The Power of the Pen

The writing of constitutions is a forgotten artform.

Allegory of the Empress Catherine II with the Text of Nakaz, 18th century. Alamy.

In the late 18th century, in the capital of a vast and still expanding empire, delegates assembled to discuss a major political text. Drawing on the principles of Enlightenment philosophers, this document was committed to the establishment of a uniform legal code and the enhancement of religious tolerance. The deputies convened with the express purpose of promoting a ‘sense of liberty’, but their deliberations would do little to advance the position of their country’s large slave population. 

Rather than an account of the 1787 Philadelphia convention that drafted the US constitution, this gathering occurred two decades earlier in Catherine the Great’s Russia. After 18 months of rising before 5am to craft her Nakaz, or Great Instruction, the empress brought together 564 deputies in Moscow to discuss it. Of course, this commission’s aims were severely restrictive. As the French philosopher Denis Diderot complained, from its first line ‘a well-made code should bind the sovereign’ and Catherine’s Nakaz did nothing of the sort. Yet the commission that poured over her work was progressive in other ways. It comprised men of relatively modest means and from diverse multi-ethnic backgrounds, including some who were non-white  and non-Christian. Even more radically, the electorate that chose this commission included female landowners, ensuring greater recognition for women than occurred in either revolutionary America or revolutionary France. 

This is just one of the political experiments discussed in Linda Colley’s remarkably wide-ranging and beautifully written history of the development of written constitutions. Stretching from the Seven Years War to the First World War and spanning the world from Corsica to Tahiti, Colley’s book is a truly global account of how constitutions became an almost ubiquitous ‘political technology’. But it is about much more besides. While other historians have emphasised that modern constitutions emerged primarily from rational, lawyerly discourse and elevated, literary societies, central to Colley’s thesis is that ‘war, the persistent threat of armed violence and written provisions for wider male democracy were all necessarily intertwined’. More than just a story of constitutions, this book also encompasses the causes and conduct of war across the long 19th century, as well as the spread of European empires, the growth of nationalism and the emergence of an interconnected, international society.

Colley’s work is packed with fascinating vignettes, such as the fact that Moses is mentioned almost 650 times in Diderot’s Encyclopédie or that George Washington checked the Swiss jurist Emer de Vattel’s The Law of Nations out of a New York library in 1789 and had still not returned it by the time he died a decade later. Yet these stories are not simply isolated trivia. They are woven into a remarkable intellectual history that illustrates how constitutional clauses and political principles were disseminated across historical periods and political boundaries, entering into documents far removed from their original context. As Colley notes, referencing the historian William McNeil, ‘it is easier to borrow than it is to invent’ and, across history, the drafters of constitutions would frequently ‘pick and mix’ from earlier texts.

Catherine the Great, for example, having plagiarised extensively from the Enlightenment philosophers, would work to ensure that her Nakaz was translated widely and read outside of Russia in a bid to showcase her regime’s modernity. By 1800 there had been 26 editions, in ten different languages, and its translators inserted their own political ideas into the text, converting the Nakaz into a far more radical statement than it was in the original Russian. Michael Tatischeff, a Russian official based in London, produced an English translation that explicitly used the word ‘constitution’, a term that did not appear in the original and would, in fact, not spawn a Russian equivalent, konstitutsya, until the 19th century. Nor was the Nakaz alone in this regard. Other absolutist rulers, such as Frederick II of Prussia, would also promote their texts abroad only to see them altered in more enlightened directions.

As well as casting new light on well-known historical figures by setting them in a broader international context, Colley also introduces readers to fascinating and largely neglected individuals in global constitutional history. There is Henry Christophe, for example, ‘an uneducated Black artisan, turned drummer boy, turned innkeeper, turned butcher’, who served as a general in Haiti’s independence struggle and then proclaimed himself ‘the first crowned Monarch of the New World’. Christophe’s deployment of a constitution to establish a hereditary monarchy might initially seem contradictory. Yet, as Colley reminds us, there were many such rulers, including Napoleon Bonaparte, to whom Christophe claimed ‘near relation’, who creatively combined monarchism and constitutionalism.

As would be expected from one of the pre-eminent historians of Britain, Colley is particularly illuminating on the role of the world’s oldest constitutional monarchy in these developments. The absence of civil war after 1700, coupled with Britain’s relative mastery of the ‘hybrid-warfare’ of the era – combining military proficiency on land and at sea – ensured not only considerable political stability at home but also a measure of ‘constitutional quiescence and complacency’, contributing to the country’s resistance to a codified constitution. Overseas, however, Britain was a far more revolutionary actor. In particular, London, as the prime global metropolis, attracted activists and political reformers from across the world, who used its unrivalled connections to spread their revolutionary ideas. While the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm famously argued that Britain was the principal engine of modern economic revolution after 1789, Colley demonstrates convincingly that London’s fiscal strength and naval power also made it a hub for constitutional radicalism, promoting political changes on ‘a transcontinental scale’. 

Many of Britain’s citizens, without their own domestic political constitution to experiment on, would look outside their country’s borders for outlets for their constitutional creativity. Most ambitious was Jeremy Bentham, who corresponded with political revolutionaries across the world and yearned to draft documents for their new states. ‘The globe is the field of dominion to which the author aspires’, he would portentously declare in 1786. Yet Bentham was far from alone in his desire to craft constitutions for other societies. One of the American Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris, based in Paris at the time of the French Revolution, would discover this when, in the midst of penning his thoughts on a new constitution for France, he was interrupted by an unnamed Frenchman, presenting his own proposal for a revised US constitution. 

Whereas today the writing of constitutions is largely the preserve of government officials and lawyers, Colley shows us that it was once also ‘as much a mode of literary and cultural creativity as writing a poem, a play, a newspaper article or, indeed, a novel’. In The Gun, the Ship & the Pen, Colley demonstrates that the chronicling of constitutions can also be an art form. 


The Gun, the Ship & the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions and the making of the Modern World
Linda Colley
Profile 502pp £20


Charlie Laderman is Lecturer in International History at King’s College, London.