Book Club

Book Club: The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen by Linda Colley

It’s time again for the Concerning History Book Club, where we recreate the experience of the engaging book discussions we’ve had throughout the years in classes and with each other. This month, Bryan, Kevin, Jeff, and Ryan review The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World, by famed Princeton historian Linda Colley. We had all read Colley’s most notable work, Britons, in a British history seminar in college, so when Bryan and Kevin independently texted each other about this new work of scholarship, it seemed a natural fit for discussion!

RN: To plunge immediately into the spicy takes, I’m going to pose a question: who was this book written for? While I overall enjoyed the content of Colley’s narrative, it read a little to me like a Wikipedia page on war, revolution, and political theory in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. That itself was interesting to a certain extent, in the same sense that Wikipedia articles are full of interesting tidbits and are often rabitholes to more detailed resources, I feel as though this book suffers for trying to distill a head academic subject spanning multiple centuries into around four-hundred pages. With that scope and limitation, you can only get so detailed. As such, a topic of this magnitude (and Colley’s reputation) suggests a serious academic study, but the text and depth more closely resembles a popular historical narrative. And so I ask again: who was this book written for? That lack of clarity only obscures, to me, what the purpose of this text is at all.

KL: Maybe it’s just the scope of an ambitious global history, I couldn’t quite figure out her selection of cases. In how it deals with evidence, the book reminds me a bit of the Wilsonian Moment, pulling cases from global history with limited local context and weak interconnections.

BC: I totally agree, Kevin, and some of those connections just don’t work at all. The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen felt to me like what happens when a modern European historian tries writing transnational or global history: the focus and terminology always seem slightly askew, the wrong trends are emphasized, and the frameworks of global history, imperialism most especially, are ignored. The biggest example of this here was Colley’s insistence on examining the development of constitutions through the lens of what she calls “hybrid warfare.” For Colley, this is the argument that constitutions developed because of the growing expense necessary for nations to pursue a new military model, namely that of large navies working in concert with large land-based forces. This is nothing new in history, though, and the real revolution here is that nations are maintaining professional, permanent forces in this period. The origins of this warfare are also glossed over (European overseas expansion and imperialism), with settler colonialism even at one point being called an extension of hybrid warfare, somehow confusing cause for effect. This downplaying of imperial themes is evident elsewhere, too, when Colley attributes efforts to write constitutions for non-European peoples to the inspiration of Napoleon rather than the much more pervasive, long-standing European racist paternalism evident throughout their overseas empires. In short, while I actually enjoyed much of Colley’s historical material, I had grave concerns with how she went about framing it.

RN: That said, it’s not bad for the most part. Every historical vignette Colley ties into her narrative is interesting and informative and its own right. But the connections between them are a little tenuous, and I often found myself satisfied after reading one chapter, not terribly motivated to keep reading, which brings up another comparison to Wikipedia– or perhaps a coffee table book. It’s chock-full of Neat Historical Facts, but those don’t quite reach the heights of Colley’s aims here, I think.

BC: I think even the subject as a whole is more of a curio than a hard-hitting historical analysis. Who really thinks that the argument “Warfare influenced state formation” is anything new? At the end of the day, how much does it really matter that there was a fad of constitution writing, largely among non-governmental intellectuals, in the nineteenth century? Wouldn’t it be more important to examine which of these constitutions were actually implemented, how they worked (or didn’t work) on the ground, and why they eventually failed or succeeded?

JL: Colley seems to be missing arguably the most important part of constitution-making: obtaining and maintaining the consent of the governed. Colley does very little to explore how constitutions are received or the degree to which they endured beyond their legacy to constitutionalism itself. In pluralistic states (or at least aspirationally pluralistic states), democratic socialization is a far more difficult and unending process than merely drafting a written constitution. This omission is likely a consequence of her focus on breadth rather than depth on the subject. On the other hand, Colley does talk about how constitutions were utilized as a tool of reform and control by authoritarians–a topic not commonly covered and likely included here due to the latitude of Colley’s work.

BC: A great point! Interestingly enough, Colley’s explicit focus on authoritarian governments was actually something I greatly appreciated. We often view written constitutions as inherently liberal devices, but her assertion that they have just as often been used to enshrine the rights and privileges of aristocracies and authoritarians is a perceptive and highly relevant reminder for modern audiences.

JL: And, in a similar vein, I enjoyed how she flipped the relationship and showed how constitutions can be an effort to manifest a nation where one didn’t really exist. Bryan mentioned imperial European paternalism as an important yet underdeveloped theme in Colley’s work, but constitutions (and constitutionesque systems) written by outsiders and imposed on local populations that may or may not be otherwise bound together within a state continues into the modern era.

KL: This begs the question–is there something that could have improved the book, or was there just a mismatch between topic and methods? 

BC: I for one think this should have been more of an intellectual history than a geo-political one. To really grapple with the questions she broaches, Colley needs to have focused on the currents in European (and non-European) thought that leads society to conclude by the nineteenth century that governmental legitimacy rests not in the monopoly of force but within formal, written, covenants with their subjects; her choice instead to examine large global geo-poltiical trends is both at odds with her true focus and outside her realm of expertise.

RN: Structurally, I just want to see more. Most of these problems, as I see it, could be solved with a longer narrative: or even a multi-book series! For the scope of this topic, Gun, Ship and Pen is remarkably short. A longer text would allow Colley to more explicitly draw connections betweens episodes of her wide temporal scope, include and expand on details and caveats she glossed over or excluded entirely, and overall give the book a bit more oompf that it current lacks.

JL: We’ve already covered how Colley misses the implementation piece of constitutions, but I think she unnecessarily further undermines this omission based on how she structures each constitution vignette. Colley chose to use individuals as her touchpoints for understanding written constitutionalism. Her chapters are a parade of statesmen, writers, soldiers, and socialites and their thoughts on and contributions to constitutions, but we hear very little about the wider populations governed by constitutions. This was an individualistic history of a topic that really should have been handled with a more collectivist lens. 

KL: Agreed. This topic could have been well-served by an edited volume, with different chapters coming from specialists in each field strengthening not just each case, but the overall argument of the book.

BC: Couldn’t agree more, Kevin. One of the great difficulties of writing global history is that no one person can truly master all they need to know to write a truly global narrative. Unfortunately, Colley wasn’t quite able to pull that off here, but we can hope others might be able to pull together better efforts in the future!

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