´The Gun, the Ship and the Pen´ by Linda Colley

2021, 424 p plus notes

When I was thinking about writing my thesis, my supervisor exhorted me to “go big”. I disregarded his advice, but now I wish that I had listened to him. Linda Colley certainly “goes big” in this book that explores warfare and constitutions and the making of the “modern world”. It’s a big modern world, that includes Corsica, Tahiti, Japan, Tunisia as well as Britain, France, Russia and America. It’s only when I read such an expansive book as this that I realize how rarely I read a history that spans such a broad canvas.

Many people assume that constitutions emerge out of revolutionary politics, the rise of the nation state and the inexorable progress of democracy. Drawing on constitutions developed between 1750 and the present day Colley argues, instead, that constitutions are written in response to warfare and threats of foreign aggression, prompted by ‘umbrella wars’ involving both naval (i.e. the ‘Ship’ in the title) and land battles (the ‘Gun’) conducted across different regions of the world. They are not a feature of the nation-state, but more often an artefact of empires: Britain, China, Russia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the Habsburg monarch, the Ottoman empire, Japan, Italy and the United States (p.9). Historically, through their constitutions governments held out the promise of rights, especially the franchise, to compensate men who would fight with their own bodies and pay the taxes to support large armies. Because constitution-making was interwoven with war and violence, along with monarchs, politicians, lawyers and political theorists, there were also military, naval and imperial officers, intellectuals, clergymen and cultural figures of all kinds who made their contributions (p. 11). These were written constitutions, responsive to increased literacy, an explosion in print and its transmission, translation and even the rising popularity of the novel (p.12).

Linda Colley is one of my favourite historians. She is probably best known for Britons (which I have on my shelf and haven’t actually read, even though I have read many papers that cite it) and I loved her The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh which combines the ‘small history’ that I love and the ‘big history’ that my supervisor wanted me to write. She does not particularly address methodology in this book, but she does make this comment:

For some, laying stress on the impact of transcontinental warfare – or on any other large-scale and wide-ranging sets of changes – risks flattening out important and essential differences, and detracts from the specific roles and contributions of particular nations, cultural groupings and individuals. There can be a fear, as the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai puts it, that addressing the large-scale will tend ‘to marginalise the already marginal’ and foster neglect of ‘small agencies and local lives’. Yet there is no need, I would argue, to become trapped in such chicken-and-egg type arguments. Drawing attention to the big and the wide and to connections does not mean – and should not mean – ignoring and effacing the specific, the local, the small-scale and finely researched individual details.


Her book, vast in scale as it is, honours both elements. Each of her chapters starts up close with an individual or an episode before she draws back to take a wider perspective. These individuals, each with their own lived history and cultural context, form a touchstone in that chapter and she returns to them at various stages throughout the text to highlight the distinctions and commonalities between different constitutional responses.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One: Into and Out of Europe has two chapters. Chapter One, ‘The Multiple Trajectories of War’ starts with Pasquale Paoli and his ten-page constitution for Corsica, written in 1755 on re-used letters with the inked words scraped away. Colley then moves outward to discuss the way in which warfare became more expansive and more expensive, pointing particularly to the Qing dynasty of China in the 1640s as an example of imperial force against the Zughar-Mongolian empire. Hybrid wars involving both maritime and terrestrial warfare helped give rise to a series of revolutionary conflicts which expanded the design of written constitutions, namely in North America after the War of Independence and in France and Spain after the Seven Years War. Haiti, she suggests, is the exception that both broke and proved her claim that wars preceded revolution. Toussaint Louverture is the best-known revolutionary war leader on Haiti, but she focusses instead on another, less-recognized leader, Henry Christophe. Colley often does this: she acknowledges the well-known figurehead, but then turns her attention to another player standing off-stage.

Chapter Two ‘Old Europe, New Ideas’ starts off with Catherine the Great, writing her own constitutional document, the Nazak. Colley points out the influence of Rousseau and Montesquieu, then returns to Catherine and her Nazak, and its dissemination and influence across geographical borders and on Frederick II of Prussia, and Gustaff III of Sweden, both Lutherans and both influenced by Enlightenment thinking. She rounds out this chapter with Tom Paine, whom she dubs ‘Charter Man’, who championed the constitution as a real, tangible paper or parchment outline of power, rights and laws, prompting a new interest in the 1215 Magna Carta.

Part Two: Out of War, Into Revolutions has three chapters which are quite different each from the other. Chapter Three ‘The Force of Print’ starts in Philadephia with the Constitutional Convention in May 1787. She describes in detail the development of the 4,500 word American Constitution which was inscribed on four sheets of parchment, each about two feet wide and two feet high. It appeared on the front page of the Pennsylvania Packet on 19 September and by late October, the text had been picked up by over 70 other American newspapers. She points out that this constitution was publicized widely throughout the world, and particularly influenced South American states, especially in Venezuela, the Irish Free State, Norway, Calcutta and the Cherokee nation within America.

Chapter Four ‘Armies of Legislators’ starts in Paris in 1789 when the American Gouverneur Morris [sic] of New York arrived after finalizing a draft constitution for the United States, slap bang in the middle of the summoning of the Estates-General which kicked off the French Revolution. Although Morris returned to America, Colley stays in France with her analysis, following Napoleon and his imposition of constitutions on the lands he conquered. In particular, she looks at the Constitution of Cadiz of March 1812 which was explicitly a document for a reformed, more inclusive Spanish empire in South America and the Phillipines.

Chapter Five ‘Exception and Engine’ looks at the paradox that even though Britain does not have a written constitution (and glories in the fact), London in particular was the heart of constitutional inquiry. Jeremy Bentham plays an important role here, with his belief that written constitutions were a template of rational principles of liberal justice and rights that could be imposed on any society, no matter its history or customs. Bentham met and corresponded with men (always men) interested in constitutional matters from all over the world- Greece in 1821, Haiti, Islamic North Africa, Argentina. Colley returns to look at Britain’s relationship with her own Magna Carta and Cromwell’s unsuccessful attempts to codify republican politics. Some two hundred years later John Cartwright, a colleague of Bentham’s, was travelling Britain and corresponding with European politicians, promulgating the ideas that led to Chartism. For some, the essential beauty of the British constitution was that it didn’t exist physically and was perpetually in flux. Many of the politicians and intellectuals in South American countries (e.g. Simón Bolívar) looked to the inroads that British commerce, capital and shipping were making in their countries, and some spent time in London (the British Library was a particular drawcard).

Part Three New Worlds travels to far-flung places in its examination of constitutions. Chapter Six ‘Those Not Meant to Win, Those Unwilling to Lose’ starts off in Pitcairn, of all places, where English mariner Capt. Russell Elliot gave the islanders a spare Union Jack and a ‘few hasty regulations’ that ended up being regarded as a written constitution. It was a remarkably sensitive list: it paid attention to the environment by regulating dogs, pigs and goats; it limited the cutting down of trees; made school attendance mandatory for all children between 6 and 16, and elections for Pitcairn’s ‘magistrate and chief ruler’ were held annually and all adults (including women) voted. This differed from other countries, where women were excluded, largely because they could not fight. The places where women did achieve some sort of franchise were generally on the edges of the British Empire (e.g. Cook Islands, New Zealand, Australia). Turning to settler warfare, especially in the Pacific, she focusses on Governor Gipps in NSW and his nemesis John Dunmore Lang, that fiery Presbyterian minister, who travelled to America and Brazil and dreamed of a future republican Australian federation that might include NZ, New Guinea and Fiji. She discusses Pomare II in Tahiti, and Kamehameha III and King Kalakaua in Hawaii – countries I would never have thought of including in a discussion of constitutions!

Chapter 7 ‘The Light, the Dark and the Long 1860s’ picks up on her interest in the 1860s (she co-organized a conference ‘The Global 1860s’ at Princeton University in 2015). Good grief- here are General Hasayn Ibn ‘Abdallah and Khayr al-Din in Tunisia, a long way from America emerging from the Civil War in the mid 1860s, which she examines in some detail. Then across to Africa, where James Africanus Beale Horton, from Sierra Leone and of African-British heritage, encouraged the emergence of west African political communities with strong African monarchies alongside strong African republics, with ‘universal’ suffrage.

Chapter 8 ‘Break Out’ starts with an analysis of the 1889 woodblock print ‘Issuing of the State Constitution in the State Chamber of the New Imperial Palace’ where the artist Adachi Ginko indulged in some imagination in depicting the handover of a new constitution. Most of this chapter deals with Meiji Japan, and Japan’s victories against China and then Russia in the early 20th century, and its seizure of Taiwan in 1895 and annexation of Korea in 1907.

Her Epilogue picks up on WWI, drawing in all the empires, and further amplified by the Spanish flu epidemic. The collapse of the Russian Empire triggered off a new bout of constitution-making, while other earlier constitutions across the globe collapsed. The dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1991 resulted in the emergence or re-emergence of fifteen ostensibly independent countries in Eastern Europe, central Asia and Transcaucasia. The civil wars that still afflict the world drive up constitution-writing to unparallelled levels. By 1991, she claims, only about 20 of the 167 single document constitutions in existence were more than 40 years old. She brings her analysis into the present day, with a 2016 poster promoting the repeal of the 8th provision of the Irish constitution that effectively banned abortion, and photographs of a demonstrator in Pretoria, South Africa hiding his face behind his pocket-book edition of the constitution, and Olga Misik protesting in Moscow in 2019, holding her copy of the Russian constitution.

What a journey across time and place! Who would have thought that a history of constitution-writing could take us across so much territory? I must confess that I find it hard to become exercised over constitutional discussions – although we are often glad of robust constitutions and rules when they are challenged. I feel that historians have to use their very best narrative skills to breathe life into a study of constitutions, as Colley has here and as Peter Cochrane did in Colonial Ambition. But even the most inflexible constitution is not written in stone. We are seeing the rise of Originalism in the U.S. Supreme Court and with the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Australians are being asked again to consider their constitution and the place of First Nations people in it (or not). And rather more ominously, the constitution of the People’s Republic of China identifies Taiwan as “part of the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China” and claims that “re-unifying the motherland” is a “lofty duty”. Colley’s magisterial and beautifully written book – and I don’t use that term lightly – highlights constitutions as forever-evolving political creations, shaped by individuals and larger historical forces. And still they keep forming….

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

One response to “´The Gun, the Ship and the Pen´ by Linda Colley

  1. Pingback: My best reads for 2021 | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s