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Constitutional History and the Making of the Modern World

Published: 1 December 2021

By Harshan Kumarasingham

Harshan Kumarasingham, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Edinburgh, writes about constitutional history, and the new book by Linda Colley, The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World.

There was a time when constitutional history was a critical part of the curricula in History, Law and Politics.  At the beginning of the twentieth century at the University of Cambridge, for example, a student on the History tripos could expect to have 70 lectures in ‘English’ constitutional history and up to 15 on comparative constitutions.  During the period, as Linda Colley points out in her global history of constitutions, between the 1820s and 1920s, the publication of new constitutional histories printed across Britain increased by almost twenty times (p. 415).  Fast forward a hundred years and the reality is very different.   History no longer seeks a place at High Table when it comes to covering constitutions and a History student in the UK and elsewhere, with a few exceptions, would struggle to find in their reading lists any texts on constitutions or their history, let alone as a key part of their courses.  Political Science is transfixed by constitutions, especially now as we are often reminded that we live in ‘interesting times’, but this focus on the moment can blind the ability to use history to complicate and contest assumptions and thereby evade the all too common resort to describe events and issues as ‘unprecedented’.  Law has filled much of the gap left by History and Political Science.  It has in recent years seen a growing analytical legal-historical approach towards constitutions and a resulting abundance of works on an array of ‘constitutionalisms’ helpfully prefixed to display the writer’s (not always unique) contribution.  However, many of the volumes of this growing legal genre while theoretically impressive and ambitious in scope still ignore the opportunities to look beyond the legal documents and include the richness of culture, personalities, politics and history that permeate the constitutionalisms they seek to promote. A powerful and eloquent corrective to the current deficiencies in these disciplines covering the historical importance of constitutions has come in the form of Colley’s scintillating new book - The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World.

The 20th century British ‘Constitution-Maker’ Sir Ivor Jennings argued in his seminal text Cabinet Government (1936),on the history and practices of the British state, that constitutional history is the ‘servant of the lawyer and the politician’.  He might also have added that training in constitutional history was once a critical part of the Historian’s trade.  What made Jennings’ statement more powerful and influential was that despite being about the United Kingdom it was understood and interpreted by thousands whose land of birth was far from London’s SW1 postcode.  Students from Trinidad like the Afro-Caribbean Ellis Clarke studying law in 1930s at the London School of Economics (later his country’s first president) or those at the University of Ceylon, like Kingsley M. De Silva in the early 1950s (who would become the island’s premier modern historian) all studied this book as undergraduates.  Students from the ‘white settler’ parts of the British Empire-Commonwealth also shared this reading experience like the Australian Maurice Byers at Sydney University who would later draw on Jennings as Solicitor-General during the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975, when his opinion was needed on the legality of dismissing a prime minister.  Though these states lacked what Clarke called ‘geographical propinquity’ to Britain’s constitution these students and others knew its transnational value, which did not ‘preclude the growth’ or the ‘nuances of distinction’ in their own constitutional and cultural contexts.  These small linked examples of global constitutionalism were by new means unique, but a give a feel for the global constitutional ideas and the rich constitutional history of decolonisation in the 20th century, which I recently examined that was once highly active in academia as well as used by freedom movements and colonial rulers alike.

The power of Colley’s new book is to look earlier at the first real global constitutional generation that whirled with tremendous influence from the 18th and 19th centuries.  Colley shows that constitutions were not just for the great powers and their acolytes. Communities from Corsicans to the Cherokees turned to writing constitutions to prove not just their modernity, but also their legitimacy to withstand the avaricious attentions of their neighbours.  The Cherokee constitution written in 1827 (in English as well as Cherokee) stated unequivocally, the claim that the Cherokee were a ‘free and distinct nation’.  As with many such attempts around the world the effort to assert independence failed. The US Federal Government with its ‘We the People’ constitution and the all-white legislature of Georgia, where the Cherokees were mainly situated, rejected the Cherokee constitution’s legality and validity (p. 150-153).  In this Washington rigorously asserted its monopoly of constitutions.

Nonetheless, the migration and use of constitutions and their ideas as a form of confirming independence was an attractive and ubiquitous phenomenon, where constitutions took the form of a legal and political ‘technology’ (p. 3).  The transnational power of these constitutional technologies was such that a revised version of the famous 1812 Cadiz constitution was dedicated by the reformers to their kindred spirit in Bengali liberal intellectual Rammohan Roy: ‘Al liberalismo del noble, sabio, y virtuoso Brahma Ram-Mohan Roy’.  Roy had taken great interest in Cadiz and other liberal experiments (including contributing to a translation of a draft constitution of Peru) and he was able to learn of such exploits thanks in no short measure to the rich literary and publishing scene of the great cultural entrepôt of Calcutta (pp. 142-146, 188). The attraction of constitutional liberalism was global.  Even the sparsely populated Pacific Island of Pitcairn was not immune to the global constitutional moment when in 1838 it established through a Scottish Royal Navy Captain a constitution that contained, for example, progressive clauses to protect the environment and wildlife and also secured the rights of both women and men, including in selecting their leader.  Here, as throughout the book, Colley is not content to allow the case sit alone.  The tiny territory’s history and constitutional experiment is persuasively shown as part of wider currents stretching from Poland to Chile (pp. 253-260).  Through this wide canvas which sees figures like Japan’s Hirobumi Ito or Tunisia’s Khayr al-Din, who not only read widely, but travelled extensively in the 19th century, in order to gain ideas as to how to revive their states in the face of growing Western dominance.   As Colley shows, once again, constitutions were to be the vessel of their quest for reform and modernity on one hand, but also the preservation of local traditions and civilisations on the other.

One of the reasons the historian of Tudor Government, Sir Geoffrey Elton, believed in the virtues of constitutional history was its traditional attention to law and evidence, which gave the historian ‘excellent training in rigorous analysis’. Nonetheless Elton’s well-known faith in archives and documents as the repository of truth blinded him and others to the opportunities of a wider understanding of constitutional history.  Here in Colley’s book we have global constitutional history that is not only embracing of so many historical strands of society and life, but also deeply alive to the significance of law, the reality of politics and the power of culture.  It is to be hoped that The Gun, the Ship & the Pen emboldens an exciting turn in constitutional history (or at least the use of history in studying constitutions) since it showcases the opportunities a wider understanding constitutional history brings and the bounty to be found in the scholarly exchange between History, Law and Politics.  Afterall, as Colley book proves, constitutions and their history made the modern world. 

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Dr Harshan Kumarasingham is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Edinburgh.

Cross-posted with permission from the Balkinization blog.

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).

Photo by Iñaki del Olmo on Unsplash

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