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Empires of Writing: Britain, America and Constitutions, 1776–1848


Approximately 50 years ago, R. R. Palmer published his two volume masterwork The Age of the Democratic Revolution. Designed as a “comparative constitutional history of Western civilization,” it charted the struggles after 1776 over ideas of popular sovereignty and civil and religious freedoms, and the spreading conviction that, instead of being confined to “any established, privileged, closed, or self-recruiting groups of men,” government might be rendered simple, accountable and broadly based. Understandably, Palmer placed great emphasis on the contagion of new-style constitutions. Between 1776 and 1780, eleven onetime American colonies drafted state constitutions. These went on to inform the provisions of the United States Constitution adopted in 1787, which in turn influenced the four Revolutionary French constitutions of the 1790s, and helped to inspire new constitutions in Haiti, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and elsewhere. By 1820, according to one calculation, more than sixty new constitutions had been attempted within Continental Europe alone, and this is probably an underestimate. At least a further eighty constitutions were implemented between 1820 and 1850, many of them in Latin America. The spread of written constitutions proved in time almost unstoppable, and Palmer left his readers in no doubt that this outcome could be traced back to the Revolution of 1789, and still more to the Revolution of 1776. Despite resistance by entrenched elites, and especially from Britain, “the greatest single champion of the European counter-revolution,” a belief was in being by 1800, Palmer argued, that “democracy was a matter of concern to the world as a whole, that it was a thing of the future, [and] that while it was blocked in other countries the United States should be its refuge.”

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Henry Bertram Hill , “The Constitutions of Continental Europe: 1789–1813,” Journal of Modern History 8 (1936): 8284

Zachary Elkins and Tom Ginsberg , The Endurance of National Constitutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 215–21

David Lieberman , The Province of Legislation Determined: Legal Theory in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), especially 3167.

Frank Prochaska , Eminent Victorians on American Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Marie Therese Flanagan and Judith A Green , eds. Charters and Charter Scholarship in Britain and Ireland (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

George Athan Billias , American Constitutionalism Heard Round the World, 1776–1989: A Global Perspective (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

Frederick Rosen , Bentham, Byron, and Greece: Constitutionalism, Nationalism, and Early Liberal Political Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992)

Karen Racine , “‘This England and this Now’: British Cultural and Intellectual Influence in the Spanish American Independence Era,” Hispanic-American Historical Review 90 (2010): 423–54

Michael Broers , Peter Hicks , and Augustin Guimera , eds. The Napoleonic Empire and the New European Political Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Gabriel Paquette , “The Brazilian Origins of the 1826 Portuguese Constitution,” European History Quarterly 41 (2011): 444–71

Max Edling , A Revolution in Favor of Government: Origins of the U.S. Constitution and the Making of the American State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Jeremy Adelman , “An Age of Imperial Revolutions,” American Historical Review 113 (2008): 337.

Miles Taylor , “The 1848 Revolutions and the British Empire,” Past and Present 166 (2000)

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Law and History Review
  • ISSN: 0738-2480
  • EISSN: 1939-9022
  • URL: /core/journals/law-and-history-review
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