The history of modern constitutions began in the eighteenth century.
The first constitution to enfranchise women, on an equal basis with men, was written and enacted by a British Royal Navy captain in 1838. Even more unlikely, Captain Russell Elliott of HMS Fly created this revolutionary document for the inhabitants of Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific Ocean. Captain Elliott wrote the constitution to protect the descendants of the nine mutineers from HMS Bounty who landed on the Island fifty-one years earlier, and who had become prey to predatory visitors from whaling ships.
This is one of the many stories about the creation of constitutions in the modern era (post eighteenth century) that author Linda Colley has examined in her book “The Gun, the Ship and the Pen”.
Colley claims that the story of constitutions began in 1755, when Pasquale Paoli wrote Europe’s first modern constitution in Corsica, of all places. France, the sovereign nation of Corsica at the time, was embroiled in a war with England, and wasn’t paying much attention to a small Island in the Mediterranean. Paoli took advantage of this distraction to improve the lot of Corsicans.
Colley also claims that the need for written constitutions was driven by the evolving nature of war. As wars grew in size, the financial and manpower requirements to conduct them expanded. That required more taxation, which, in turn, necessitated concessions of “rights”, and wider political participation, to the general populations in order to avoid riots in the streets, and other civil disobedience. The general populations slowly realized the power they held, and they pushed for more concessions, resulting in more and more constitutions around the world. However, it should be noted that most of these constitutions, and the concessions attached to them, were aimed at males, who were needed to fight the wars and pay the taxes. Women, slaves and minorities didn’t do that, so they were not included in the concessions.
Some constitutions were idealistic, but many were more practical. Napoleon Bonaparte used the concept of a constitution to consolidate and legitimize territorial conquest, and consolidate personal power. The apparent idealism of the Founding Fathers of the United States in writing the U.S. Constitution actually provided the U.S. with a legal cloak/justification for the appropriation of land belonging to America’s indigenous peoples.
In Japan, the Meiji Constitution of 1889 cleverly incorporated a mixture of Western principles and Japanese traditions. It also stated that the constitution was a “gift” from the “heaven-descended, divine and sacred” emperor to his subjects. That constitution lasted until 1947.
Constitutions tend to be held up as idealistic attempts to give the common people more rights and privileges. The United States is a prime example, with that ideal being a major part of the Nation’s self-image even today.
The reality of the history of modern constitutions is a little more practical and, perhaps unfortunately, more in line with human traditions.