Hello, everybody, welcome to Dance Knows History is now a long time ago, I read a book called Britain's Rose by historian called Linda Collee, and it was one of the great books that helped cement the 18th century, is my favorite bit of history to study.
And it helped me make sense of that century about British identity and about Britain's relationship, both within Britain, Ireland and with the rest of the world. Fantastic book. And Linda Kelly is still one of my distinguished historians in the world. She is professor of history at Princeton University. And it was great to finally have on the podcast. My first time, I finally summed up the courage to ask them to come on the podcast. After five years of doing it, I wasn't ready until now, but it was worth the wait.
And particularly because she has just published her new book. It's All About Written Constitutions, actually done that very rare thing. She sort of created a new field of history where there wasn't really one before she looked at the extraordinary phenomenon of written constitutions of people trying to write down, try and codify the laws that govern a state. From Corsica in 1755 onwards, via the USA, of course, and into the modern world, and she makes a very powerful point.
These constitutions are intimately connected with a gigantic new nature of warfare in the 18th century and its global scale and reach it is super interesting. I'm loving the book reading at the moment. It was fantastic. Talk to Linda. I hope you enjoy as much as I did. You can go and listen to wonderful podcast without the ads. You can also go and watch fantastic TV shows, some of your old favorites, brand new ones being created all the time.
I was just filming a great new one the other day. A breaking news story in the world of history that you enjoy. You can go and do all those things at history, hit TV, you go to history, hit dot TV, you sign up for a small subscription. You join a revolution that is sweeping across the world, a new historical revolution. Join the team. See you there. In the meantime, though, I enjoy this chat with Linda.
Linda, it's a huge honor to have you on the podcast, thank you for coming on. Pleasure. It's such a clever idea this why did people start writing down constitutions like you mentioned, that they so long did it in Athens? But what was different about this early modern period? What was going on there?
Well, I think what's changing in the 18th century, well, various things are changing. First of all, print is really taking off. Literacy is growing not everywhere, but again in many parts of the world. So the idea of not just having a single set of rules of government for members of the elite, but documents that you can communicate to your wider population becomes easier because you've got print, you've got greater literacy. But the cause, I think, and I argue in this book, is changing nature of war.
You can see in diagrams the recurrence of really large, expensive, much more far flung wars takes off after seventeen hundred. What does that mean? Well, because warfare is getting bigger and more recurrent, you often need to raise taxes more. You need to rally more men and maintain, if you can, popular support. And so the idea of these texts grows, I think as a kind of contract. We will the rulers guarantee you more rights, perhaps even the vote in return, things like war service, things like higher taxes, that's the other side of the deal and that's increasingly spelt out.
So part of the reason why you're getting more texts like this is print literacy. But the crucial thing, I believe, is a rather different quality of war and the demands that it poses. You see, this is what I love about your book, because on the one hand, you're encouraging me to get kind of excited about these enlightenment ideas of kind of modern government and rights, although very, very arbitrarily acknowledged, you know, some groups within society not having its orbit.
And it will come to that. But on the other hand, this is a good old fashioned fiscal military state, 18th century story about how these states just start to reinvent themselves as just of war machines. But surely somebody like you look at the French philosophers like Rousseau, they were interested in making war, but they were interested in finding our governors to kind of making them act within the law.
Well, even Rousseau waiver that being one of Rousseau's fantasies was that he would become a marshal of France. The likelihood of that was not great. But I think even the great French philosophers, the Montesquieu was so simple test. The Deidre's understood that the pressure of war was increasing. And therefore, in a sense, what they often did was address monarchs and rulers and say, look, you've got to rethink your schemes of government here on issues of rights.
Here are issues of reforming your state, but also making it more effective that you should be thinking about. And the French philosophers are quite realistic men, and indeed some of them have close links with the army. Multiskilled was the son of a senior French army officer married to the daughter of a senior French army officer. So these people understand or have an instinct about what is happening with wars and the burdens this is placing on states, and that perhaps this will be a way to persuade monarchs to take issues of reform more seriously.
I don't want to be narrow minded here, but is the example of England and Britain important here, you look at Montesquieu and although of course Britain's complicated, it doesn't have a written constitution, but it had to sort of constitute wasn't just governed by an arbitrary prince in the 18th century, always thought not to be. And is the British example where there's a government that is answerable to parliament, elected through some kind of semblance of a representative electoral system?
Is that an important example to the French in particular? It is.
And of course, one of the interesting things about the British example is that it seems an exception to what I'm arguing, because after all, Britain is constantly at war, but it still doesn't have codified constitution. But you could argue that actually Britain hits the curb fairly precociously earlier than many other parts of the world because Britain has its really destructive internal wars, much more in the 17th century. You've got the civil wars of the 16, 40s and 50s.
You've got the Dutch invasion, the so-called glorious revolution of sixteen eighty eight. And it's very interesting to see that with those damaging internal conquests. What do you get? Lo and behold, you get new constitutional texts. The Levellers in the 60s and 40s want a written constitution. Oliver Cromwell in sixteen fifty three actually implements one for a while, the instrument of government and in sixty eighty eight you get the Bill of Rights, a phrase that the Americans are going to borrow so many of the political changes that the French people like Montesquieu tend to admire in 18th century Britain, a much stronger parliament.
They have actually been assisted in the 17th century and they've been assisted in part by war. And this very precocious constitutional writing, which, of course, then the British official line is that, oh, that's all forgotten. No, we've never had a written constitution. Well, it's not quite right.
And it's a kind of de facto constitutional upheavals of the 90s and the early noughties, the only the 18th century when triennial parliaments, things like that. I mean, the executive found itself quite bound, if not by one particular codified document.
Yeah. And that was always a growing set of constitutional documents in Britain. Indeed, you could argue that one of Britain's problems now in the early 21st century is that it has far too many constitutional documents and statutes. But these have not been systematised into a discrete, codified constitution. But that's another argument. But what the British did do increasingly in the late 18th, 19th, early 20th century, as their counterpart to the written constitution that other states were increasingly generated, was there was a big cult in Britain of constitutional history.
If you look at the number of books called constitutional histories issued in London and Oxford and Cambridge and Edinburgh and Dublin there shooting upwards really from the eighteen twenties and studying books about British constitutional history was a kind of poor relation to having a written constitution, because if people wanted to know how the British state was supposed to be run, people could say, Oh well, go and read that book. Now, that's not remotely the same as a written constitution, but it is serving as a source of dissemination and information, which is part of what only part of what proper constitutions do.
These kind of weird histories, they were that weird, but they became kind of canonical, oddly, didn't they? I was struck reading a book. I found the politics student and the history student within me kind of conflicted. I thought this might be a story about the Enlightenment, but in fact, it was a story about nationalism and about people asking the government for constitutions so that they could be included in this national endeavor of greatness. Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn't, I mean, Ruelas increasingly say or can see written constitutions as something that can work for them and also as a way of almost propagating the image of the state, not only to their own subjects, but to other people.
A written constitution really does become an emblem of political modernity so that when Japan has effectively a revolution in the 18th sixties and wants to relaunch itself as a modern state, its new rulers understand quite well. That involves issuing a written constitution, which they do in the late 80s. So these texts are serving rulers interests in part, but there's also a demand from below. It gets linked up with the demand for wider suffrage, for wider rights, for wanting to know how your state is operating.
And as time goes on and these things develop, people from below get more and more ideas about what a written constitution can do, not just for their rulers, but for them. And that partly explains the huge size, for example, of the Indian constitution brought together in the late 1940s after they kicked the British out. It's huge, but it's full of all sorts of provisions, like rights of labor, welfare, all sorts of things. And people have now shown that even ordinary Indians and even though this is a vast, complex document, there's been a lot of law cases brought by fairly ordinary Indian men and women saying, oh, no, you can't treat me like this because it's in the Constitution and I'm claiming this right.
And I think that the degree to which constitution service power and the degree to which they can be used to constrain power is a very interesting tension that you see again and again.
It really comes out all the way through your book. I find that fascinating. Chromeo isn't from the government, I think is the first constitution in this way, but it is the US process hugely important. Why now? Is it seen as Dirigo? But why does it seem to go in Japan, in India after partition? Is it the example of America in the 70s and 80s?
One of the things I wanted to do in the book was to show not least my wonderful American colleagues that this wasn't just a case of America. First, you can see the momentum behind constitutions quickening really from the 17th 50s. There's an important Corsican constitution in seventeen fifty five when Corsica tries to become independent. That's a very interesting Swedish constitution written constitution in the early seventeen seventies. So America is not the first, but it becomes important partly of course, because it's followed this extraordinarily significant revolutionary war with the British, which the Americans have managed to win a war that is in many ways a global war in the end.
So that sort of boosts the significance of its constitution. Also, it's a very interesting constitution. It's a very short constitution to really short, and that makes it very easy to publicize in the newspaper press and in pamphlets. And America is a very fast growing print culture in the late 70s and 80s when its constitution is issued. And not only does the Constitution appear throughout the American newspaper press, it also gets picked up, paradoxically, by the British press.
Britain ships copies to all over the world. London is the world's biggest port, so it's partly that the publicity is superb. It's partly that the American Revolution has dramatized what is going on. And of course, there are remarkable men involved in this constitution making in Philadelphia in 1787, like Hamilton, like George Washington. Like Benjamin Franklin, and this really sort of raises the profile, so America begins to establish itself. This is our brand. This is our trademark, the codified constitution.
But in historical fact, they were not first. It is the denseness history I'm talking to the history legend that is Linda Colly. More after this. OK, Treston, you got 50 seconds. Go right. So don't give me a few seconds to sell the Ancients podcast. What is the ancients? I hear you say, well, it's like a dance show, except just ancient history. We've got the groundbreaking new archaeological discoveries and it seems to be the oldest known dated depiction of the animal world.
As far as we can tell anywhere in the world. We've got the big names.
It's these great things, Pohnpei. It's kind of forever rising from the dead and from destruction.
We've got the big topics. The man, seven legends in a day. No one in history has done that.
Subscribe to the ancients from history hit wherever you get to your podcast from. Oh, and Russell Crowe, if you're listening, we would love to have you on the ancients. Spread the word. People spread the word. Is your mattress making noises it never used to or is it sagging causing you to then it's time to get a new one.
Get the best sleep at the best value with a Nektar mattress, prices start at just four hundred and ninety nine dollars and you get three hundred and ninety nine dollars in accessories thrown in a three hundred and sixty five night home trial and a forever warranty. Go to Nektar sleep dotcom.
Thinking as much of you about constitutions, it's interesting that in recent times, particularly the debate moment in progressive circles around things like the filibuster, which of course is not in the Constitution, interestingly, but perhaps if you look at the the way elections are allocated within the Constitution to be controlled by states rather than the federal government, things like that, the Constitution now appears to many progressives as actually a kind of restraint, a rather recidivist document that some stopping the US government meeting the challenges of things like the climate crisis or increasing investment infrastructure, whatever it might be.
Do you think the era of constitutions might be coming to an end? I think there are new pressures. I mean, there are particular pressures in the United States when the founders created their constitution in 1787. They were really worried as to whether the union was going to hang together and they wanted to create a document that couldn't easily be altered. So changing the content of the American constitution is incredibly difficult. Still, I think it needs the support of about three quarters of the states to make a serious remodeling of the American constitution.
Well, you'd never get that at the moment. And I'm one of the many causes of the increasing paralysis and inefficiency of US government and politics, arguably, is that their constitution is hard to alter if you compare it with another fairly old constitution, the Norwegian constitution of 1814, which is still going. But the Norwegians in 1814 made it quite easy to amend this constitution and it's been constantly amended. The American constitution has only been amended relatively few times and it's been very difficult to do so.
So I think that's a specific problem for the Americans. Bigger challenges for written constitutions, codified constitutions, you could argue, comes with the rise of digital technology. The people who really started written constitutions spreading in the 18th century took the printed word on paper as the norm. That was how the machine was to work. But increasingly now most people get such political information as they want and receive from the screen, and it comes from a wide and widening variety of sources.
So where does that leave a single document constitution that is supposed to set the rules when people are increasingly being blizzardy by political information through a screen coming from multifarious, sometimes suspect sources?
How should we think about the relationship between constitutions and nationalism? I mean, they feel like profoundly national documents, assertions of a new kind of state. Constitutions usher in a new era of the nation state, what is the impact of one on the other? Do you think it can be very close? Not all states that have made use of written constitutions have been nations by any means. Empires like the Chinese empire in the past. Arguably, the Chinese have out like the Ottoman Empire used constitutions.
But obviously, as the number of nation states has risen, it has become Derica for them to have their own constitution again, to advertise their brand, not just to organize themselves, but to proclaim their existence and to proclaim their parity with other nations. I think it's very interesting and suggested that the Scottish National Party has said that if Scotland succeeds and becomes independent, they will be sure to have a codified constitution, a written constitution. Similarly, when part of Ireland succeeds in the early 1920s after the Irish Rising, Dublin creates a written constitution almost immediately.
And in fact, it publishes this new Irish constitution in a big book side by side with other nations constitutions. And this is a deliberate propaganda act. We have now joined the big boys. We are not tied to the United Kingdom and rolled from London any more. We are an independent state. We have a written constitution.
We all you must have read a lot of constitutions in the course of this book. What are some of the things that strike you that they all have in common? Is it that assertiveness?
That is a common assertiveness, but what also strikes me is that extreme diversity, actually what they choose to say and stress, because, of course, nations, yes, they want to assert that there to a degree on a par with other nations. But they also want to stress that they're different, they're distinctive, they're special. So what they choose to emphasize can be rather different. And it is one of the things that really motivated me when I wrote this book.
I'd like people who are interested in literature and writing and the use of words to look at these documents, written constitutions with fresh eyes because they're often seen as rather arid, purely legalistic texts. Nobody thinks of the. As being on a par with other modes of the written printed word usually, but in fact many of those who wrote constitutions in the past also engaged in other kinds of writing. They were novelists. They were journalists. They wrote pamphlets.
They wrote books. So read in constitutions is part of understanding world literature, if you like, since the 18th century, some of them are really free. Key texts have to. I guess my last question is I converted to the constitutions, enshrine these universal values for all time or whether they are actually shackling societies to a decision made by a generation of dead people. One hundred years ago, did you come away thinking constitutions are a kind of enlightened development, or are they often like, I've got a ball and chain, like a hugely conservative restriction on our ability to decide how we want to organize society?
Well, I suppose the glib answer to that, what the true answer is that both or they can be both. Some of the people who really found that out was women and people who went white very often in the 19th century because, OK, women had generally been excluded from the political process in most states. But when you get written constitutions coming in, which say, as they mostly do say before nineteen hundred, the vote will go to these men, the parliament will be made up of these men, it makes it much more difficult for women wanting to change things, to alter the rules because people say, oh, yes, but these rules are in our Constitution.
I'm sorry, but that's just the name of the game. Once you put something into print, into words, yes, perhaps if you're lucky, it will guarantee you rights, but it may also serve to exclude certain groups or exclude certain possibilities. And often Constitution writers have wanted to do both that give with one hand. They sometimes take away with the other. OK, I said I was mad because I got one more if I could use a giant experiment where you actually work out that Constitution made any difference, either they get modified so much that it's just like not having a constitution or they just get a band.
You have states that have enacted constitutions, outlived other states, constitutions, a success. I think they have been a success in the sense that if you look at states which issue a written constitution, even if it doesn't last, even if it has been very good and collapses, you never ever, I think, find a state that's probably a few exceptions, but not many. You never find states which haven't had a written constitution then subsequently say, now you know what, it's a lousy idea.
We're not going to do it in the future. We're just going to have some kind of amorphous set of rules. And that seems to me to be indicative. Thomas Jefferson put it very well, and I quote this at the end of my book in 18 02, 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 and recall the people. And that seems to me to be a reasonably fair and balanced estimate.
What's the shortest constitution you came across in all your studies?
It probably is the American Constitution.
Yeah, OK, well, it's always worth a read. Well, thank you very much indeed for coming onto this podcast. It's been a huge pleasure having you having read your books all my life. What is the name of this latest one?
The gun, the ship and the pen. Warfare constitutions and the making of the modern world don't get it, everybody is brilliant. Thank you very much indeed.
Thank you for helping create this part in the history of our country. Oh, my God. And. I want thanks for reaching the end of this podcast. Most of you probably asleep, so I'm talking to your snoring force. But anyone who's awake, it would be great if you could do a quick favor, head over to wherever you get your podcasts and rate it five stars and then leave a nice glowing review. It makes a huge difference for some reason to how these podcasts do.
Martinus. I know, but them's the rules. Then we go farther up the charts, more people listen to us and everything will be awesome. So thank you so much. I'll sleep well.