ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Many Uses of Constitutions

The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World by Linda Colley, London: Profile Books, 2021, pp 502, 2,280 (hardcover).


This wide-ranging and insightful book challenges our understanding of the nature and uses of political constitutions. We are used to thinking of modern constitutions as something that arise out of popular struggles for freedom—individual, social, national—and self-governance. Examples from the dawn of the modern age that come immediately to mind are the United States (US) constitution that was framed after the war of independence against the British imperial rule. And the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the constitution that was subsequently adopted in the aftermath of the overthrow of the monarchy in 1789 in a violent mass uprising. Constitutions are thought to have ended arbitrary and oppressive rule and established the rule of law. And constitutional democracies promise, additionally, the participation of the people in their own governance. Over the next two and a half centuries, constitutions are believed to have led progressively to greater human rights, inclusiveness, stability, peace and prosperity. In the popular mind at least, they have come to be seen as the ultimate good, the gold standard by which all politics is judged.

But the distinguished English historian Linda Colley argues rather that constitutions in the modern world have primarily been instruments of rulers—be they emperors, kings, dictators, imperial viceroys or democrats—to mobilise popular consent for unpopular measures necessitated by financial and human costs of war, violent internal conflicts and other crises. Scouring the globe from minuscule island societies to vast trans- and inter-continental empires and focusing on the 18th and 19th centuries, she presents a fresh synoptic narrative to argue her thesis of wars and civil strife as being, directly and indirectly, the midwives, begetters even, of modern constitutions. (The absence military invasions and major defeats abroad and serious civil strife in those years in one notable exception, the United Kingdom [UK], being, she argues, the reason why it did not find it necessary to adopt a formal constitutional document.) And military and militaristic leaders—be they monarchs like Empress Catherine of Russia and King Gustav III of Sweden or freedom fighters and revolutionaries like George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Pasquale Paoli of Corsica and Simon Bolivar of South America or indigenous tribal chieftains like Pomare II of Tahiti or non-European politicians like Itō Hirobumi of Japan and Khayr al-Din of Tunisa—as being the prime movers of constitutional changes across diverse societies and times. 

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Updated On : 24th Jul, 2021
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