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

Tom Ginsburg
Nick Foti and Daniel Rockmore

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.