Connect with us

Charter Cities Podcast Episode 45: Linda Colley on War and Constitutions

Dr. Linda Colley, a leading expert on British imperial and global history, joins us on the podcast. We talk global constitutions and their relationship between war and revolution, and much more.


Dr. Linda Colley is the M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton University, here today to discuss her newly published book, The Gun, The Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World, which explores the complex interrelationship between the rise of modern warfare and the rise of modern constitutions worldwide. After introducing Dr. Colley, and discussing the themes of her book, we launch into a conversation about what drove her to research and write about the topic of constitutions across the globe. Hear about the brief period during 1653 when Britain had its own constitution, before Dr. Colley unpacks the role of printing press technology and the spread of literacy, and explains why building the French navy helped the American revolutionaries, but not the French monarchy. We address Toussaint’s two purposes for the constitutions, which unfolds into a discussion about the extent to which constitutions are not just a domestic tool, but serve an international purpose, with Tunisia as one of our examples. Hear how Japan’s constitution has worked to concede certain rights for its people, learn about James Beale’s vision for governance and modernization, and much more. Tune in for an in-depth discussion on the ever-evolving role of this fascinating type of document today.

Key Points From This Episode:

  • Today’s guest, Dr. Linda Colley, expert on British imperial and global history.
  • Themes explored in her newly published book, The Gun, The Ship, and the Pen.
  • The brief period during 1653 when Britain had its own constitution.
  • What moved her to write about global constitutions and their interpretations.
  • The constitution drafted in Philadelphia in 1787’s role in influencing the rest of the globe.
  • Mechanics of the relationship between war, revolution, and the emergence of constitutions.
  • How the spread of literacy and printing presses facilitated codified constitutions.
  • Why building the French navy helped the American revolutionaries, but not the French monarchy.
  • Toussaint’s two purposes for the constitutions: to eradicate slavery in Haiti, and make it known to France that this is the case.
  • The extent to which constitutions are not just a domestic tool, but a play for international legitimacy.
  • Tunisia’s different approach to constitution making.
  • How Japan’s constitution has worked to concede certain rights for its people.
  • James Beale’s vision for governance and modernization.
  • The evolution and plateau of the role and rights of women in society.
  • Observing the link to the pressures of war within global constitutions.
  • How Thomas Paine’s military service impacted his views, and how actual military service influences constitution makers in general.
  • Catherine the Great in Russia and Bolivar in South America, and their constitutional influence.
  • Tacit borrowings from the British model, and ultra-plagiarism in Norway.
  • The best practices approach that can be pulled from all of these methods.
  • How constant borrowing results in a final text that is distinct for each entity.
  • Why the average duration of written constitutions is only 18 years and what that means.
  • Why many constitutions within a country is not a failure, with South America as an example.
  • The evolving aims and roles of constitutions and how they are being introduced.
  • How the digital world influences constitutionalism across the globe.



 Kurtis: Welcome to the Charter Cities podcast. I’m Kurtis Lockhart. On each episode we invite a leading expert to discuss key trends in global development in the world of cities, including the role Charter Cities and innovative governance will play in humanity’s new urban age. For more information, please follow us on social media or visit


 Jeffrey:  I’m Jeffrey Mason, researcher at the Charter Cities Institute. Joining me on the podcast today is Dr. Linda Colley. She’s the Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton University and is a leading expert on British imperial and global history, among other topics in British history. Her latest book and our topic of conversation today, The Gun, The Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World, documents the complex interrelationship between the rise of modern warfare and the rise of modern constitutionalism worldwide.


We hope you enjoy this episode.


 Jeffrey: Hi, Linda. Thank you for coming on the show to discuss your new book, The Gun, The Ship and the Pen.


 Linda: Hi. Great pleasure to be here.


 Jeffrey: This is a really interesting book. It takes a very interesting approach to the topic of constitutions and of constitutionalism generally. So my background is economics, and I always think about constitutions through this, what you might call a public choice lens, thinking about the incentives and the surrounding institutional arrangements. You’re a historian who has largely been focused on both domestic and global British issues, a country famous for its lack of a singular written constitutional document. How did you arrive at this project linking, modern war and the modern emergence of Constitutions?


 Linda: Well, I should say that Britain did very briefly have its own equivalent to a codified constitution back in 1653 during the period, it was a republic. But then the monarchy came back in a way when the constitution. I think the fact that I was a Brit coming to the United States, first of all in 1982 to work at Yale, that made me respond to these extraordinary texts which have spread all around the world in a rather different way, because I didn’t take them for granted, they were somewhat exotic to me. As I began thinking about them. I was not really satisfied with some of the interpretations that were available. I didn’t think we could just explain it by the ever onward movement of liberty, because after all, almost every country on the globe has a constitution now. Liberty is much more sparse.


I was also, this may not go down well, not absolutely convinced by what many of my Americanist friends seemed to assume that the United States was a kind of lonely beacon which began spreading the light across the globe. The more I researched it, the more it seemed to be that, yes, of course the Constitution drafted in Philadelphia in 1787, is an extraordinary document, but in some ways it was part of a wider zeitgeist in which other countries, other parts of the world were plugging. To understand these documents therefore you had to look across country, across continents. So that’s what I decided to do.


 Jeffrey:  Yeah. I really enjoy, this is a fresh approach and something that I really hadn’t thought about in that way before, perhaps as an American. Thank you for bringing some new light to us exceptionalists. There’s a central theme that you identify in the book that you observe the relationship between the increase in size, scale and intensity of war and revolution in the modern world from roughly the 1700s onwards. At the same time, there’s an overlapping trend towards the greater use of constitutions and governance doing away with purely relying on sets of norms and precedents and this thing. Talk more about what that relationship, what are the mechanics of that relationship that you identify?


 Linda: Well, of course, there’s always been wars, but wars clearly only start feeding into codified constitutions at a certain point in time. Now, why is that? Well, partly the wars on account of empire and other factors are getting much bigger, stretching across continents and oceans. That means that for major players like France, Britain, Spain, especially in the mid-18th century, they’ve got to start pumping money not just into large armies, but into ever larger navies. Navies are incredibly expensive, because with armies, you can always clear the jails, employ mercenaries, push everyone into the ranks, etc., but working on a sailing ship of war and building those ships and maintaining the, on provisioning them is hideously, hideously expensive.


Therefore and this is only one part of the explanation. More and more rulers begin to say, “Well, look, we got to raise taxes. We’ve got to be able to attract loans. We got to get more trained men into the armed services. Therefore we’ve got to change the running of the state.” There was a degree to which codified constitutions began emerging in part as a contract saying, “Look, we want more taxes, we want more men, we want more loans. In return, we will set down how the state is being run. We will set out checks and balances, and so forth.” Of course, all that’s helped by another technological shift that is really gaining ground in every sense by the 18th century, to spread of printing presses, the spread of literacy.


It’s no use producing these kind of documents, if they cannot be read or at least read out aloud by some literate to non-literate. These technologies are bumping constitutions along. In the 19th century, you’re going to get other developments that do the same. The growth of railroads, for example, means that armies can be much bigger, because the American Civil War is a great example of this. You can move new supplies of food and men to different directions, much more quickly than if they’d have to come on foot on horseback, that in turn means much bigger armies, much higher levels of casualties.


This, of course, is one of the prime reasons why the Union Army in the American Civil War says, “We’ve got to start recruiting black troops at a much busier level. Therefore, we’ve got to think of giving these guys a greater share of citizenship.”


 Jeffrey: It’s interesting how we don’t, I think, traditionally think of it this way, but it’s transaction and essentially granting the state license to pursue the activities it wishes to pursue that it had always tried to do, but perhaps now there are these confounding economic, technological and other factors that you point out that they finally, it seems they hit an upper bound on what they were practically capable of doing.


There’s a figure you give in the book that I found astonishing. I don’t remember the exact number, but the sheer quantity of, I believe it was specifically just 74 gun ships of the line that the French constructed in a ten year period is truly remarkable, but when you dig into some of these, the actual details of what it is that these states were trying to do. We all know, yes, the seven years war is a global war. We get it, but when you really dig into the minutia of just how costly and expansive the armaments and all this was to make that happen, it’s really fascinating. This, constitutional transaction. It makes a lot of sense, I think, once that detail is revealed.


 Linda: Yeah. Of course, you cite the French example, and in a sense, it reinforces the connection between increasing warfare, increasing taxation and political change, because of course, the French try to get it, get one without the other. The French monarchy builds up its navy furiously, which is really going to help the American revolutionaries, but it does not help the French monarchy, because it’s getting broke and it hasn’t given political concessions to the vast majority of its people. This is part of what causes the explosion of the French Revolution in 1789.


 Jeffrey: I want to dove into some of the different examples that you bring up in the book, and need some structure throughout by talking about several big thematic areas, and one that I wanted to touch on that I think was interesting and is probably underappreciated. Is the role of Haiti as an early player in this realm of constitution making. Can you talk a little bit about the Haitian experience and how they had an early role to play?


 Linda: Sure. In the 1790s, partly as a repercussion of the French Revolution, you get explosions of dissidents on what is going to become Haiti, which is France’s biggest sugar and slave plantation islands. It’s a very bloody and protracted affair which kills a lot of blacks and whites on the island, but you get this extraordinary black leader Toussaint Louverture, who around 1800 gets this idea, well what we need to do is compose, publish, print Haiti’s constitution.


It still wasn’t called Haiti at that stage. That was going to be a bit later, but we must have a written and printed constitution. Toussaint use this, the Constitution really for two purposes. First, to make absolutely clear that no inhabitant of these islands anymore is a slave. Slavery is dead and gone, but Toussaint also wants to make clear that this is the case not just by its own purposes, but to broadcast it to the French, to anybody else who has access to these printed words.


Napoleon is furious at this. I think the fact that Toussaint does that suddenly, which ultimately proves lethal to him, because the French captured him, but it shows what constitutions could do. We tend to think that that only therefore domestic purposes, but written and printed constitutions also have a publicity and manifesto purpose as the men of Philadelphia in 1787 knew very well. You print this stuff and you must produce it often in different languages, and you send it round the world so that everybody knows that you are creating a new political regime. That’s partly why these devices take off so much. It’s not just about domestic rights. It’s because as more and more new states and empires and regimes emerge, they want to trademark themselves, if you like.


 Jeffrey: That was another thing that I found interesting, just the extent to which constitutions weren’t just a domestic tool, but also a play for legitimacy on the international stage. I think your discussion of the 1861 Tunisian constitution is an interesting example of this about how the governor there has these exchanges with the Americans and others and they’re this outward looking effort when they’re drafting this and you call it and I quote “a calculated reposition and defensive modernization.”


This is interesting to me because a lot of these documents, they might be what you would call an offensive modernization, right? Haiti says we’re throwing off the French, there will be no more slavery in the American case, right? Where we are throwing off the British, there was taxation without representation, all of these issues which said we don’t like this old order and we reject this old order and want to impose a new one, but the way you describe Tunisia is a little bit different. Can you talk about that different approach to constitution making?


 Linda: Yeah. I take your point. Yeah. The offensive manifesto in your face aspect of constitutions is and of course, deep ideological commitments, idealism. It’s all that, but the defensive element, you can see especially in regions of the world, Tunisia would be one, Hawaii would be another before the 1890s. Regions of the world that know they are under threat from the great powers, Tunisia worries with good cause about France, Hawaii’s government, a monarchy, worry with good cause about Washington.


In both cases you get constitutional schemes that cater to local imperatives and customs. Again, there is this element of alerting the world. I think both Tunisia and Hawaii, there’s a feeling, look, if we can make a constitutional document and print it and distribute it, this underlines the fact that we are a modern, well, ordered state. We’re not some old fashioned crumbling place that people can take over. Perhaps, if we broadcast this, we adjust our image and they might just leave us alone in neither of these cases, of course, does it work for very long, though Hawaii, I think keeps American takeover at bay for longer than would have been possible otherwise. Where this strategy is going to work is in a much more powerful, larger polity, namely Japan, which in the 1880s is going to issue the first East Asian codified constitution, both for its own reasons and again to keep the West at bay. This time the strategy works.


 Jeffrey: Yeah. I’m glad you brought up Japan, because that is one of the examples I wanted to talk about. Japan’s modernization after the Meiji restoration is famous in part just for the sheer pace at which it takes place. It’s modeled roughly after Imperial Germany and within essentially, 30 years, they are an industrial power. They defeated Russia in 1905. That really says Japan is now here on the world stage and their adventures throughout Asia continue for several more decades. What I’m wondering is as Japan arrives at this, as it’s at its initial constitutional moment, do you think there are elements of what they ended up producing that contributed to that rapid modernization?


 Linda: I think what happens in Japan after the Meiji Revolution, as it’s called, Restoration, is a very interesting blend of economic, technological changes and legal constitutional and political changes. Now, the regime that is set up by the Meiji Restoration wants change, but in political terms, limited change. Initially, the Japanese constitution does not create a very big electorate, nor does it create a massive amount of rights, because the desire is this should remain a great polity governed by a traditional emperor.


In fact, once you’ve got a written constitution which can be read and can educate people, it’s difficult to stop things and put the pace of political change after the Japanese constitution within Japan and not just outside it increases. One of the things Japan gets from its constitution which again feeds into its economic growth, its global growth, is that other like other powers before it, it finds that once you got a written constitution, you start conceding some rights. You can tax more and it’s partly with this greater level of taxation that Japan can build up, not only its army, but crucially its navy. With this navy, it’s going to smash China and much more important for Japan’s reputation, Russia in 1905 the first time for centuries that a so-called norm white people have defeated in battle, a white empire namely Tsarist Russia.


 Jeffrey:  On this question of modernization and growth and economic development, a really interesting case that I didn’t really know much about ,that you talk about in the book is the case of James Beale, also known as Africanus Horton. He is considered the founding father figure of African nationalism. He wrote quite a bit on advocating for self-governance of the various nations of West Africa. I believe he was Nigerian or contemporarily Nigerian by birth. He also focused a great deal in his writing on economic development and did this specifically within his thinking about constitutions and these governing documents. How does he see Constitution as a tool for generating economic development?


 Linda: I really wanted to include Horton, because he was rediscovered in the 1960s and since then to a degree he’s been re-forgotten. I think he’s an absolutely remarkable man. For him, I think codified constitutions and economic change are part of the same package that these things are necessary. If West Africa, which is the region of Africa, he’s most concern is to become modern, a serious player. He wants to push aside to grouping those that he feels are incompatible with modernity. He wants to keep the British out and any other potential colonizers, but he also wants to get rid of the traditional power of many African chiefs, who he sees as rightly or wrongly, as stick in the mud, figures who haven’t got the authority or they drive to build new roads, to educate people, to rethink the role of women, etc., etc..


For Holton, who has a very rosy view of modernity, yes, there must be new written constitutions and there must be a new set of autonomous West African states, some of them governed by emancipated monarchs, some republics, but this has to go hand in hand with a real program of modernization. Horton always thinks this. I mean, in many ways he’s a tragic guy, because he’s so ultra-talented and he just gets rolled over. He really knows about these things. One of his last efforts is he makes a lot of money on the London Stock Exchange, which he lays in his will to improve black education in West Africa as it is his family just contests the will of it all disappears and lawyers face a familiar story.


 Jeffrey:  Unfortunately. I think having learned a bit about this now, I think this is really potentially one of the great what ifs, if Horton’s vision for governance and for modernization in Africa. I think had he been able to have some traction, I think that probably would have extended to a lot of the rest of the world as well, but have had a very different world I think we live in now. As you mentioned, one of the topics that he was interested in is the role of women in society and in constitutions. One of the things that you talk about that’s interesting is that, not all but a lot of these early constitutional documents in some cases, explicitly in some cases maybe implicitly, women are afforded equal status or something approaching it to men in some cases quite quickly, but generally by the seemingly by the middle of the 19th century, this trend is basically reversed entirely.


You give the particular example that you highlight for this part of the book is Pitcairn Island, which is a super interesting story in and of itself. So what do you think explains the initial inclusion of women in all these early documents, but then also this rapid reversal, right? Because it doesn’t seem as though it was, and maybe this isn’t right, but it seemed as though it wasn’t a decisive reaction to extremely rapid social change in the sense that in this time period we’re looking at. It doesn’t seem as though women’s relative place to men doesn’t change in absolute terms all that much. Or is that not right? This is more of a reactionary trend.


 Linda: Yeah. I mean, that was some, just some tiny recognition of women’s claims in some like constitutions. I think New Jersey’s first state constitution gave the state vote to a minority of affluent women. Then, as you say, you’ve got this extraordinary example of Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific. Tiny, tiny place with a tiny, tiny population in 1838, acquiring this world shattering document, the very first time that women were granted to vote at the same age, in the same way as men.


That constitution, as it came to be called, survived until the 1920s when it was replaced by another war. I think the reason why women are so well, of these many reasons, but one reason why women are being shunted aside by these new constitutional devices is caught up again with the issue of war. If you are going to think, if you are a ruler of a state that a, we want these guys to join up. We need a bigger army or we need more people in the Navy. We want to pay more taxes and so forth. The temptation is to say, “Look, this is a male prerogative.” That it is the masculine duty to defend the state and that is written now into a constitution. But look in return, see what you get. You get the right to vote, which, of course, is not being extended to females in the main and of course, in many areas, it’s not being extended to people of what is judged the wrong religion or the wrong skin color, or whatever.


Again, you can see in these constitutions the link with pressures of war and what you’re going to get in the 19th century in all continents is many more constitutions, lots more emphasis on mass male voting, but in the main, women continuing to be excluded that are a few exceptions by 1900, for example, women are voting in Australia and New Zealand, but it’s still pretty rare. It’s that link with defense I think, that is helping to explain that.


 Jeffrey:  Defense link is interesting, right? Because there’s this angle about what are the states and what can the state do to get it? Who is actively serving the state in service of these ends and what do they receive in exchange for doing so? I want to ask on the more the level of the individual constitute rational thinkers who themselves served in different wars in different capacities and how their service fed into this idea. One example that you bring up of course, is Thomas Paine. We know Paine, as he was the great pamphleteer, advocating independence from Britain, but he also briefly served as a privateer in the British Navy during the Seven Years War. So how does this service, shape his views and then more generally, how does actual military service influence these Constitution makers?


 Linda: Yeah. I mean, Paine is fascinating, because rightly he’s such a prominent American figure, it’s sometimes forgotten that in fact the bulk of his life is spent in England. He doesn’t set out for Philadelphia until he’s in the second half of his thirties. In fact, the bulk of his life is already gone. Paine’s espousal of, first of all, charters, then constitutions is almost over determined. His maternal grandfather had worked as a town clerk of the place where he was born in Norfolk, England, so had kept the town charters, which ordered things like education, charities and so forth.


Right from his childhood, Paine gets to think about written documents and rights and privileges. But then, as you say, he gets caught up in seven years war alias the French and Indian War, as a privateer. So he sees the way that wars are expanding and becoming more expensive, but even more after peacetime. He becomes a tax collector, collecting what the British call the excise tax, which is the main tax for warfare. For Paine, these radicalize his head, because he’s not a pacifist at all, but what he comes to think is that all these corrupt European monarchs, that’s how he sees them, are waging constant wars against each other, draining more and more money away from people, people who in many cases are not getting anything in return.


This is how he channels into political radicalism and he reminds us that wars could operate from bottom up as well as top down. It’s not just the rulers begin to say, “Well, we’ve got to change the organization of the state.” People below who have to bear taxes. I mean, Americans know this, you have to bear taxes, you have to do the fighting, are in this climate more likely to say, “Hey, this is not a good deal. If you’re going to treat us like this, we need more rights. No taxation without representation.” Paine carries this journey in his own life, very interestingly.


What I also tried to point out in the book, was how often leading figures involved in constitution making are fighters either on land, occasionally on, sea, of course, George Washington. Bolivar, South America, many of the Japanese constitution makers in the 1880s come from military Japanese clans. Of course one sees a lot of connections between military service and constitutional change, say after the Second World War in parts of the Middle East and Africa, becoming independent from Europeans. Very often the guys who have fought for independence go on to be involved in constitution making. It’s not just a business for quiet, hardworking lawyers. Many Constitution makers are – 


 Jeffrey: Yeah. Another case of Constitution making without lawyers that you talk quite a bit about, and I thought it was very interesting was that of Catherine in Russia. I think you mentioned that when she wrote her Nakaz or the grand instruction, there wasn’t a single lawyer in Russia trained as a lawyer in Russia. But one of the things that is interesting about the case of Catherine is that she borrows extensively from outside of Russia, and we see this a lot elsewhere as well.


You mentioned Bolivar, many of the South American Republics of the 19th century copy elements from the United States and elsewhere, the Cherokee and other native tribes, a similar exercise. Is there an extent to which you think that this heavy borrowing from outside as supposed to maybe more limited borrowing from outside and a greater emphasis on local norms, traditions, customs, etc. Is there an extent to which that do you think weakens the long run legitimacy of these projects in Catherine’s case, famously, she was never really able to implement any of it, and there was very little movements on that front in any regard until you get to 1905 at the earliest. The South American Republic spent many, almost all of them I think, eventually fallen and are replaced to go through cycles of turmoil. It seems as though, there’s an open question of legitimacy in these exercises that these examples raise.


 Linda: Yeah. I mean, I think in the case of Catherine the Great, and she came to be called, she basically lost interest in this extraordinary document, the Nakaz, as though it is a remarkable and influential document. She does set up devices to propagate it, a kind of embryonic constitutional convention which are going to be taken up obviously by other powers later on, but I think the issue of borrowing really touches an important point. Everybody borrows. I mean, if you read Madison’s account of the Philadelphia debates in 1787 that very conscious of this, inevitably as yes they kicked out the British, but in many ways they’re still thinking like the British. The fact that they have a Bicameral Congress and a president, that’s a American equivalent of the British House of Commons, House of Lords and the Monarch, so a tripartite system, only in the United States that becomes the lower house, the Senate, the President.


There’s many other tacit borrowings from British examples, but of course, the delegates, Philadelphia always saying not just that well, we’re going to do it better, but we must be very careful that this doesn’t seem too much warmed up British stuff. I think you find that in lots of constitutional episodes. I mean, I suppose the classic example is Norway’s great constitution of 1840, which is the second longest surviving constitution in the world, had to be drawn up in six weeks, because Norway was about to be invaded by Swedish troops.


The Norwegian delegates just become ultra-plagiarists. They take a bit for one constitution Holland, bit from France, bit from the United States, bit from political documents produced in Britain, you name it, they borrow it and then indeed sometimes they take whole paragraphs as well as particular provisions. But in a sense, by borrowing so widely, they help make that document distinctive, because it’s a mélange, it’s like a quilt made up of different squares of fabric. That’s what many constitutions are. Similarly in South America, yes, most new South American republics take federalism from the American example. On the other hand, not always Chile in the 1830s, when it’s on its umpteenth constitution, says “To hell with federalism.” Let’s look at what the Brits do instead. So borrowing is constant, but so is the desire to say, “Okay, we may borrow, but our final text is going to be distinctively ours.”


 Jeffrey: Yeah, I like your quilt analogy that you can take this best practices approach. Like you said, the case of Norway, something that works particularly well. One thing I am curious about to hear your take on is that, it seems as though and maybe this is a case of survivorship bias, but a lot of the early constitutions proved quite durable. You just gave the example of Norway. There’s the United States and some of these other early constitutions did last for quite some time and seemingly were quite important in terms of day-to-day governance.


It seems like in modern times there was maybe in the postwar, post-World War Two era. It seems as though in a lot of cases constitutions matter less and thinking about day-to-day governance or they’re laden with what are actually just policy agenda items as opposed to the rules for making the rules and constraints on power, this kind of thing, or they’re just ignored provisions in the mergers, ignored. The Soviet constitution, for instance, has many of the same liberties that we enjoy in the West that were obviously not upheld in practice. Is this really just a case of survivorship bias here? Is there something missing? There’s a table that you include in the book that shows the number of times, certain items like free press and free speech and all these things were included in different constitution and the numbers for the period you give are quite high. Maybe there actually is a lot of turnover. So what do you think is the story here? Is there a durability or is that just we recognize the few that have actually lasted?


 Linda: Well, I mean, I think it’s been estimated that from the late 18th to the early 20th century, perhaps longer, I can’t remember. The average duration of written constitutions is about 18 years. These things don’t in general last all that long. The United States Constitution, the Norwegian Constitution, which has been much amended, are outliers here. That said, of course, there are exceptions. I mean, you think of the great Indian Constitution of 1949, 1950. That’s under pressure now arguably for Modi, but it just hung off. It’s a formidably important document, heavily based on borrowing, but it’s managed to become entrenched.


I think there’s two other things. What has happened since the Second World War? Is though perhaps given what we see in Ukraine, this is shifting, that we’ve moved in many parts of the world from big wars to civil wars which are concentrated more in the Middle East or parts of Africa or whatever, but luckier parts of the globe don’t seem to be sucked into these mega wars that the 18th and the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. I think the plurality of civil wars in some areas explains why you’re getting a lot a really unprecedented number of constitutions after the Second World War.


It’s not just that lots of former colonies are gaining independence. It’s also that many of these new regimes don’t stick. Every replacement regime wants to issue its own written statement. The other thing I’d want to say is that having lots of constitutions in a country may not absolutely be a sign of failure. It may not even be bad, after all, Jefferson, thought that constitutions needed regular renewal, particularly in a fast moving polity like the United States. He did not feel that the work of the man of 1787 should endure forever. That was not his perspective. What a rapid turnover of constitutions can do, didn’t do in parts of South America was really boosts the franchise level.


Again, partly because these new South American states were constantly at war with each other. They had to boost their armies and therefore they started thinking not just about enfranchising all white males, but how about the slaves? How about the indigenous people? Let’s draw on them as well. So by 1850, some parts of South America have had an absurd number of constitutions, but they also have in some ways a more impressive level of voting democracy than the United States does, than any other part of Europe does. A plurality of constitutions may mean more than it seems.


 Jeffrey: I think that’s an interesting distinction to draw there. You started to get into what I wanted to ask about for my last question here, ask you to put on the forecaster hat a little bit. So in recent decades, there’s been a reversal of the trend to these incredibly, increasingly large destructive wars, as we’re now living in this time where fewer people as a share of the global population are dying in armed conflict than ever before, even if over the past maybe 10 or so years, that that has started to unfortunately tick back up a little bit.


If this nominally remains the case and bearing in mind other political economic, this technological, those kind of factors, what do you think we should expect to see happen in the realm of constitutionalism or constitutional change in the next, say, 100 years? Do we think they’ll accelerate in importance and in the rate of change, will they decline? What do you see happening with the future of the written constitution?


 Linda: Will they continue to be very popular. Of course, they are constantly being used for new purposes, ecological campaigns, restitution for indigenous peoples. Those aims are being introduced into new constitutions in different parts of the world. These can still be hot and important documents. I think perhaps one of the more insidious changes is that we inhabit a digital world increasingly not a world of paper and print, and mass produced newspapers, and all the things that publicized constitutions.


Moreover, we’ve got a Balkanization of political opinion. Think the debate on Twitter now. If people are increasingly going to look at a screen and to opinions that are crossing national and continental boundaries and saying, “Oh, yeah, I agree with that Twitter feed from Algeria or wherever it is.” Then what does this do to the idea of a single, perhaps quite old document having a sacred place in the nation’s thinking. The way that digital is complicating national boundaries and national jurisdictions is enormous and the Constitution conventionally perceived, is potentially challenged by this in ways I think, have not yet been fully appreciated.


 Jeffrey:  I definitely think it will be interesting to see what happens. Maybe that will be the next book, right? Thank Linda, for joining us on the show today. I’ve been great to have you. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.


 Linda: It’s been a great pleasure. Thanks for reading the book so thoroughly.



 Kurtis: Thanks so much for listening. We love engaging with our listeners, so please always feel free to reach out. Contact information is listed in the show notes. To find out more about the work of the Charter Cities Institute, please follow us on social media or visit


Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:


The Gun, The Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World
Linda Colley
Linda Colley on Email

Linda Colley on LinkedIn

Charter Cities Institute

Charter Cities Institute on Facebook

Charter Cities Institute on Twitter


Follow & subscribe for updates.