Aren’t constitutions about promoting rights, liberties, and freedoms? Linda Colley disagrees. Colley, a professor of history at Princeton University, is most recently the author of The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen, a globe-spanning – and often deeply surprising – history of written constitutions. The spread of constitutions around the world, she discovers, is intimately linked with war.
Constitutions were meant to provide rulers with men and money for warfare: they were “bargains on paper”, exchanging some rights in return for conscription and taxation. These hallowed documents actually restricted the rights of many individuals, especially women and indigenous peoples.
In this episode of Past Imperfect, Colley discusses how the role of constitutions has changed over time, including in the present worldwide lurch towards right-wing authoritarianism.
Some constitutions, like that of the United States, might now be too old to properly work. Colley outlines the various influences on Indian constitutional thought, especially that of Meiji Japan.
Dinyar Patel is an assistant professor of history at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Researchin Mumbai. His award-winning biography of Dadabhai Naoroji, Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, was published by Harvard University Press in May 2020.