ISA welcomed a distinguished guest to take part in our Liberalism in the Americas lecture series on 21 March 2012: Shelby M. C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton University, Linda Colley. A recording of the lecture, entitled “Liberties and Empires: Writing Constitutions in the Atlantic World, 1776-1848” is available to watch on our youtube channel. There was a big turnout for Colley’s lecture, which was generously co-sponsored by the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies and by the University of London’s John Coffin Memorial Fund.
Colley’s lecture was impressive in its geographic breadth and its depth of analysis of the swift expansion of constitutional practice throughout the Atlantic World, and even beyond. The decades following the American Revolution were marked by an increasingly self-conscious mobilisation of written texts and print culture to inform, display, extend and justify political power around the world, in what Colley referred to as “public and political writing-ness”. One of the core tenets of her argument was to show the multiple contexts within which written constitutions were produced, and the multiple ends to which they were put. In particular, the lecture emphasised the centrality of written constitutions to imperialist projects – American, French, and British – as well as to nation-states; to monarchist systems – in Haiti, Portugal, and Brazil for instance – as well as to republics. With these points, Colley’s lecture echoed conclusions that were made during one of our previous workshops on Liberalism, Monarchy and Empire: Ambiguous Relationships, and the argument put forth by Max Edling in the workshop on Liberal Constitutionalism in the Americas, that the federal constitution of the United States had been designed to strengthen the authority and reach of the central government throughout the union, particularly regarding the settlement of intra-union disputes and the management of international relations.
This perspective was also used to challenge the assumption that British politics was largely unaffected by the wave of constitutionalism and “writing-ness”. On the contrary, Colley pointed to figures such as John Cartwright and Jeremy Bentham who participated in an internationalist dialogue of constitutionalism, penning constitutional proposals for different parts of Europe and Latin America. Much of this activity was underpinned by the assumption that Anglo-Saxons were better equipped to design governing systems and political structures than other peoples, an idea that simultaneously justified and reinforced imperial expansionism on both sides of the Atlantic.Therefore, Colley noted, constitutions, as “engines of improvement and freedom, sometimes merged… with the ambition to manage, control and even invade”.
Colley also identified several fascinating issues that would make productive avenues for future research: in particular, her research has uncovered an extensive body of “amateur” constitution writing across the globe (including a radical figure in New South Wales, who composed a blueprint for a democratic, republican, and imperial Australia in the 1850s), which could yield numerous insights into the transnational circulation of political ideas, local political cultures, print cultures, and alternative visions for political organisation that were on the agenda but never codified into law. Another fruitful avenue Colley suggested was investigating the broader print and literary culture – both elite and popular – of the era, and how constitutions compared to other types of texts designed to inform, reform, control, and demarcate boundaries. This is a particularly important subject given the self-conscious awareness that many constitution-makers of the era had for the “potential of language and texts to mould and to manage”.
Colley’s lecture was followed by an energetic question and answer session. Within this discussion Colley emphasised that, along with many of their contemporaries, British politicians – even as they disavowed constitutionalism proper – recognised that written constitutions were a vital means of legitimising particular political systems, or even particular administrations. This helped to make Colley’s lecture a fitting conclusion to the discussion held earlier in the day at the Liberal Constitutionalism workshop, regarding the central importance of establishing or consolidating legitimacy as a motivation for writing constitutions – a detailed report of this discussion can be downloaded here.
Watch the recording of Linda Colley’s fascinating lecture once more, and please give us your thoughts in the comments section below!