Quill Project Update


Nicholas Cole speaks at Constitution Day luncheon Sept. 15, 2022

 Dr. Nicholas Cole speaks to CCS supporters at Constitution Day luncheon  Sept. 15, 2022.

State of the Oxford–UVU Partnership

Dr. Nicholas Cole, senior research fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford University, and director of the Quill Project, visited Utah Valley University in September 2022 in connection with Quill’s partnership with UVU’s Center for Constitutional Studies.

Led by Cole, the Quill Project was created in 2015 to enhance understanding of foundational legal texts, such as the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions by researching and modeling the context within which constitutional conventions made decisions.

Constitution Day 2022

At UVU’s Constitution Day conference Sept. 15, along with other leading constitutional scholars worldwide, Cole and recent UVU graduates Kiana McAllister and Erica Croft presented on the 13th (abolition of slavery), 14th (equal protection and due process), and 15th (right to vote, regardless of race) Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These amendments provided the legal basis for the civil rights that Americans enjoy today.

At the conference the three reprised a talk they gave at Oxford University July 30 at the History and Legacy of the Reconstruction Amendments conference on constitutional reform from 1860 to 1875, sponsored by Oxford’s Rothermere American Institute.

As he introduced McAllister and Croft, Cole gave his assessment of the research his UVU colleagues have done for the Quill Project and in preparing for this presentation.

“Anything good that has been done in the detailed archival work, selection, and transcription of the material, that is the product of the hard work of the students here at UVU,” he said. “And anything that is not to your liking in terms of method, difficult interfaces, and deficiencies, that’s all my fault.”

The Great Accident

Since 2015, UVU students and faculty members have worked with Cole and his team at Oxford to identify, analyze, digitize, and transcribe documents connected with the federal and state constitutions of the U.S.

Cole recalled for attendees at the luncheon the genesis of the connection between Oxford and UVU.  “We have to remember that a lot of history is accident. So here is the Great Accident,” he said, unfolding the story for his audience of leaders, influencers, and supporters.

In 2011 Cole took what he called “the biggest risk of my professional career” in wanting to use computers to look at American constitutional law. “It raised an awful lot of eyebrows,” he remembered.

Cole had been good friends with a visitor to Oxford, who happened to be an old college friend of former UVU president Matthew Holland. The Center for Constitutional Studies had recently been launched, and “there was a great sense of energy and excitement about what this Center might do,” Cole said.

Another plus for UVU was its “ethos of campus jobs and engaged learning, which is pretty unique, actually,” Cole added.

“So one of these ‘great accidents’ was that the Center for Constitutional Studies existed at an institution where campus employment and engaged learning were so much a part of the culture,” he continued. “UVU has an outward-looking collaborative attitude, and that enabled us to experiment with a lot of unique opportunities."

“UVU has a very flexible and modern sense of what the undergraduate experience should be like,” he said. “That enabled us to say, ‘Let’s work with students over a long period of time and do genuinely useful work together.’”

The Next Chapter

The way ahead for the Oxford–UVU partnership, Cole explained, rests on recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, which demonstrate how this mix of jurists will likely influence significantly the way American rights and liberties are thought about for the next 30 years.

Implied in the thinking of the court’s majority is that “[these justices] want people to pay more attention to the history of the federal and state constitutional texts,” Cole said.

“In other words, the work that UVU students have been doing here is of legal and political significance,” he continued. “This is an area of American thought that really needs some empirical data added to it. It’s an awful lot of work, and we need to think very strategically about how to go about it.”

Going forward, Cole envisions two strands to actively pursue. “The first,” he said, “is to look at the 50 most recent state constitutional conventions—the ones that have written the currently governing constitutional law of the different states of the Union.”

This idea has spawned the 50 in 10 Project, which involves an orchestrated effort to complete all 50 state-constitution projects in a 10-year period.

“We are seven constitutions of the way there,” said Cole, as Quill Project researchers are working on or have finished documenting the founding documents of Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, Idaho, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming—the last four being done by UVU students at the Center for Constitutional Studies.

The second strand, Cole said, is to look at the founding-era constitutional texts. He used a comparison to give context to this labor.

“There is a project that just came to an end at Oxford called the Medieval Latin Dictionary project, and it was started a hundred years ago,” observed Cole. “That is the scale of this task.”

Answering the Call

Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s call for examining state constitutions, Cole explained a prevailing attitude of legal experts is to say, “I have looked and there is no information on how state constitutions were written; therefore, we lawyers must project what we think the founders of different states intended to mean.”

“That is the default position right now,” lamented Cole. “It’s throw up your hands and say, ‘Let’s not bother.’”

“But there is material,” he countered. “It’s sitting in archives, and it’s going to need people to go and find it. This is the necessary work that the students have done here. It’s genuinely worthwhile—not just for them personally, but on a national scale as well.

“For me, the great joy of this project has been the collaboration,” concluded Cole. “The crown jewel of that collaboration will always be UVU. I’m really glad this cooperation endures; the future looks incredibly bright. We’ve come through our proof-of-concept stage now—to put it in the language of startups—and I think it’s time we scale a bit.”