Quilled into Existence: How to Write a Constitution by Linda Colley

Linda Colley

Quilled into Existence: How to Write a Constitution


Gouverneur Morris was born in 1752 in what is now the Bronx district of New York. He died in 1816, some eight months before Jane Austen. Like her, he was addicted to writing: ‘write’ is indeed one of the words that occurs most frequently in his voluminous diary. Even when old age and illness set in, this did not change. ‘Another year is gone for ever,’ he notes morosely one late, cold January. Then immediately he adds, almost as a spur to himself, ‘Write.’

Morris’s writing took many forms. As well as maintaining a diary, he penned poems in multiple languages to the many women he seduced over the years in Europe and the United States (‘I know it to be wrong, but cannot help it’). He translated lines from Greek and Roman classics and produced pamphlets on finance and commerce. He also wrote the American constitution, quite literally. One of the fifty-odd delegates who met in Philadelphia over the summer of 1787 to draft this document, Morris chaired the constitutional convention’s ‘committee of style’ (the fact that a committee of this sort was judged desirable is suggestive). It was Morris, James Madison records, who was chiefly responsible for ‘the finish given to the style and arrangement’ of the American constitution. Most dramatically, it was he who replaced its initial matter-of-fact opening with one of the most influential phrases – and pieces of fiction – ever devised: ‘We the People of the United States…’

I say fiction because ‘the People’ in general had actually had little to do with the drafting of the American constitution. This was also a calculated piece of fiction on Morris’s part, in that his rewrite of the constitution’s opening lines summons up a united and unanimous American nation that in 1787 emphatically did not exist.

Yet notwithstanding this conspicuous example of an experienced man of letters being drawn into the business of constitution writing, and for all that many constitutions contain a high quotient of invention and imagination, this particular genre rarely gets included in our conception of literature. In part, this is because we tend to think of the creation of constitutions as the somewhat arid preserve of specialists: lawyers, politicians, civil servants and the like. Yet this makes limited sense. Today, as in the past, people involved in the fields of law, politics and state bureaucracy are often keen readers and also sometimes writers (Morris himself was a lawyer). Moreover, especially before the First World War, men in other professions frequently engaged in the writing of constitutions as well. For Napoleon Bonaparte, for instance, this was just one expression of a much wider obsession with the written word. When young, he had tried his hand at writing novels and history. As a general and later an emperor, Napoleon took a printing press with him on his campaigns and frequently turned his pen to constitutions. He took barely an hour, recorded a Polish witness in 1807, to dash out a constitution for the Duchy of Warsaw, ‘only from time to time’ bothering to ‘turn to us and ask if we were content’.

Soldiers, in fact, have featured regularly as constitution writers (and as other kinds of writers), and not just in the West. General Husayn Ibn ‘Abdallāh was an army officer closely involved in the making of the Tunisian constitution of 1861, the first to emerge from a Muslim state. He also ran a newspaper and wrote books for children. Itō Hirobumi, the prime author of the Japanese constitution of 1889, was another military man, and one who enjoyed writing poetry in classical Chinese. Again and again, across continents, one sees examples of individuals drawn to writing constitutions while simultaneously being engaged in using the written word more generally. Not all of them were military men. Kang Youwei was a philosopher and reformer. Sent into exile from his native China and eager to see a constitution introduced there, he travelled widely in the early 1900s, studying the genre in different locations. He was also an expert calligrapher who in his spare time invented his own typeface.

But it is not just in regard to their producers that one sees the overlap between constitutions and literature more broadly. Written constitutions became progressively more widespread from the mid-18th century onwards. It is scarcely a coincidence that this same era was a time in which levels of literacy and the number of novels published were on the rise, printing presses were becoming more widespread and versions of the Enlightenment were proliferating. The United States’ own constitution would scarcely have become so embedded or so well known without these other developments. Newspapers, for instance, doubled in number in America between 1760 and 1775, and had done so again by 1790. Consequently, only two days after Morris had administered his final polish to the prose, the draft text of the American constitution was published in a Pennsylvania newspaper. By the end of October 1787, it had appeared in seventy more US papers.

The audience for such printings could be very high, especially when brand-new political entities were involved. When California issued its first state constitution in 1849, for instance, it published ten thousand copies of the text, a number that would have represented a good first printing for a mid-Victorian novel (and would be an even better one for a novel by a first-time author now). Why this level of confidence on the part of the publishers? Because this first Californian constitution set out and formalised the boundaries of the new state, detailing the land seized from Mexico and Native Americans. Not just political pundits, therefore, but also potential settlers, gold-diggers and land speculators were all likely purchasers of a copy.

As this suggests, constitutions are rarely only to do with matters of law and government. They often tell stories, spin tales and broadcast claims, and they are sometimes economical with the truth. They also often appeal to idealists and utopians, to individuals like Kang Youwei eager to envision a new kind of society. Savvy publishers recognised this early on. From the 1790s, it became common for collections of different constitutions to be issued together in omnibus volumes. This format allowed curious readers, political enthusiasts and would-be constitution writers to compare and contrast rival models of how to organise a society. Again, customer take-up was often sizeable. Immediately after the Russian revolution of 1905, a supporter published a collection of modern constitutions so as to inspire his countrymen to undertake political change. The first fifteen thousand copies flew off the shelves, obliging him quickly to issue another edition.

This fashion of publishing single and omnibus copies of different political constitutions helped to nurture a cultural practice that has barely been registered, never mind explored. Individual men avidly reading literature of this sort but acting in a private capacity sometimes went on to design their own constitutions for a real or imagined location, trying their hand at producing texts of this sort just as they might experiment with poetry, novel writing or keeping a journal. The diary of Queen Victoria gives us an example of this trend. In 1848, a year of revolutions throughout continental Europe and beyond, she recorded how her husband, Prince Albert, ‘wrote down excellent proposals for a Constitution for Germany’, which, she adds proudly, ‘if adopted might be of great & lasting use’. One notes, however, that it was Albert who tried his hand at this. By some criteria, Victoria was the most powerful woman of the 19th century. She was also German by heritage and loved to write. But, in contrast with Albert, she seems never to have attempted to sketch out a constitution – for Germany or for anywhere else.

In that respect at least, Victoria was typical of her sex. To be sure, there are examples of earlier female monarchs, such as Catherine the Great, drafting significant law codes. There are also instances of radical women composing declarations of rights, and there are many more examples of women drafting constitutions for schools and charitable bodies. But, as far as I have been able to discover, there are hardly any examples of women anywhere before the First World War venturing to write political constitutions, even as a purely private cultural exercise within the confines of their own homes. And this is striking given what we now know about the growing number of women, especially in Europe and America, venturing into publishing after 1700. For all the steadily rising numbers of published female authors, women appear to have viewed political constitutions before 1914 as ‘a shape’, in Virginia Woolf’s words, ‘made by men out of their own needs for their own uses’.

I stress the word ‘appear’. It is possible that texts of this sort by female authors do in fact survive in private archives or exist as segments of obscure pamphlets but that they have been overlooked, just as constitutions often get overlooked in general terms, or at least get taken for granted. Of course, these are texts that are sometimes scrutinised very seriously and intently indeed, but usually only in a limited and compartmentalised fashion, as contributions to and would-be anchors of the laws and the political organisation of states. Yet constitutions can be eloquent about much more than that. They can tell us about patterns of literature and authorship, about cultural changes in different regions of the world and about the uses and contrivances of words and publishing. We need to look at them more, and also look at them afresh.

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