Sunday, November 07, 2021

Of Guns, Ships, Pens, and Liberals

Mark Graber

For the Balkinization symposium on Linda Colley, The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World (Liveright, 2021). 

The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World is a scholarly epic.  The work is epic in scope.  Professor Linda Colley wanders up and down the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, from Corsica to Japan, from Liberia to Russia, from Pitcairn Island to the United States.  The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen is epic in academic range.  Professor Colley offers insights from history, law, political science and sociology.  There is a good deal of art history, although no Beethoven.  The epic scope and range of the book is matched by the epic thesis.  Professor Colley details how the development and spread of written constitutions throughout the entire world was to a fair degree a consequence of the more expensive and more frequent wars fought by regimes from the New World, the Old World, the Far East, and what we now call the Global South.  If someone fired a shot on land or sea from the Seven Years War to World War One that caused another person to take up a legal pen, Professor Colley provides the details.

This scholarly epic is extraordinarily successful.  Subject to the qualifications below (writing a glowing review without qualifications implicitly violates basic principles of academic freedom and integrity), The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen powerfully demonstrates the exceptional impact of war on the development and spread of written constitutions.  Written constitutions, Professor Colley lovingly details, became in a stunning variety of regimes a vital means for organizing a regime that could fight a war, mobilizing a population to fight a war, and indicating to outsiders that this was a regime prepared to fight a war.  The written legal world was a global phenomena.  Africans, Latin Americans, and the Japanese were as prone to employ written constitutions as war by other means as were the conventional European states.  This is not a volume limited to what Ran Hirschl refers to as "the usual suspects."  The end result is magisterial and likely to have the same impact as Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000.

One of the most remarkable features of this remarkable book is the granularity of the examples.  Most of us spend our lives on approximately four pages of this four-hundred page work.  Unsurprisingly, I might describe differently a few details of constitutional development during the American Civil War, the four pages of The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen to which I have devoted a half lifetime of study.  Others whose academic life is as focused may have similar concerns about their bailiwick. Those revised details, at least with respect to the American Civil War, would not, however, change the overall thesis or direction of the book.  This is a grand epic that can be bothered with the small facts.  Constitutional change in the United States is a product, first of the need to consolidate a regime to preserve independence after the American Revolution and, second, of the need to construct a constitutional politics to prevent renewed secession after the Civil War.  “If men were angels,” to quote Madison, and did not resolve disputes by war, there would be no need for Americans to write down the rules of government or for written constitutions in the United States.  The adage that Americans only learn about the United States when they travel abroad applies to Americanists reading Professor Colley.  Persons similarly specialized are likely to learn as much about their small slice of time and place.

Professor Colley proposes a materialist explanation for written constitutions.  Written constitutions, like the common law, are a response to social needs.  The need for speed, Howard Schweber’s study of the impact of trains on tort law details, explains northern modifications of negligence rules during the years before the Civil War.  The need to finance, mobilize for, and prevent wars, The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen details, explains the development and spread of written constitutions.  Ideas in that work appear to be epiphonema.  Montequieu’s The Spirit of the Laws was inspired by the “systemic quality of contemporary conflict.”  John Locke appears as the author of The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, a means for establishing a settler colony in the New World, but not as the author of The Second Treatise of Government. Liberia is in the index and discussed.  Liberalism is not.

There is a substantial literature in American political science on war and constitutional development that supports and deepens Professor Colley’s emphasis on the important of the military.  Works on American political development play variations on Randolph Bourne’s thesis that “war is the health of the state.”  Rebecca Thorpe and Steven Griffin have examined the political and constitutional changes that occurred when the president acquired permanent armies and weapons.  Richard Bensel and Bartholomew Sparrow have examined the ways in which war dramatically increased the capacity of the American state.  Philip Klinkner and Rogers Smith detail how persons of color tend to gain rights only when a major military conflict occurs that requires the government to mobilize black men for military service.  The modern warfare state, Professor Colley reminds is, is the modern constitutional state.  Written constitutions motivated by military concerns augment presidential power, develop state capacity, and enable minorities to become full or fuller citizens.

Scholarship in American political development does raise questions about war as an explanation for constitutional development.  Mary Dudziak and Mark Brandon suggest the United States is a warfare state that is almost always planning a war, fighting a war or recovering from a war.  The United States is hardly unique as a warfare state.  War from the dawn of human political history has been a and usually the central occupation of states and regimes throughout the globe.  Most states at most times are planning a war, fighting a war, or recovering from a war.  Often regimes are doing all three.  War is also the most expensive state activity. Military budgets typically dwarf budgets for almost all other activities.  Constitutionalism from this perspective is only one manifestation of the warfare state.  Given the pervasiveness and centrality of war to most politics, almost all state developments, from written constitutions to fundamental rights to the separation of powers are likely to be closely tied to planning wars, fighting wars, and recovering from wars.

The ubiquity of war suggests a deeper dive into Professor Colley’s materialist explanation for the development and expansion of written constitutions.  Constants, the presence of war, do not explain variables, the development and spread of written constitutions.  Nations throughout the world were at war long before written constitutions.  One wonderful feature of The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen is the emphasis that warfare states exist throughout the globe. Not just in Europe.  Everyone seems to be fighting everyone else for the longest periods of time.

Wars previous to the eighteenth century may not have cost as much as eighteenth century wars, but they were expensive enough and their financing led to fundamental regime change.  Ask Charles I.  England and France seemed to have been at war for as long as regimes existed that could be identified as English and French.  Regime changes in both countries were consequences of those wars.  What the mere presence of war cannot explain is why specific regime changes took the form they did.  Constant wars with Native Americans in the seventeenth century had only a limited influence on written constitutionalism.  The American Revolution led almost immediately to one written constitution, the Articles of Confederation, and to the Constitution of the United States within a decade.

We might gain more purchase on the development of written constitutions by focusing, as Professor Colley does, on technology.  Technology changed wars in the eighteenth century.  The wars Professor Colley discusses from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century became more expense and more deadly.  Technology explained changes in the nature of warfare.  At one point in time, a good defense, such as a heavily fortified castle or city, could beat a good offense.  New weaponry changed the balance of power between offense and defense.  By World War One, Robert O'Connell has documented, for the first time in human history, offensive weapons were clearly outpacing defensive weapons.  Mobilization meant mobilization for an offensive war, for while twice armed was the country whose cause was just, thrice armed was the country that got their blow in “furst."

Technology also changed the pen.  Professor Colley observes that written constitutions flourished in the eighteenth century because they could be printed and reach a literate audience.  This development was made possible only by the invention of the printing press and technologies that facilitated the development of newspapers.  One virtue of the Constitution of the United States was that the entire text could be printed by the daily or weekly papers of the time.  Written constitutions were a fundamental element of regime change beginning in the eighteenth century because only in the eighteenth century did rulers have the capacity to print written constitutions and have a citizenry capable of reading a written constitution.

By changing the gun, the ship, and the pen, technology changed the persons to whom rulers appealed when mobilizing for war.  Before the Constitution was printed, the Bible was printed.  The printed Bible altered the audience for regal appeals.  People learned to read because there was something they had an interest in reading.  Having learned to read the Bible, they could learn to read other materials, most notably constitutions.  The printed Bible altered how people read.  As people read the Bible, they began to think they could interpret the Bible for themselves without the need of priestly interventions.  One result of being able to read critically was the Reformation.  Another was liberalism.  People who could interpret the Bible for themselves began to think they could also interpret political affairs for themselves.  Liberals needed to be persuaded to participate in the warfare state.  Liberal military service could no more be taken for granted than liberal attendance at Mass on Sunday.

These changes in the subjects of ruling appeals changed how rulers appealed when mobilizing populations and resources for warfare.  Rulers from the first Adam to Joe Biden have always had to mobilize people and resources for military adventures.  What was new in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is that rulers often had to persuade liberal audiences in order to mobilize people and resources.  Rule had to be justified to a geometrically largely set of insiders and outsiders.  Liberal insiders in both proto-democracies and more authoritarian states had to be persuaded at a minimum that they lived in a coherent regime that could call on them to make military sacrifices.  Liberal outsiders had to be persuaded that this was the sort of regime that was entitled to rule internally.  People had to see this state as furthering a set of interests that were partly determined by their liberal ideas about what interests and whose interests were to be furthered by states.

Liberal ideas and military interests are entangled in ways that rarely permit disaggregation.  Politics respond to interests, but how people perceive their interests depends on their ideas.  Kristin Luker noted many years ago that while pro-life policies served the interest of pro-life women and pro-choice policies served the interest of pro-choice women, whether women adopted pro-life or pro-choice lifestyles depended partly on ideas about the proper role of women.  Not everyone thinks spending the morning writing this blog post is serves their interest.  Written constitutions similarly combine military interests and liberal ideas. Rulers began writing fundamental laws down because they had an interest in mobilizing people and resources for war, but how people are mobilized depends on how they conceive themselves and their interests.  Are people who live in my neighborhood Marylanders or citizens of the United States and, if they are Americans, is their American identity based on race or the principles of the Declaration of Independence?  As people became literate and liberal, their interests changed, and appealing to those interests meant understanding the ideas underlying those interests (and the interests that fortify those ideas).  We cannot ignore or separate ideas and interests when exploring the development of written constitutions or any other political phenomena.    

The bottom line lesson is that all scholars are in the position of the blind sages who can see only parts of what they study.  Professor Colley has seen far more of the elephant than most.  Her insights about the relationships between guns, ships, and pens are invaluable to those who look at only a tiny part of the constitutional mammal and, more important, to those who want to gain a greater if still incomplete understanding of what written elephants as a whole might look like.  Liberalism also matters to the study of written constitutions.  If liberalism is partly constituted by guns, ships, and pens, guns, ships, and pens are also partly constituted by liberalism.  

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