Why Constitutions Matter

David talks to historian Linda Colley about her new global history of written constitutions: the paper documents that made and remade the modern world. From Corsica to Pitcairn, from Mexico to Japan, it's an amazing story of war and peace, violence, imagination and fear. Recorded as part of the Cambridge Literary Festival www.cambridgeliteraryfestival.com


Talking Points:


Swords need words: conquest generates a demand for writing and explanation.

  • In the mid-18th century, literacy began to increase in many societies and printing presses became more widely available. There’s not much incentive to circulate political texts if you can’t have a wider audience. 
  • The cult of the legislator fed into the idea that iconic political texts could be useful in new and divergent ways.


By the mid-18th century, big transcontinental wars were becoming more common. 

  • Hybrid-warfare is expensive. Navies are hideously expensive.
  • Shifts in warfare fed into constitutions because constitutions function as a kind of contract.


Constitutions can do a lot of things. They can be used to claim territory, for example. 

  • They can extend rights, but they can also withdraw them. 
  • Once something is written down, it becomes harder to change. In addition to spreading democracy, constitutions codified exclusion and marginalization.


Constitutions are sticky; even failed constitutions leave a legacy.

  • People get used to having a written agreement.
  • The Tunisian Constitution of 1861 only lasted until 1864 but it remains important in Tunisian political memory. 


The U.S. constitution had a disproportionate impact, not just—or even primarily because of its content.

  • Because the U.S. press was so developed, hundreds of printed versions emerged very quickly and traveled across the world.
  • When new powers started drafting constitutions, however, they looked at many constitutions, not just the American one. Most modern constitutions are a hodge-podge. 


Mentioned in this Episode: 


Further Learning: 


And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking


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