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Get it in writing: Why we need constitutions

In Linda Colley’s new book, constitutions fizzle with the energy of war, navigation and power

By Peter Chappell   May 2021
Lover of constitutions: Jeremy Bentham painted by Henry William Pickersgill Credit: Alamy

Lover of constitutions: Jeremy Bentham painted by Henry William Pickersgill Credit: Alamy

In 1838, Captain Russell Elliot landed a British warship on a rocky island midway between Peru and New Zealand called Pitcairn, and found a culture in need of a written constitution. Without such a document, American whalers were threatening the livelihoods of two hundred or so inhabitants. Elliot jotted down “a few hasty regulations to be observed.” Pitcairn’s was the first written constitution to make provisions to protect the environment, including a stipulation to preserve a local endangered bird. It was also the first to give equal voting rights to all men and all women. It lasted with few…

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