Debating the US Constitution: A computational approach to the structure and geography of the ratification debate.

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

Abstract

This thesis uses computational research methods to investigate and analyse the themes and topics under debate during the US Constitutional ratification campaign (1787-1788).

The ratification of the Constitution, and the American founding period in general, has been of near constant interest and debate among historians of the United States. There have been many interpretations and re-interpretations of the Constitution’s nature, causes and consequences. The ratification debate has always been a major source for these interpretations. Many aspects of the framing and adoption of the Constitution continue to yield lively debate. However, so far, the ratification debate has not yet been extensively analysed using the relatively new methods labelled as ‘Digital History’.

The most comprehensive collection of primary source documents relating to the ratification debate is found in the multi-volume Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, which is now available in digital form at the University of Wisconsin Libraries’ Digital Collections. By subjecting this corpus to computational analysis, this thesis offers quantitative empirical data in a presuppositionless categorisation of the debate’s topics. The resultant research data output is then interpreted, analysed, and contextualised using more traditional qualitative assessment. This combined quantitative and qualitative approach prioritises the importance of using digital techniques to actively engage with creating argument-driven history.

The thesis begins with both an outline of the developments in digital historical studies and an overview of the historiography of the American founding, outlining the major interpretative frameworks (broadly categorised as: Progressive; Multiple Traditions; and Federalist, Unionist, and Internationalist).

The second chapter provides a detailed description of the methodological tools and approaches used in the research, covering: corpus preparation; topic modelling; network maps; data charts; and GIS mapping. This is then followed by a brief assessment of best-practice in presenting digital research outputs in an historical monograph.

Chapter three offers a high-level overview interpretation of the resultant data for the 40 modelled topics and a case-study assessment of the 85 document sub-set that makes up The Federalist, the most important work to come out of the founding period and a classic of American political thought. Chapter four focuses on a group of topics concerned with debates over the Form of Government that will be created under the Constitution, with the fifth chapter providing a detailed assessment of a single topic – the discussions regarding a Bill of Rights.

The final chapter makes an assessment of the digital research approach as used for this project, highlighting the advantages and limitations of the methods employed. The chapter then discusses the main historiographical observations and conclusions that can be drawn from the research and revisits the American founding’s interpretative frameworks in light of these findings. Finally, a number of suggestions are made for future studies that could be made to advance the research further.

In support of the thesis, an appendix website has been created to host the research data outputs including: dynamic data tables; topic-network maps; time-based graphs; and interactive maps showing the printing and reprinting locations of contemporary newspaper and pamphlet articles. The website can be accessed at: www.ratificationdebates.com. An archived version of this website can also be found at: https://doi.org/10.18742/25285294.
Date of Award1 Jul 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorMax Edling (Supervisor) & Mark Hedges (Supervisor)

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