with Oregon being the first state to constitutionalize such a right. Most state constitutions address water and natural-resources rights–and so on.

Because state constitutions and their amendments are, unlike the federal Constitution, ratified by the people (and even initiated by the people in 17 states), they reflect the aims and aspirations of each state’s citizenry. They also express different understandings of popular government and conceptions of justice (as between states that permit and prohibit capital punishment). Because of the nation’s diversity, the state constitutions reflect various design principles. In turn, because state constitutions are amended by the people more frequently than the U.S. Constitution, these documents reflect the history of social, cultural, economic, and political change across the country more vividly than the federal document.

Thus, state constitutions are as significant for what they reveal as for what they prescribe. They are a crucial pedagogical resource because social change and political controversies in the states have often had constitutional repercussions, and the texts of state constitutions often record those conflicts and ratify their resolution. As historian Lawrence Friedman argues: “An observer with nothing in front of him but the texts of these constitutions could learn a great deal about state politics, state laws, and social life in America.” Successive versions and amendments of a state’s constitution mirror political, social, cultural, and economic changes that occur in a state. Comparing state constitutions across time and states reveals diverse popular responses to, and initiations of, political development. As James Bryce put it a century ago, state constitutions are “a mine of instruction for the natural history of democratic communities.”


The institute addressed the problem of constitutional illiteracy in three basic ways. First, it provided teachers with a deeper and broader understanding of the principles, practices, and problems of American constitutionalism than is available from studying the U.S Constitution alone. If constitutional literacy is to be improved, those primarily responsible for teaching about American constitutionalism must be thoroughly grounded in the subject. Second, the institute offered and developed approaches and techniques useful in analyzing primary-source materials and in making American state constitutionalism more accessible and interesting to students. Third, it introduced teachers to the abundance of both paper and internet resources on state constitutions.


  • “Lafayette College had outstanding facilities. We were treated with respect, and our questions were of prime concern. This seminar has had a profound effect on how I intend to teach state constitutions this coming year.”
  • “All faculty members, to my mind, were equally impressive. My high school colleagues were equally stimulating and entertaining. Not having a natural fit between my subject area and the topic of the seminar, I needed to stretch the U.S. principles we were studying beyond U.S. boundaries. This led me to view our nation’s constitutions through an international lens. I developed the beginnings of what I feel is a viable 21st century approach to the teaching of French.”
  • “The institute has been a truly remarkable experience. The incredible amount of growth (academically, professionally, and personally) cannot be overstated. The true joy of this seminar came from the synergy of this incredible group. It is hard to describe the personal energy and strength I drew from these people. Their ideas, encouragement and passions, as teachers and individuals, will long be remembered. I know that these past weeks at Lafayette College will enter largely into my teaching.”
  • “I greatly enjoyed my time at Lafayette College studying state constitutions. The overall organization was excellent, with times, readings, and speakers laid out.”
  • “This institute was an outstanding experience both professionally and personally.”
  • “Lafayette College was exactly what I hoped it would be. Coming from the West Coast, I was hoping for a picturesque East Coast college. Lafayette proved to be just that. As I type this, I am listening to the heart-felt goodbyes of my summer colleagues to one another downstairs. You would think we’d known each other a lifetime as opposed to merely one month. This experience is one I am very saddened to leave, but will carry with me both in my professional endeavors and my personal ones. Our varied backgrounds and our shared love for learning and teaching created a lively group that I feel proud to have been a part of.”
  • “My overall experience with this institute was positive from the academic and professional point of view. I will incorporate the relevant scholarship that I gained this month into my courses this fall.”
  • “Everything from accommodations to access to computer facilities was excellent. I feel that I’ve learned so much during these past four weeks that I’ve become radically aware of how much more I want to learn. Since I’m primarily a language arts teacher, I probably had more basics to learn than most, if not all, of the other participants. With assistance from NEH colleagues, I was able to put together a unit which, I believe, draws upon both history and literature and which, I hope, could be utilized in both the social studies/history and language arts classrooms.”
  • “The absolute best group of people I have ever worked or studied with. Very intelligent, cooperative, and fun-loving. I would jump at the chance to work with any or all of these people again.”
  • “Ultimately, it was an incredibly luxurious opportunity to sit and think and read and conduct research (even to the point, occasionally, my head hurt!) for four weeks. I am grateful to NEH for the opportunity.”
  • “Frankly, I’m sure to most people, the study of American state constitutions is on the surface, a very boring and somewhat dull topic. However, the institute brought a great deal of life and purpose to this topic. We had a superb variety of teaching strategies and lessons offered. I left the institute with a great deal of knowledge, and a desire to learn more about this topic.”
  • “The mixture of learning techniques and modeling of lesson plans were exemplary.”
  • “The seminar will greatly affect my teaching and view of state constitutions. It provided me with knowledge and the beginnings of many ideas. I am transforming my government class from dwelling on generalities and the federal government to a full government experience with many activities bringing out the characteristics of state and local governments.”
  • “This institute was a wonderful experience. I was particularly impressed with the variety of speakers that took the time to present information.”

Faculty, Master Teacher, and Participants

  • John Kincaid, institute director, is the Robert B. and Helen S. Meyner Professor of Government and Public Service in the Department of Government and Law and Director of the Meyner Center for the Study of State and Local Government at Lafayette College.
  • Arlene Gardner is Director of the New Jersey Center for Civic and Law-Related Education at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey.
  • Leslie Friedman Goldstein is the Judge Hugh M. Morris Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware, Newark.
  • Michael E. Libonati is Laura H. Carnell University Professor and Professor of Law at Temple University, Philadelphia.
  • Donald S. Lutz is Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston.
  • G. Alan Tarr is Professor of Political Science and founder and Director of the Center for State Constitutional Studies at Rutgers University. He is the author of Understanding State Constitutions, one of the principal texts for the institute.
  • David E. Wilkins is Associate Professor of American Indian Studies, Political Science, and Law at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
  • Robert F. Williams is Distinguished Professor of Law and Associate Director of the Center for State Constitutional Studies at Rutgers University, Camden.
Master Teacher

Sean Walsh

  • William Cate: Marion, Arkansas-St. Agnes Academy
  • David Cech: Scottsdale, Arizona-North Canyon High School
  • Regina Cooper: Festus, Missouri
  • Mel Didier: Scott, Louisiana-Northside High School
  • Gail Flowers: Demopolis, Alabama-Demopolis High School
  • Joseph Foster: Mountain Lakes, New Jersey-Briarcliff School
  • Steve Goldner: Newark, New Jersey-Camden Middle School
  • Alicia Harris: Glen Dale, California-Roosevelt Middle School
  • Don Imler: Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania-Hollidaysburg Area High School
  • Joseph LaRocco: Roanoke, Virginia-Cave Spring High School
  • Rachel Lau: Honolulu, Hawaii-Punahou School
  • Marjory Marshall: Fairport, New York-Fairport High School
  • Sonia Martinez: Washington, DC-Archbishop Carroll High School
  • Danny McMillan: Bastrop, Louisiana-Bastrop High School
  • Anne Metaxas: Suffern, New York-Suffern High School
  • Edwin Millet: River Forest, Illinois-Roosevelt School
  • Shannon Montgomery: Bradenburg, Kentucky-Meade County High School
  • Brian Meyers: Pageland, South Carolina-Central High School
  • Mark Neiweem: Palatine, Illinois-Wm. Fremd High School
  • Judith Niewiadomski: Hawthorne, New York-Hawthorne Cedar Knolls HS
  • Angela Nosari: Manhasset, New York-Manhasset High School
  • Michael Rawlins: Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania-Hollidaysburg Area SD
  • John Raybourn: Rogers, Arkansas-Rogers High School
  • Sarah Sharp: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-William Penn Charter School
  • Paul Wexler: Needham, Massachusetts-Needham High School

Lesson Plans

Participant: Alicia Harris, California – Alicia Harris introduces students to the first California state constitution established following the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ending the Mexican-American war. Students will work in collaborative groups as well as in an activity in pairs to compare the first California state constitution with the United States constitution.

Synopsis for CA lesson plan 2-This lesson combines journal writing, whole class debate, collaborative discussions, and a variety of literature including past and present California state constitutions, proposition language, and public policy studies to introduce students to the California state initiative and analyze the impact recent propositions have had on immigrants in the state.

Participant: John Raybourn, Arkansas – An Introduction To State Constitutions