When you think of constitutions, you probably think of the Constitution of the United States. It’s one of the most famous — its amendments are frequently cited and referred to (particularly the first and second), so much so that it’s a feature of daily life for some. And yet the history of these pieces of paper, in which people have invested so much of their political hopes and dreams, is much broader.
The Gun, the Ship and the Pen is an ambitious and far-reaching work of global history that places these foundational documents at the centre of its analysis. Linda Colley argues persuasively that the spread of constitutions was driven principally by warfare, rather than by the spread of democracy or Western notions of progress. War, Colley points out, had the effect of destabilising societies, and opened up the way to constitutional reform. This was the case for established monarchies, who might use constitutional reform as a means of compensating citizens for military service and high taxation. It was also the case when defeated and weakened governments were superseded by parties and leaders bent on reforming the state.
The argument makes sense, although it is hardly revolutionary. It may be novel to a narrow field that has preoccupied itself parochially on Enlightenment values and the scene of classical revolutions, but it will come as little surprise to many that warfare has a destabilising effect on societies which leads to political reform. Further, such a reaching argument risks lacking precision. Indeed, it is quite easy to attribute changes to war because there was so much of it; warfare wasn’t unusual, and it would be a mistake to treat it as such. War in the eighteenth century was as normal as peace. Colley does distinguish between the kind of war that causes destabilisation and that which doesn’t — principally centred around whether the war demands substantially higher taxes or not. Yet Colley’s use of the argument as a broader framework within which to nestle the history saves her from getting bogged down too deeply in the nuances of such theoretical concerns.
The key strength of this book lies in the storytelling. Colley begins with the classical revolutions: the American, French, and Haitian. To this she adds constitutional experimentation in Corsica and Russia. The Nakaz, developed by Catherine the Great, and the legal code of Frederich II of Prussia, show how absolutist monarchies, with aggressive and expansionist aims, could experiment with the Enlightenment values of liberty and tolerance. We move on the Britain, which lacked its own written constitution (and yet still had its own constitutional tradition), and yet which contributed much both to destabilising warfare and constitutional experiments in other countries. Colley also details the impact of Napoleon’s expansion, not just on the variety of European states that fell under his rule, but also Spanish territories in South America.
The book becomes more interesting as it progresses, and the reader is invited to consider lesser-known episodes in the history of constitutions. Intriguing here is the story of Pitcairn Island, which was one of the first territories to enfranchise women. The case of Hawaii shows how women’s rights might be erased through the emulation of Western constitutions — as Colley highlights here, when rights are put to paper this can make them harder to change, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. And yet in emulation, smaller states gave themselves a legitimacy that could protect them, at least for a while, from encroaching Western powers. Furthermore, as the histories of the United States and Australia show, these pieces of paper can exclude and marginalise indigenous people, too. Colley explores here the importance of the American Civil War, and the brief flourishing of constitutional liberties for Black Americans, before they were rolled back.
Colley takes the reader elsewhere, too: Tunisia and Japan are the subject of significant focus. We meet a number of individuals, including, but certainly not limited to, Pomare II of Tahiti, Napoleon Bonaparte of France, Toussaint Louverture of Haiti, and Simon Bolivar of South America. Their stories are linked together well, and the reader is taken on a near-seamless journey through time and space, looking in detail at different constitutions and, significantly, the people who made them. There is a good flow between the chapters, with effective narrative bridges that connect otherwise disparate stories together. Colley writes in an easy style that has the seasoned, lyrical quality of an experienced writer. Indeed, it is a surprisingly smooth read for what might otherwise be a very dense subject. The connections Colley draws between the regions are immensely interesting, and the writing is accompanied by useful images that add flavour. It would be no exaggeration to say that this is a masterful and supremely interesting work of history.
Linda Colley, The Gun, the Ship and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World (London: Profile Books, 2021
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