The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World (Hardcover)

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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.

Praise For…


If there were a Nobel Prize in History, Colley would be my nominee… An incandescent, paradigm-shifting new book.
— Jill Lepore - The New Yorker

A helpful contribution to this growing field.... Colley’s work echoes that of the great scholar of nationalism, Benedict Anderson.... Interestingly, Colley shows that early constitutions were not simply the result of demands from below.... The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen has important lessons for anyone interested in political development today.

— Sheri Berman - New York Times Book Review

Dazzling.... Colley conducts a vivid worldwide tour of 'a contagious political genre'.... The result is one of the most enthralling, illuminating and inspiring works of global history in decades.... The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen proves that the history of constitutions is too important to be left to constitutional lawyers. This is a big book in every sense: vast in scope, broad in ambition, and rich in stories, convergences and insights.

— David Armitage - BBC History

Colley writes with such elegance and verve that the journey, and the characters it involves, are always fascinatingly worthwhile. This is an original global history that adds to readers’ understanding of the world they live in..... The Gun, the Ship and the Pen is an ambitiously wide-ranging account of the forces that propelled the writing of constitutions – documents that have defined the modern world – from the middle of the 18th century to today.

— The Economist

One of our most imaginative and relevant historians... Colley takes you on intellectual journeys you wouldn’t think to take on your own.
— David Aaronovitch - The Times

Linda Colley’s historical expeditions are often inspiring... revealing new, deeper ways of understanding.
— John Lloyd - Financial Times

In Linda Colley's new book, constitutions fizzle with the energy of war, navigation and power.... She avoids the idea that these documents are gifted to the people by elites.... This fascinating global history shows that while constitutions are surrounded by an ocean of competing interests and violence, read together they tell a tale of how interconnected the story of political hope has always been.
— Peter Chappell - Prospect

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


Product Details
ISBN: 9780871403162
ISBN-10: 0871403161
Publisher: Liveright
Publication Date: March 30th, 2021
Pages: 512
Language: English