Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Linda Colley responds

Guest Blogger

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).

Linda Colley
Let me begin by thanking all the contributors for their learned, suggestive and generous remarks on The Gun, the Ship and the Pen. I am very grateful. I am also somewhat relieved. One of my objectives in writing this book was to advance and insist upon a series of connections, including the much closer connection that needs to exist as regards the study of constitutions between practitioners of history and those attached to other disciplines. As Harshan Kumarasingham observes, since the 1960s especially, historians have become demonstrably less interested in matters constitutional.  This book was in part an attempt to challenge and correct this. I sought at once to set out some of the reasons why these instruments have mattered so much over time – and why they are gripping - and to show how broad and imaginative historical approaches are essential for a full understanding of them. I am delighted that the legal and political scholars making up this panel reacted positively to my efforts.
I had other connections in mind in writing this book. While acknowledging the importance always of local differences and imperatives, I wanted to explore how and why constitutions progressively spread across boundaries between countries and continents, and the degree of cross-influence that sometimes existed between these documents. This meant paying attention not just to the flow of ideas and actors across land and maritime borders, but also to the flow of language, something made much easier now by the availability of on-line search engines.  Such extrovert strategies can sometimes prove disruptive and controversial. As Madhav Khosla writes, constitutions have generally been studied only in the context of specific legal systems. They are also often sources of national pride and self-congratulation.  Adopting a more global and comparative approach to the evolution and content of these texts can sit uneasily with all of this.  Here is an example not included in the book.
It is often assumed that the famous beginning of the American constitution “We, the People” may have been influenced by the opening line of the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 (“We, therefore, the people of Massachusetts”).  This may indeed have been the case. But perhaps not, because back in 1777 the following passage appeared in a successful London political publication:
It is also necessary, our Lawgiver would further add, that we, the People, should have an influence upon the Government: it is necessary for our own security; it is no less necessary for the security of the Government itself” (p.386).
The book in question, entitled in its London incarnation The Constitution of England, was an English translation of a work by Jean Louis de Lolme, a Genevan, who had originally written the piece in French and published it in Amsterdam.  
We know that this 1777 English version of De Lolme’s work was read by several of the Founding Fathers. So, could the opening words of the American constitution have in fact a mixed English-French-Genevan-Dutch heritage?  Could Gouverneur Morris, himself a man of Dutch ancestry, consciously or unconsciously have adopted and adapted De Lolme’s language when he came to finalize his own country’s draft constitution in Philadelphia in September 1787? I doubt we will ever know: and fundamentally it does not matter. The crucial point is again one of connections. As Sandy Levinson puts it, a rising constitutional zeitgeist was already well in existence by the 1780s. American actors participated in this in important, innovative and durably influential ways.  But, as patterns of language confirm, this zeitgeist did not originate with Revolutionary Americans. Nor was it ever dominated only by them or their successors.
The connections I most wanted to explore though were, of course, those occurring between outbursts and threats of war on the one hand, and the making and revision of constitutions on the other. The argument that such connections existed is not a novel one. But what I sought to emphasize in The Gun, the Ship and the Pen was the significance of changes in the patterns of warfare, many of these deriving – as Mark Graber notes – from technological development.  In particular, I stressed the multiple impact from the mid-18th century of stronger, more heavily-armed and more expensive navies. At one level, these enabled a few great powers to fight wars and make territorial conquests on a much wider geographical scale. At another level, the money and manpower costs of practicing what I styled hybrid warfare – combining higher levels of naval power with substantial armies – placed state budgets and policies under massive strain. This in turn bankrupted some powers (Capetian France). It also loosened the imperial grip of others (Britain and Spain), sometimes resulting – as in the Americas - in the emergence of independence movements which generated new constitutions to signal their arrival.  In addition, and crucially, the strains and lures of hybrid warfare incentivized different powers over time - progressively outside and not just within the West - to experiment with new or revised political contracts with their respective (male) populations as a means to secure and extract higher taxes and more men at arms.
The rising scale of hybrid war machines also placed smaller, weaker territories and regimes under increasing pressure, and this too could and did work to advance constitutional creativity. A recurring theme in this book, quite deliberately, is the recurrent contribution made by certain small - sometimes very small - places to inventive constitutional design. Under growing threat from colonial invasion or more powerful neighbours, locations such as Corsica, Haiti, Pitcairn, Hawaii and other exposed and fragile places sought to proclaim and reinforce their autonomy on paper, sometimes in a markedly radical and experimental fashion.
I stress this point as a partial answer to Erin Delaney’s query: “What exactly is the link between hybrid-war constitutionalism and liberal democratic constitutionalism?” In practice, these have by no means been invariably separate and antithetical phenomena. Far from it. At all times, and in all places, those in high political office rarely feel able or inclined to impose extensive alterations in the organization of their respective republics, kingdoms and empires. But war, or a serious threat of war, or a need to recover from war or forestall it often serve to focus official minds. In the process, new ideas, including emancipatory ones, along with actors who are attached to such ideas can gain their chance and an opportunity.  
Other emergencies and crises can have similar effects. And this in turn is my partial riposte to Professor Magliocca’s half-playful suggestion that “peace is bad for national constitution writing”. I don’t believe this to be necessarily so.  Yes, varieties of warfare have made a major and varied contribution and still do in some regions. But there can be other irresistible pressures that advance significant phases of constitution making. Only think for the moment of a possible future eventuality. In the next ten years or so, it is possible that a majority of Scots will vote in a referendum for independence from the UK. It is likewise possible that a majority will emerge in Northern Ireland in favour of union with the rest of Ireland. If all this happens, we will hopefully not get actual armed struggle (though it cannot be ruled out) but we will almost certainly get a plethora of new written constitutions. The Scottish Nationalist Party has already signed up to one for Scotland. Reunion with Northern Ireland would likely require a brand-new or at least drastically modified Irish constitution. Meanwhile, there would surely be pressure in England and Wales – which in these circumstances would be all that remained of the present UK – for a new, re-defining document and political system.   For the first and only time since 1653, all these countries could conceivably secure codified constitutions.
The detailed analysis of this book, however, ends with the First World War. Continuing the global story to the present day would require at least another book (probably more) and also another historian. As I outline in my epilogue, the emphases and provisions of political constitutions – and their geographical spread - were already visibly shifting immediately before, and in the immediate wake of the Great War.  Post-1945 constitutions, as Professor Khosla notes, would be characterized by yet more radical changes, though not I think wholly unprecedented ones. The Indian constitution which came into force in 1950 did indeed embrace and champion ideas of self-rule in “regions where democracy’s assumed ingredients – a certain level of literacy and income, and a degree of state capacity – were lacking”. But to a degree the makers of some South American constitutions faced similar challenges and made similarly radical democratic advances (though only for men) in their post-colonial moment after 1820. 
Whether looking at events before 1918 or after, though, there remains much more to be done. At the start of The Gun, the Ship and the Pen, I wrote that “there are many different histories of these developments that can and should be written”. This was not diffidence on my part. Still less was it an attempt to pre-empt criticism. It was and is the simple truth.

Linda Colley is Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton University. You can reach her by e-mail at  

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