By Brenda Erickson
A state constitution is the statement of basic principles and highest laws of a state.
Every state constitution reflects the diverse elements of its constituency, representing a microcosm of its people, traditions and political cultures. It is the document in which the citizens of the state set forth their basic rights, and the structure and operation of their government.
It may be said that the constitution is the document in which the people of a state set forth “those things they hold dearest to their hearts.”
The first state constitutions were adopted in 1776 by Delaware, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia. Rhode Island adopted its current constitution in 1986, making it the “newest” to date.
A state may have had only one constitution. Or it may have had many.
Two to four
Five to seven
10 or more
A constitution may be long, or it may be short. The average length for state constitutions is approximately 39,000 words. By comparison, the U.S. Constitution weighs in at a relatively brief 7,591 words, including the 27 amendments.
Longest and Shortest
Five Longest (approximate number of words)
Five Shortest (approximate number of words)
- Alabama (388,882)
- Texas (86,936)
- Oklahoma (81,666)
- Louisiana (69,876)
- Missouri (69,394)
- Utah (8,565)
- Iowa (11,086)
- Rhode Island (11,407)
- Indiana (11,475)
- Minnesota (11,734)
Constitutions are not static. A state’s citizens may express their changing opinions or viewpoints by amending the document.
Fewest Adopted Amendments (as of January 2017)
Most Adopted Amendments (as of January 2017)
- Illinois (15)
- Alaska (29)
- Michigan (30)
- Connecticut (31)
- Montana and Pennsylvania (32)
- Alabama (926)
- California (535)
- South Carolina (500)
- Texas (491)
- Oregon (257)
As noted above, state constitutions enumerate basic rights, and as you may guess, these commonly include provisions that relate to freedom of speech, religion and press, the right to bear arms and due process. But some unique provisions have been placed into Bill of Rights or Declaration of Rights sections as well. For example:
- Annexation (Colorado)
- Health care, health care coverage or health care system (Ohio and Oklahoma)
- Human embryo and embryonic stem cell research (Michigan)
- Lotteries or bingo (Georgia and New York)
- Morality, piety or social virtue (New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Virginia and Wisconsin)
- Pensions (New Hampshire)
- Sale of liquor by individual glass (Oregon)
It’s your document. So, take a few minutes and peruse your constitution. You may be surprised at what you find!
Brenda Erickson is a program principal in NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program.