A Brilliant History of the rise and power of Constitutions as a global ‘political technology’

March 10, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Not sure if this is normal behaviour, but holidays is when I tend to read the big heavy tomes – see previous posts on Piketty, War and Peace, or other random novels.

Last month’s holiday saw me chow down on Linda Colley’s The Gun, the Ship and the Pen, a Big Book with the grandest of sweeps on warfare, constitutions and the making of the modern world. Yep, that’s how I roll.

It’s particularly eye-opening for a Brit. Without a formal written constitution, we mainly come across it in US TV series like West Wing (aka the kahnstitooshen), or trying to work out why political protests in places like Chile lead to ‘Constituent Assemblies’ to write yet another one. What’s it all about? Linda Colley has a lot of answers.

What is a constitution for? Firstly, a way of (re)imagining a country. But it can also provide proof of modernity to head off the colonialists, a set of guarantees to pacify internal critics, or (alternatively) a standard to rally opposition to the existing regime – part driver, part mirror of political, economic and social change. Infinitely flexible, which explains their political staying power.

Colley takes us through political history from 1750 to the present day through the lens of the appearance and endless rewriting of constitutions. She argues that they arose as the product of ‘hybrid warfare’, combining navies and land armies in a much more militarily effective, but much more expensive, strategy from the 7 years war (mid 18th Century – aka the first real World War).

To tax and recruit for this new, amped up kind of conflict, governments needed to boost their legitimacy with both the public and political/economic elites, and constitutions became a crucial way of doing so. The spread of printing presses and mass literacy also contributed.

What’s striking, given the focus on the US version, is that monarchs, emperors and tyrants were just as likely as democracies to get stuck in – Catherine the Great was a big fan, rising at 4 in the morning for 18 months early in her reign to come up with a proto constitution called the Nakaz.

She situates the US discussion, which is sometimes discussed as if it was unique, as actually part of a global surge in interest, that included China and India, among others. People compared notes, borrowed and hustled their own versions – everyone was at it, or least men were (there’s a fascinating chapter asking why women, even women leaders, were largely uninterested, with the exception of Catherine).

Most examples of what she calls a new ‘political technology’ lasted only a few years, during the heyday, every nerd and oddball was at it (I guess they were the political apps of the 18th Century). There’s a lovely account of a US constitutionalist beavering away in his Paris lodgings, drafting a new constitution for France (no-one had requested it). Suddenly comes a knock on the door, and a random Parisian asks to present the new constitution he had just drafted for the USA. At which point, the penny drops and the American realized that maybe everyone should stick to drafting constitutions for places they actually know about – a lesson which still escapes neocons and a lot of people in the aid business, alas.

But eccentrics and short life spans don’t seem to have mattered. Constitutions became a crucial viral medium for discussions of politics and how societies should be run – what it was to be a nation. And still are (back to Chile).

Some other interesting things I learned:

  • The first recognizable constitution emerged not in Washington, but in Corsica, thanks to Pasquale Paoli
  • The first constitution granting women’s suffrage was not New Zealand but Pitcairn Island (1838. OK, not many voters, but still). With some interesting thoughts on why the Pacific leant itself to votes for women.
  • Simon Bolivar was a big fan of the UK monarchy and House of Lords, and wondered if such a system might work in liberated Latin America.

Like Bolivar, many fighters were also writers, beavering away on draft constitutions when they were not on the battlefield.

Colley is a meticulous historian, with chapters on Pitcairn, Tahiti (another pioneer), Haiti (see cover), Tunis, Japan, as well as more usual suspects. And yes, Britain gets a chapter on whether or not it has a constitution, and why it was never written down – never a sufficient existential threat, apparently. But she also writes well, evoking the moments and keeping the reader rolling along through the narrative.

Highly recommended.

March 10, 2022
Duncan Green