The Gun, the Ship and the Pen – Linda Colley

Today, I am going to talk about a book which has just come out. The book’s name is The Gun, The Ship and the Pen written by Linda Colley. It has got some rave reviews, and deservedly so. It is a one of its kind book and it speaks about the evolution of Constitutions all around the world. Normally such a book will make a turgid reading, but Linda’s style makes the book extremely interesting and readable.

Whenever we think of a constitution, we think of noble ideas, the idea of liberty, fraternity and equality and the idea of the rule of law, the idea of individual freedom and the extent of it and several others. In reality, constitutions arose not exactly because the humanity had suddenly turned noble and democratic, but mainly because there were always wars and invasions looming and the rulers had to assure their citizens that if they won the war or frustrated the invaders, they would forever be good boys – and girls – and the written constitutions were sort of written bonds of such assurances. The rulers most of the times never kept their promises, but, once made, the constitutions had an uncanny knack of staying alive in one form or the other.

Linda takes a magisterial survey several such constitutions that came up in the period between mid-18th century and the outbreak of the first world war. While doing it she has made some brilliant portrayals of some of the outstanding personalities of the 18th and 19th century who shaped the world of ours. Most of these constitution makers were not legal experts. They were politicians, philosophers and soldiers and persons from other walks of life but they all tried their hand in constitution making. Here is her portrayal of Jeremy Bentham.

 Born in 1748, the son and grandson of successful London attorneys, and precociously brilliant, he himself had been trained in the law. Inheriting a comfortable income and the large house at Queen’s Square Place saved him, however, from having to work at a profession. Instead, he used his freedom and lifelong bachelordom to write, completing ten to twenty pages of script daily, and keeping himself going with hot spiced gingerbread and black coffee, his own version of jogging, and a select stream of politically and intellectually engaged visitors and correspondents from multiple countries and continents. Attacking with his pen a panoply of topics – economics, education, crime and punishment, the ethics and iniquities of empire, the rights of animals and, secretly, the legalisation of homosexuality – Bentham, like so many other politically obsessed men by this stage, also applied himself to studying and drafting constitutional projects.

The book has several nuggets of fascinating information. Do you know that Catherine the Great of Russia showed a great interest, much more than an absolute monarch would show, in the framing of a constitution for Russia? Do you know that the tiny island of Pitcairn in the Pacific was the first place in the world to enfranchise women? Do you know that the 1820 Cadiz Constitution of Spain was dedicated to Raja Rammohan Roy?

Before I read this book, I didn’t know that the American Constitution was drawn in great secrecy. I know about the famous parchment of it which is now at a shrine in the Rotunda of the National Archives Museum in Washington DC attracting millions of visitors every year. Yet, in terms both of the immediate domestic impact of this constitution and its influence outside the United States, something more critical occurred in Philadelphia on 17 September 1787 than its formal communication to parchment. That same day, a copy of the draft constitution was handed over to two printers, John Dunlap, by birth an Irishman, and David C. Claypoole, a native of the city.

Revolutionary army veterans both, these men were the joint proprietors of the first successful American daily, The Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser. On Wednesday 19 September, having trailed its appearance in advance, Dunlap and Claypoole published the draft constitution in full on their paper’s front page. By late October, the text had featured in over seventy other American newspapers. At least 200 different printings had appeared by the end of the year. Well before this, extracts from this constitution had also filtered into newsprint, pamphlets, books, magazines and broadsheets in countries and colonies far outside the United States.” This was the power of print. No wonder, every country wanted a constitution  -Pitcairn, Haiti, Corsica, Liberia, France, Spain, Italy, Japan, China, Russia and several other countries came up with their constitutions in this period.

As Linda shows, advancing epic revolutions and enfranchising white males, constitutions frequently served the ruling classes to marginalize indigenous people, exclude women and people of color, and expropriate land. Simultaneously, however, these devices were adapted by peoples and activists outside the White Circle seeking to resist European and American Colonial powers.


For instance, Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian peninsula caused a great damage both to men and property. But it was he who was instrumental in making the  Bayonne Constitution of Spain. It was Napoleon who helped to foster the spread of written constitutions into the length and breadth of South America, and the spread of knowledge of them into parts of south-east Asia. ‘Napoleon Bonaparte,’ testified a Mexican patriot in the 1820s, ‘to you Spanish America owes the liberty and independence it now enjoys. Your sword struck the first blow at the chain which bound the two worlds.’ This has the uncanny resemblance to the Dalit experience with the British. Yes, the British did a great damage to India but many Dalits considered their influence liberating. Just as Napoleon had no inkling that his efforts would have such effects, the British till the very end, never really thought that they would be liberating the Dalits, socially speaking,  though their interaction with the Dalits lasted for centuries.

In the United States, too the Reconstruction Act  of 1867 was passed with great fanfare but ended in a grim failure. Nonetheless, the Civil War indisputably altered, if not conclusively shattered, the mould. The liberating amendments passed in the wake of this war remained intact in the text of the American constitution. The Republican senator for Massachusetts, Charles Sumner called these amendments a ‘sleeping giant’. In the future, they could be made to wake and to stir again. The architect of emancipation, Abraham Lincoln, was never forgotten by the oppressed. In Linda’s words, “Ambedkar was a dalit, one of India’s caste-based ‘untouchables’. This was one reason why Lincoln and the reforming results of the American Civil War were compelling points of reference for him, to a degree that they were not for more affluent and patrician Indian nationalists such as Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Ambedkar wanted a constitution that would make the new India fairer and more egalitarian, not simply independent and politically democratic. The examples of Lincoln, America’s Civil War and the subsequent constitutional shifts which for a while had promised to transform the lives of excluded Blacks, possessed for him therefore a particular resonance.”

As  Linda quotes, Thomas Jefferson put it in 1802: ‘though written constitutions may be violated in moments of passion or delusion, yet they furnish a text to which those who are watchful may again rally & recall the people’

Please don’t miss this book.

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