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A Quite Recent Obsession: On Constitutional Descriptors

May 30, 2013, 9:27 pm

Americans describe things as “constitutional,” and “unconstitutional.” They talk about the “Bill of Rights” and the “Second Amendment.” These descriptors seem like they should be timeless or, at least, in consistent use since the beginning of the USA.

For “constitutional” and “unconstitutional” that seems to be the case:

Constitutional un

Note that both have been used pretty consistently since 1800. There haven’t been great fluctuations. Obviously, this is just one measure, but it seems that Americans have long thought about things as constitutional or unconstitutional.

The Bill of Rights, on the other hand:

Billofrights

Here, the story is different. Starting in the New Deal Era, mentions of the Bill of Rights in American books more than doubled, suggesting that as government grew, Americans became much more concerned about individual rights and their guarantees.

So too with specific amendments. The Second Amendment has been a non-issue through most of American history:

2ndAmend

Only to see a massive and continuing rise starting about 1950, with a final takeoff about 1990. Note that the rise in discussion of the Second Amendment predated a rise in discussions about “gun control:”

2ndAmendmentGunControl

So there is universality for some of the descriptors, but not for all. The Second Amendment, especially, seems a quite recent obsession.

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