Few documents are venerated as much as the American constitution. Until recently, one million people a year filed past the original copy on display in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in Washington DC. Yet, as Linda Colley’s brilliant new book shows, viewing constitutions as national tablets of stone tells us more about their contemporary charisma than the complex histories from which they were wrought. In this compelling study of constitutions produced around the world between the mid-18th century and the outbreak of the first world war, she upends the familiar version of history at every turn. Out goes the myth that constitutions were the product of democratic aspirations or revolution – rather they arose from the ashes of war or the threat of invasion. Nations may have been girded by constitutional documents, but these were borderless texts, available for adaptation across time and space. Above all, constitutions were “protean and volatile pieces of technology” that travelled far and wide, assisted by the expansion of print media and the speeding-up of long-distance travel and communication.
The Gun, the Ship and the Pen begins its journey, not where one might expect – in the America of the founding fathers or in revolutionary France – but in Corsica in 1755 where a former soldier, Pasquale Paoli, drew up a 10-page constitution for the island. Such military men crop up throughout the book as unlikely draftsmen of political order. In a series of vivid portraits we come across Toussaint Louverture in Haiti, Napoleon Bonaparte in France and Simón Bolívar in South America. This preponderance of the soldier-legislator provides Colley with one of her main themes: the combination of sword and pen – might and right – in the making of constitutions.
An array of statistical and descriptive evidence demonstrates how so many constitutions that built the modern world were forged during two eras of intense warfare at sea and on land. These were the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63 and its aftermath, and the wars of the great powers in the long 1860s (the American civil war, the wars of unification in Italy and Germany, and the European and American incursions into China and Japan).
Countries needed constitutions not to free the people, but to defend them from aggression from without, and disunion from within. Likewise, the book’s terminal point is unorthodox. Colley closes out not in the company of the lawyers and politicians who founded the League of Nations in 1920 to relight the flame of constitutional freedom. Instead she ends with the 1889 imperial constitution of Meiji Japan, which itself was a beacon of political modernisation as far afield as India and north Africa, not least after Japan defeated Russia in the 1905 war. Seeking legitimacy and popular acclaim, monarchs and emperors proved adept authors of constitutions. Colley makes a case for including not just the Meijis, but Catherine the Great of Russia and Gustav III of Sweden, as well as less powerful monarchs such as Pōmare II of Tahiti and King Kalākaua of Hawaii.
There is much more going on here than a level-headed reassessment of the realpolitik that sits behind the evolution of liberalism and democracy. By weaving together warfare and “lawfare”, The Gun, the Ship and the Pen draws attention to a perennial problem in the study of citizenship: who is in, and who is left out. Colley reveals the extent to which constitutions of the 18th and 19th centuries were preoccupied with military preparedness. Granting political rights went alongside conscription. Armed forces were almost exclusively a male preserve, so in most countries women were not formally part of the constitution until they became a cog in the fighting machine. This did not happen until the first world war, when they were dragooned into munitions factories and land armies working the farms to feed the nation. The vote soon followed.
Focusing on warfare also explains why so many political systems of the new world – for example, California, Australia and eventually New Zealand – made exclusions on the basis of race. Settler constitutions followed in the wake of land-grabs and wars with indigenous peoples, creating white polities and practices that would take decades to undo. At the same time, as Colley points out, the ripple effects of the constitutional amendments that emancipated the slaves after the American civil war led to a flourishing of colour-blind constitutions across south America and beyond.
Her sword and pen argument enables Colley to explain one of the most famous constitutions, albeit unwritten, in the world: that of the British. Britain escaped the turbulence evident elsewhere not because it possessed a better constitution, as many liked to believe, but simply because it was an older settlement, the outcome of civil war of the 1640s and the “glorious” revolution of 1688-9. In the 19th century, a powerful and peaceful Britain proved a handmaiden to constitution-making overseas. As both a financial and publishing hub, London became the centre for the projection of paper constitutions. Thephilosopher Jeremy Bentham stepped in as a bespoke constitutional tailor to a variety of political exiles and hereditary rulers who sought his advice, and many more who did not. Starting in the 1820s, British historians also pioneered the scholarly study of constitutions, their own included, starting with Magna Carta, an ancient document that enjoyed a new lease of life as a template, or at least a catchy title, to be emulated far and wide.
As with all great history books, the big picture is here, but so is the telling detail, the astute comparison, the arresting and memorable turn of phrase, the suggestive moral for our own times. There are some amazing discoveries: for instance, Pitcairn Island in the south Pacific with its 1838 constitution that enfranchised women as well as men, and also made provision for looking after animals and the environment; and the Norwegian constitution of 1814, which people were encouraged to paste on to the inside walls of their homes.
There are new twists on old turns. Napoleon, with his manic invention of new constitutions for every conquest, is offered as a credible model for Mary Shelley’s Dr Frankenstein. Fresh insights are suggested for pivotal moments, such as the Philadelphia convention that agreed the first American constitution in 1787 in great secrecy, only to find it emblazoned across the newspapers as soon as it was ready. Religion is given its due. The role of Catholic priests in the hugely influential Cádiz constitution of 1812, the first Islamic political code in the shape of the 1861 laws of Tunis, the influence of Protestant missionaries as agents of change are all worked into the narrative.
Colley ends her account in 1914, although a thoughtful epilogue points up how paper constitutions still matter in an age of cyber-warfare and digital democracy. Wisely, she avoids Brexit and the vexed question of whether this kingdom now needs a new constitution to shore up the union. But the portents are there. Major traumas reset the political landscape. A superb retelling of the past, The Gun, the Ship and the Pen will surely make us rethink our present and future.