Robinson Woodward-Burns

Ph.D. Student in Political Theory and American Politics

Dissertation Title: American Reconstitution: Federal and State Constitutional Development since 1776

Committee: Rogers Smith (Chair), Mark Graber, Anne Norton

Summary: Since 1791, the federal Constitution has been amended only 17 times, while the 146 state constitutions have been amended 5,900 times. What explains the federal Constitution’s stability relative to the states? Scholars suggest judicial review and popular constitutional reinterpretation postpone or prevent federal amendment, while the state constitutions’ low thresholds to revision invite state constitutional amendment or replacement. 

Instead, my dissertation points to constitutional decentralization. I argue gradual demographic shifts create national constitutional controversies. Local reformers use these issues to split, unseat, and replace parties in the state legislature, and to entrench their new power by revising or replacing the old state constitution. Widespread state constitutional revision often resolves national constitutional crises, preempting federal amendment, and quieting national inter-branch conflict. This dissertation defends the claim with an original dataset of all 314 proposed state constitutions from 1776-2016 and a series of chronological case studies of state constitutional revision, backed by archival research. Finally, the dissertation argues that these ongoing, local attempts state constitutional revision grant state constitutions a democratic legitimacy that the national Constitution lacks. In sum, decentralization of controversies to the states stabilizes the federal Constitution while upsetting the state constitutions.

University of Pennsylvania
208 S. 37th Street, Room 217
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6215
Phone: (215) 898-7641

Anne Norton Chair
Matthew Levendusky Graduate Chair
Marc Meredith Undergraduate Chair