What Should Comparative Constitutional History Compare?

Raymond Grew once observed that, “for many professional historians comparative study evokes the ambivalence of a good bourgeois toward the best wines: to appreciate them is a sign of good taste, but indulgence seems a little loose and wasteful.” This reluctance, Grew continued, stemmed from some of the “admirable if modest qualities” of professional historians—“caution, accuracy, unpretentiousness, and respect for the integrity of documents and for the particular.” But it also “reflect[ed] doubt not so much about comparison as a mode of analysis as about what it is that historians [ought to] compare.”

Almost forty years later, some of these doubts have receded. In many fields, comparative history has flourished; in some, failure to compare has become a significant demerit. It is a good time, it would seem, for constitutional lawyers to catch the wave. But comparative history continues to have critics and questioners. In particular, the question of what to compare, and how, remains open and contested. Perhaps it always will. Even so, it seems prudent, at this early stage in our collective effort to historicize the study of comparative constitutionalism, to reflect on how historians have wrestled with methodological questions over the past half century and more and to offer some preliminary thoughts on how the “lessons of comparative history” might apply to comparative studies of constitutional history.

Part II of this Article offers a brief history of comparative history—its practitioners, its detractors, its latter-day defenders and admonishers. Part III proposes three possible approaches to the comparative study of constitutional history—what I call perspectival histories, thematic histories, and relational histories. Perspectival histories focus on a single jurisdiction; what makes them comparative is the author’s own perspective and intended audience. Thematic histories focus on a single theme across jurisdictions without regard to chronological unity. The theme might be doctrinal, institutional, procedural, or theoretical. Relational histories examine multiple jurisdictions within a single chronological frame. They attempt not merely to compare the jurisdictions with one another, but also to identify mutual influences, both reciprocal and external. I believe that some of the best work in our field will be relational; but relational histories, when they are written, will have to build on the foundation of previous perspectival and thematic work.

The full text of this Symposium is available to download as a PDF.