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The Gun, the Ship and the Pen Reviews

The Gun, the Ship and the Pen by Linda Colley

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

Linda Colley

4.23 out of 5

7 reviews

Category: History, Non-fiction
Imprint: Profile Books Ltd
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
Publication date: 11 Mar 2021
ISBN: 9781846684975

Starting not with the United States, but with the Corsican constitution of 1755, The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen moves through every continent, disrupting accepted narratives.

  • The GuardianBook of the Day
5 stars out of 5
24 Apr 2021

" superb retelling of the past, The Gun, the Ship and the Pen will surely make us rethink our present and future"

As with all great history books, the big picture is here, but so is the telling detail, the astute comparison, the arresting and memorable turn of phrase, the suggestive moral for our own times. There are some amazing discoveries: for instance, Pitcairn Island in the south Pacific with its 1838 constitution that enfranchised women as well as men, and also made provision for looking after animals and the environment; and the Norwegian constitution of 1814, which people were encouraged to paste on to the inside walls of their homes.


4 stars out of 5
10 Apr 2021

"a remarkable feat of scholarship on an international scale"

For students of constitutions, the important point is one which Colley makes in one of the many insights in this impressive book. Written constitutions follow a very similar pattern. Many of them could be the constitution of just about any country. What differentiates them is not their terms but the way that they are operated. They depend on a shared political culture which is peculiarly national, a culture in which politicians of radically opposed views are united in their desire to make the constitution work. The world is full of countries whose constitutions are filled with laudable provisions but have been subverted entirely legally by determined authoritarian governments which did not care to make them work. Putin’s Russia and Trump’s America have that much in common.

4 stars out of 5
23 Mar 2021

"Colley offers a global history of politics from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries."

Colley offers a global history of politics from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. She seeks to explain why and how written constitutions became central to modern government almost everywhere. Part of the book’s brilliance is its identification of this phenomenon of the convergence of styles of regime and political community. Colley traces its trajectory from Pasquale Paoli’s Corsica to reforming monarchies in the era of Catherine the Great, through the revolutionary constitutions of the United States, Sweden, France, Haiti, and of Spain and Latin America, to reactive and defensive hybridizations in Pitcairn, Norway, Tahiti, Hawaii, Tunisia and Japan, through to Ottoman Turkey, Republican China, the USSR, Ireland and India, with late echoes in post-apartheid South Africa and elsewhere.

4 stars out of 5
20 Mar 2021

"a well-written contribution to global history"

This book’s many strengths include the emphasis on constitutions being issued both against and for empires after the 1780s; the treatment of the Cádiz constitution, so influential in the Hispanic world; the recovery of Mexico’s provision of 1821, declaring all residents in New Spain to be citizens, without distinction among Europeans, Africans or Indians; and Andrew Jackson’s cruel expulsion of the Cherokees shortly after they had issued their constitution. Digressions will keep the reader engrossed, notably Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an allegory for Napoleon and a portrait of James Africanus Beale Horton. 

4 stars out of 5
Dominic Sandbrook
7 Mar 2021

"Colley’s book has plenty of memorably colourful details"

It’s a nice, quirky story: perfect pub quiz material, you might think. However, the Princeton professor Linda Colley, best known for her prizewinning Britons, uses it as a symbol of something more. Her new book, a marvel of erudition, is a kind of global political history from the Seven Years’ War to the First World War, told through the stories of written constitutions. That might not sound an immediately appealing subject, but Colley uses her constitutions to explore war and diplomacy, mass literacy and high finance, imperial ambition and national identity. 

4 stars out of 5
2 Mar 2021

"Once captured, the prisms through which you see characters, events and sites are twisted this way and that, revealing new, deeper ways of understanding"

Her latest book, The Gun, the Ship and the Pen, on the making of constitutions, differs in being global in reach — though constitutional issues are now high on the political agenda in a UK confronting the rise in Scottish nationalism and the consequences of Brexit. Colley’s story is the shaping of the modern world as told through the documents that seek to encapsulate a common purpose and define, or redefine, power and the rights and responsibilities of states and citizens.

4 stars out of 5
David Aaronovitch
27 Feb 2021

"a bold and bloody history of constitutions"

There are many stories and people in Colley’s book and these were just a few of them. Rarely is a history so satisfyingly broad in outlook while avoiding abstraction and generalisation. It is rich, enjoyable, enlightening and imaginative. Colley takes you on intellectual journeys you wouldn’t think to take on your own, and when you arrive you wonder that you never did it before.