Vivid and magisterial, The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen reconfigures the rise of a modern world through the advent and spread of written constitutions.
A work of extraordinary range and striking originality, The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen traces the global history of written constitutions from the 1750s to the twentieth century, modifying accepted narratives and uncovering the close connections between the making of constitutions and the making of war. In the process, Linda Colley both reappraises famous constitutions and recovers those that have been marginalized but were central to the rise of a modern world.
She brings to the fore neglected sites, such as Corsica, with its pioneering constitution of 1755, and tiny Pitcairn Island in the Pacific, the first place on the globe permanently to enfranchise women. She highlights the role of unexpected players, such as Catherine the Great of Russia, who was experimenting with constitutional techniques with her enlightened Nakaz decades before the Founding Fathers framed the American constitution. Written constitutions are usually examined in relation to individual states, but Colley focuses on how they crossed boundaries, spreading into six continents by 1918 and aiding the rise of empires as well as nations. She also illumines their place not simply in law and politics but also in wider cultural histories, and their intimate connections with print, literary creativity, and the rise of the novel.
Colley shows how—while advancing epic revolutions and enfranchising white males—constitutions frequently served over the long nineteenth century to marginalize indigenous people, exclude women and people of color, and expropriate land. Simultaneously, though, she investigates how these devices were adapted by peoples and activists outside the West seeking to resist European and American power. She describes how Tunisia generated the first modern Islamic constitution in 1861, quickly suppressed, but an influence still on the Arab Spring; how Africanus Horton of Sierra Leone—inspired by the American Civil War—devised plans for self-governing nations in West Africa; and how Japan’s Meiji constitution of 1889 came to compete with Western constitutionalism as a model for Indian, Chinese, and Ottoman nationalists and reformers.
Vividly written and handsomely illustrated, The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen is an absorbing work that—with its pageant of formative wars, powerful leaders, visionary lawmakers and committed rebels—retells the story of constitutional government and the evolution of ideas of what it means to be modern.
About the Author
Professor of history at Princeton, Linda Colley is the author of books including Britons, winner of the Wolfson Prize, and The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh, a New York Times “Top 10” Book-of-the-Year. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Fascinating and important... 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... This carefully crafted exploration shows how constitutions have helped to bring about an extraordinary revolution in human behavior, ideas and beliefs over the years. Though constitutions are flawed, Colley writes, 'in an imperfect, uncertain, shifting, and violent world, they may be the best we can hope for.' — Roger Bishop - Bookpage
Copiously researched and elegantly written, Colley’s treatise goes beyond the usual Anglo-American focus of constitutional history to show the global impact of the constitutionalist movement. The result is a fresh and illuminating take on these still-living documents. — Publishers Weekly
A book of stupendous range and originality, The Gun, The Ship, and the Pen delivers an ambitious new account of the making of the modern world. Linda Colley has an unparalleled ability to bring together the histories of ideas, politics, and people, and to distill prodigious learning into a narrative that is at once incisively argued and an immense pleasure to read. Rippling with fresh interpretations, startling connections, and remarkable stories, this is a masterpiece of global history by one of the greatest historians working today.
— Maya Jasanoff, Harvard University
Linda Colley’s central proposition—that the pillars of modern nationhood arose chiefly from the catastrophes of war—may surprise as well as enlighten. The book’s astonishing intercontinental scope, though, coupled with Colley’s brilliance, make it a masterpiece. — Sean Wilentz, author of The Politicians and the Egalitarians
From the Mediterranean to Japan, a dazzling, beautifully written, and surprising tale to discover the deep connections between the transformations of modern warfare and the rise of constitutions across the globe. A must read. — M’hamed Oualdi, Sciences Po – Paris
In this ambitious work, Linda Colley seeks to rethink the ‘long’ nineteenth century through the prism of the many constitutions it produced. Written with characteristic vigor and clarity, her book shows the continued validity of ‘big picture’ history in asking searching questions and providing unexpected answers. — Sanjay Subrahmanyam, author of Europe’s India
In this bold, lucid, and wide-ranging book, Linda Colley reveals the international dialogue that created our age of constitutions. — Alan Taylor, author of Thomas Jefferson’s Education
Despite their lofty ideals, constitutions’ many guises across the world repeatedly failed to meet their stated aspirations. Remarkable therefore are our centuries of persistent belief in these documents. With her characteristic skill, erudition, and creativity, Linda Colley, one of our greatest historians, explains this seeming conundrum through a history of the durability of human hope, war, and political imagination. This is a monumentally important book. — Alan Mikhail, author of God’s Shadow
A marvelous tour with a brilliant guide through world history in search of the early adopters of written constitutions—a thoroughly enjoyable read! — Mary Sarah Bilder, author of Madison’s Hand