Revolutionary Manners

Revolutionary Manners

* The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution by Eric Slauter (University of Chicago Press)

Over the past two decades or so, sixty-nine countries–from the nations of post-communist Central and Eastern Europe, to South Africa, to Afghanistan and Iraq–have drafted constitutions. At the same time many other states have revised their constitutions on paper, and even the European Union has tried to get a constitution ratified. Consequently, only a few states in the world are without written constitutions. Indeed, it is almost impossible for many people today to conceive of a constitution as anything but a written document.

It all began with the Americans over two centuries ago. Thomas Paine, writing in 1791 in the aftermath of the American Revolution, told the world what had happened over the previous decade and a half. Until the American Revolution, people had conceived of a constitution as the way in which a government was put together or constituted. But the experience of the Americans in writing their various state constitutions in 1776-1777, and then their federal Constitution a decade later, had transformed the meaning of a constitution. It had become, Paine said, a single written document, a thing that could be picked up and consulted: “It is the body of elements, to which you can refer, and quote article by article; and which contains … every thing that relates to the complete organization of a civil government, and the principles on which it shall act, and by which it shall be bound.” England had talked about its wonderful unwritten constitution for decades, but as far as Paine and the Americans were concerned, England had no constitution at all.

In 1776 Americans had been exhilarated by the prospect of creating their own government. “How few of the human race,” John Adams rejoiced, “have ever enjoyed an opportunity of making an election of government, more than of air, soil, or climate, for themselves or their children.” All previous nations, they told themselves over and over, had been compelled to accept their constitutions from some conqueror or some supreme lawgiver, or had found themselves entrapped by a form of government molded by accident, caprice, or violence. But Americans knew that they were, as John Jay declared, “the first people whom heaven has favoured with an opportunity of deliberating upon, and choosing the forms of government under which they should live.” They became the architects of their constitutions, and thus for them the state became a work of art, a distinctly artificial entity. Drawing out the implications of that idea in the making of the Constitution is the theme of Eric Slauter’s richly imaginative book.

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