March 2021

The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen

By Linda Colley
Review by
Linda Colley's fascinating and important book shows how constitutions have helped to bring about a revolution in human behavior, ideas and beliefs.
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From the mid-18th century to the beginning of World War I, two approaches to transforming the world—warfare and constitutions—played in tandem. The unusual relationship between them is the fascinating and important subject of Princeton historian Linda Colley’s The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World

By 1750, the costs of warfare, in both money and lives, for such European powers as Britain, France and Spain had significantly increased. This pressure, combined with the rise of revolutionary conflicts, expanded the use of written constitutions and the ideas they expressed. In 1767, Catherine the Great published her most important work, the Nakaz, or Grand Instruction. Although it wasn’t a formal constitution, it shows how the concept developed and proliferated. She also developed techniques for political communication that later exponents of constitutions, including Benjamin Franklin, borrowed and built on. 

Colley’s wide-ranging survey covers many aspects of the global impact of constitutions, from the crucial importance of printers and publishers, to Thomas Paine’s interest in putting political and legal concepts on paper, to Toussaint Louverture defying the French in 1801 and publishing his own constitution for a future Black-ruled Haiti. In 1838, for the first time in world history, the inhabitants of Pitcairn, a tiny island in the South Pacific populated by descendants of Tahitian people and British mutineers of the HMS Bounty, proclaimed in their constitution that both adult men and women were to be enfranchised in elections.

This carefully crafted exploration shows how constitutions have helped to bring about an extraordinary revolution in human behavior, ideas and beliefs. Though constitutions are flawed, Colley writes, “in an imperfect, uncertain, shifting, and violent world, they may be the best we can hope for.”

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