In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Constitutions

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Atlantic History Constitutions
Max Edling
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0014


The age of Atlantic revolutions was also an age of constitution making. From Chile to Russia, from Norway to Malta, political reformers were everywhere busy writing new constitutions. An incomplete list includes more than six hundred constitutional propositions put forward by political reformers in the half century between 1775 and 1825. Yet it is only in the United States that constitutions have become an important field of historical investigation. As a result, the literature on constitutional history in the age of revolution is almost exclusively devoted to constitutional developments in the United States and the American colonies. Elsewhere, constitutional history is a dormant field. Robert Palmer placed constitutional developments at the center of his Age of Democratic Revolution, a work that was crucial to the evolution of Atlantic history, and there is no question that there was much exchange of constitutional documents around the Atlantic rim. Yet as a subfield of historical scholarship, Atlantic constitutional history can hardly be said to exist. One reason may be that the dividends from such investigations are difficult to determine. The adoption of a constitution says little about the evolution of constitutionalism, that is, the principle that legitimate political action is bounded by constitutional law. In most countries other than the United States, constitutionalism was established only long after the period that is conventionally covered by Atlantic history. Nevertheless, it is possible to perceive three fields of constitutional history that have a bearing on Atlantic history: Imperial history, the international history of the American founding, and the influence of U.S. constitutional principles abroad. This bibliography does not aim to furnish the means for comparative constitutional history; instead it provides an introduction to these three areas of inquiry and to the enormous literature on U.S. constitutional history.

General Overviews

Because constitution writing was a central part of the political upheavals of the late-18th- and early-19th-century age of revolutions, much of the literature on the American, French, and other revolutions are relevant to a constitutional history of the era. If Atlantic constitutional history means an attempt to link the events within nations to the Atlantic world, then the literature is very limited, however. Palmer 1959–1964 remains the essential starting point for an investigation of the exchange of constitutional ideas. Dippel 2005 provides a comparative constitutional history that takes the story into the 19th century. Hunt 2007 traces the long-term influence of the French Declaration of Man and Citizen globally. Most of the literature dealing with transnational constitutional influences studies the reception of U.S. documents and principles abroad and are listed under U.S. Constitutionalism in a Wider World. Kirsch 1999 analyzes the spread of the Napoleonic Constitution in 19th-century Europe. Constitutions of the World from the Late 18th Century to the Middle of the 19th Century is an international project that aims to publish not only every adopted constitution but also those that were drafted but not adopted in Africa, the Americas, and Europe from 1776 to 1849. It maintains a web page and publishes printed compilations of documents.

  • Dippel, Horst. “Modern Constitutionalism: An Introduction to a History in Need of Writing.” Legal History Review 73 (2005):153–169.

    DOI: 10.1163/1571819054088670

    Written by the director of a major research project that aims to map the constitutional history of Africa, the Americas, and Europe from 1776 to 1849. Sees the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 as the origin of modern constitutionalism. Comparative constitutional history of the United States and Europe in the 19th century and a call for more works on the history of modern constitutionalism.

  • Dippel, Horst, ed. Constitutions of the World from the Late 18th Century to the Middle of the 19th Century. 28 vols. to date. Sources on the Rise of Modern Constitutionalism. Munich: K. G. Saur, 2005–.

    A collaborative effort by some fifty scholars around the world. The project has collected around 1,500 constitutional documents from the period 1776 to 1849 and estimates that these documents make up about 90 percent of the total documents produced in the period. In addition to the published volumes, the project maintains a website with digital editions of the published works and open access to facsimiles of constitutional documents. See The Rise of Modern Constitutionalism, 1776–1849

  • Hunt, Lynn A. Inventing Human Rights: A History. New York: Norton, 2007.

    Argues that the appeal of universal human rights arose in the 18th century because of the development of empathy, which in turn arose with the rise of the novel. Also includes analyses of American declarations of rights and the French Declaration of Man and Citizen and their influence on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

  • Kirsch, Martin. Monarch und Parlament im neunzehnten Jahrhundert: Der monarchische Konstitutionalismus als europäischer Verfassungstyp—Frankreich im Vergleich. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1999.

    Comparative history that analyzes 19th-century European monarchical constitutions that first made their appearance with Napoleon. Framed within a national discussion of a German Sonderweg.

  • Palmer, Robert R. The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760–1800. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959–1964.

    One of the founding works of Atlantic history. Argues that Europe and the Americas were part of a common sociopolitical transformation in the late 18th century, although with different outcomes. Criticized both for not paying attention to the Caribbean and Latin America and for downplaying the fact that in many countries the revolutions fell far short of being democratic. Still important to anyone seeking to trace the influences on constitutional thought across the Atlantic.

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