Compromising documents – the hidden history of constitutions

The U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides”, one of the United States Navy’s first frigates

The Gun, the Ship and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World

Linda Colley, Profile, 512 pages, £25

KEN BELL finds a new way of looking at global constitutional history

A history of constitution making does not sound like a page turner at first glance, but in the hands of Linda Colley it becomes one, as she upends the notion that constitutions are necessarily liberal documents that helped only in the creation of the modern nation state. For her, their modern origins are imperial and grew out of the clash of empires in the 18th century. Many were not even born out of liberal thought; Catherine the Great spent long hours drafting a guide for legislatures that aimed at putting autocratic rule on a constitutional footing.

One of the questions that historians always seek to answer is why events occur at a particular moment in history, and not either before or after that moment. For Colley, the desire to write constitutions came about as a result of the “hybrid warfare” of the period, with empires clashing on land, at sea, and all across the globe. Those wars were costly in terms of lives lost, to say nothing of the financial terms. During the Seven Years’ War from 1756-1763, “Prussia lost an estimated 500,000 troops and civilians out of a pre-war population of 4.5 million.” The cost of those global wars to the taxpaying class was enormous, as just to build a 72-gun man of war took over 3,000 mature oak trees, along with acres of canvas, miles of rope and tons of iron for the nails to hold it all together.

Giving men constitutional rights made them more likely to put on a uniform and risk their lives for a cause. That is why so many generals were also constitutionalists, from Toussaint Louverture in Haiti to Napoleon Bonaparte in France, along with many of the men who met in Philadelphia in 1789 to draft the American constitution. At the same time, the men who paid the taxes would be more inclined to pay up with only minimal grumbling, if they had the right to vote for the governments that were levying the taxes to fight the wars.

The men who created the American Constitution met in secret, but as soon as the document had been finalised someone leaked it to the press. Then the jobbing printers got hold of it and ran off cheap pamphlets that contained the draft constitution along with essays that defended or attacked it. Ships carried these types of political works across the oceans, so what began as a Western affectation was quickly picked up by other cultures who wanted to get in on the cult of modernity. Simon Bolivar and the generals in South America swiftly created constitutions for the new republics that emerged in the wake of the defeat of the Spanish Empire and as Japan rushed to modernise from the middle of the nineteenth century, a constitution was swiftly adopted based upon the Prussian version.

Colley’s argument that these constitutions were often made by conservative military men, who wanted to ensure that other men would either serve in wars or pay for them, can also be used to explain why Great Britain did not adopt a written constitution. The English Civil Wars and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ that followed a generation later had already settled and legitimised the English, then British, constitutional dispensation. The King reigned with the consent of Parliament, and not by divine right.  His Protestant subjects had the right to carry arms thanks to legislation passed in the wake of William of Orange’s accession. So the British already had what the rest were battling to obtain, just not in a single document. They also had Jeremy Bentham who was only too happy to offer advice to the political exiles who made London their home, and who could then use the London printing trade to produce their new documents and British ships to carry them wherever they needed to go.

As with most globalist histories, the odd error is bound to creep in, so the Americanists will immediately spot the mistakes in her comments about American technology during the Civil War. “Quick-loading rifles using high-calibre bullets that were potentially lethal at 600 yards or more replaced older, far less accurate, muskets,” she claims. I suspect that she meant to write high-velocity, rather than high-calibre, which is not true, either, but aside from that, both sides used muskets throughout the war, with the Union fielding Springfield rifles and the Confederacy the British Enfield. The fact that they had rifled barrels does not mean they were not also muskets, as they were loaded from the muzzle.

The claim that the Confederacy had a rail network similar to that in the United States will also raise a few eyebrows. The South had about 10,000 miles of track, with a myriad of gauges and very little that linked up to anywhere else; the aim was to get cotton to a river or port, rather than connect the South’s few urban areas. So the railways that ran into Richmond, Virginia, from the south could not then go through to the north as there was a gap of several miles in that city between northern and southern lines, that was covered by draymen with carts. But however enjoyable such pedantry may be, minor details of this kind do not detract at all from Colley’s fascinating and highly original argument.