- · vol. 10 · no. 4 · July 2010

Web Library
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The Common-place Web Library reviews and lists online resources and Websites likely to be of interest to our viewers. Each quarterly issue will feature one or more brief site reviews. The library itself will be an ongoing enterprise with regular new additions and amendments. So we encourage you to check it frequently. At the moment, the library is small, but with your help we expect it to grow rapidly. If you have suggestions for the Web Library, or for site reviews, please forward them to the Administrative Editor.

Arthur Rolston, who earned his PhD in History from UCLA in 2006, is a practicing lawyer and adjunct professor at UCLA, where he most recently taught courses on U.S. Constitutional history.

NBER/Maryland State Constitutions Project

Arthur Rolston
The NBER/Maryland State Constitutions Project

The American states have occupied themselves in a virtual orgy of writing, rewriting, and amending their various constitutions since the onset of the rebellion from Britain in 1776. As noted by John J. Dinan, the states have held no less than 233 state constitutional conventions between 1776 and 2005, with multiple constitutional conventions the norm—only ten states have held but one, while twenty states have held five or more. During the past 229 years the states have adopted some 146 separate constitutions, not to mention over 10,000 individual amendments.

Historians are realizing that our state constitutions reveal much about the often contentious changes in social, political, and economic cultures, regional differences, and the impact of both events and political and social movements. Our various constitutions illuminate the outcome of conflicts over the post-Revolution movement towards universal adult white male suffrage, the antebellum debt crisis of the 1840s, protecting slavery in states where it existed, Reconstruction and its aftermath, industrialization, immigration and urbanization, and Direct Democracy and other causes of the Progressive Era, to name a few. Provisions involving suffrage, education, corporations, railroads and other businesses, and labor often reveal how class, race, and gender became constitutional issues.

The NBER/Maryland State Constitutions Project, which went active in 2003, is a much needed source providing in a single database the text of virtually every version of, and amendment to, every state constitution from 1776 through roughly 2000. The National Bureau of Economic Research, the National Science Foundation, and the University of Maryland support the project, with research undertaken under the direction of John Wallis, professor of economics at the University of Maryland.

The site is divided into two sections. One is composed of a non-searchable, digital copy of all seven volumes of Francis Newton Thorpe's The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and the Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies; Now or Heretofore Forming the United States of America (Washington D.C., 1909), arranged by states and then by individual constitutions. Prior to the publication of this site, Thorpe's seven-volume compendium was the only compilation of state constitutions in one place. And its obsolescence is obvious: since its publication 24 states held a total of 56 conventions to rewrite or amend their constitutions, not to mention the thousands of individual amendments which became increasingly commonplace from the 1950s on.

But it's the second section of the site that sets it apart. The truly invaluable "Search Constitutions" section contains the full text of virtually every constitution for each state, with amendments; and allows searches of individual constitutions, all constitutions for a given state, or even all constitutions for groups of states, as well as a separate section with current constitutions for each state in the database. Each constitution in the database is coded according to twenty-seven distinct subjects assigned to various articles and sections, with amendments numbered chronologically, and is searchable by article, section, or key word. The compilers have provided extensive notes on their sources, statistics, and general instructions for searching the base. The user must begin with the "General Notes" section to find these subject codes, as in 9011 for slavery. The compilers have provided extensive notes on their sources, statistics, and general instructions for searching the base. It should be noted that the site is still a work in progress, albeit in its final stages, in that eight states have yet to be completed in the searchable database (MA, MO, NE, OR, TN, VA, VT, and WI), and a more comprehensive search routine to incorporate topic and phrase compilations is in development. A better search engine would make this site more user-friendly as well as useful.

The site is open to both scholars and the general public, as the entire site can be accessed without a log-in. However, users should review the "General Notes" linked to the "Search Constitutions" page before using the search functions. Furthermore, users would be well advised to familiarize themselves with the basic format that was and is common to most constitutions, such as declarations of rights, articles dealing with the composition and powers of the legislative, executive and judicial branches, suffrage, and other topics such as education, corporations, regulatory and administrative functions, local governments, and finance. This general content is explained in the "General Notes" section.

The State Constitutions Project has a simple goal—to make readily accessible in searchable format the complete texts of all of America's past and present state constitutions. It is a vital research source covering a single, but important, source of material regarding American political, social, and economic history. If the past is any indication of the future, one hopes the site will be regularly maintained and updated as our state constitutions continue to evolve.

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