The Beginning of the Constitutional Era By Rett Ludwikowski & William Fox Washington, DC. Catholic University of America Press. 1993. 331 pages. Cloth.
Only a few years ago the United States celebrated, with much fanfare, the bicentennial anniversary of the Constitutional Convention. Today many Americans remain at least dimly aware of the character and magnitude of those momentous Founding events which laid the foundations for a political system so successful that it still functions in basically the same form. Some Americans will no doubt also remember that the American founding exerted a noteworthy influence on the political thinking of a variety of important figures involved in the French Revolution, which itself originated at almost exactly the same time that the American Constitution took effect. Relatively few Americans however are comparably aware that in the spring of 1791 the nation of Poland likewise drafted a constitution for itself, albeit one little influenced by the American experience.
The intellectual origins, historical backgrounds, and political events which shaped the American, French, and Polish constitutional movements are the topics of The Beginning of the Constitutional Era: A Bicentennial Comparative Analysis of the First Modern Constitutions. In this well-researched volume, the authors have done a fine job of tracing the intellectual and historical antecedents of these early ventures in constitution-making, devoting significant attention to the historical milieu of each of the three movements. In fact, the preliminary historical and intellectual background forces are given as much attention as are the accounts of the events surrounding the convention proceedings themselves. The authors have presented us with enough data to allow attentive readers to make for themselves comparisons of likenesses and differences between the three constitutional movements.
Granting the considerable merits of this worthy addition to existing scholarship on these three great political episodes of the late eighteenth century, a few critical observations are nonetheless in order. Thus, the diligence of the authors is unfortunately called into question by a factual error on the first page of Chapter One, in which there is a reference to an interval of "twenty one years from the declaration of Independence in 1776 to 1787." But the subsequent text is marred only by occasional lesser mistakes. More disappointing is the fact that this volume contains little anecdotal or biographical data about the major figures involved in the three constitutional movements, thus failing to make the times live again as involving men of flesh and blood. For the most part, the respective movers and shakers are depicted as rationalistic thinkers and robotic actors who dispassionately ushered in one of the truly great transition eras of western political history. It is also fair to say that while the authors have given us a fine volume of political history, their work is devoid of the penetrating insights of such first-rate political analysts as for instance Bertrand de Jouvenel.
One should not however criticize the work too severely for not being what it does not attempt to be. The book purports to be a venture in "comparative analysis," and it succeeds admirably on its own terms. It is impressively documented, and the number and variety of sources cited in the endnotes attest the author's trustworthiness as researchers. The style of the book, while not elegant, is happily free of the specialized jargon and trendy themes which have afflicted so much social science scholarship in recent decades. The attentive reader who will accept the work on its own terms will almost certainly be instructed in a variety of ways.
Confronted with such a wealth of factual data, the reader is virtually required to reflect on the similarities and differences, the strengths and weaknesses, of those three constitutional systems established roughly two centuries ago. Did the idealism of the French Declaration of Rights contribute in some unintended way to the subsequent cannibalistic tendency of the Revolution to devour its own children? Conversely, was the more down-to-earth character of the American Constitution and its concomitant Bill of Rights responsible for the impressive success of the political system based upon it for the next two hundred years, and still counting? Did the relative modesty of the American Constitution's commitment to ordered liberty, but not to egalitarianism in any form, enhance that system's capacity to serve as a rock of stability for generations to come? Did the relatively modest scope of the Polish Constitution of 1791, retaining both king and nobility, enhance or diminish that constitution's prospects for success? Or, alternatively, was the Polish system (which lasted only one year) doomed from the outset by geopolitical factors, i.e., the superior strength of those large, powerful, and distressingly near arch-foes, Russia and Prussia, who proceeded to defeat Poland militarily, and then partitioned her in 1793 and 1795?
While these and other important questions go largely unanswered by Ludwikowski and Fox, they are pointedly brought to the reader's attention. Most of these questions are also relevant to themes of our own day, particularly in view of the recent liberation from Soviet yoke of east central Europe. Those readers who invest the time necessary to ponder those earth-shaking political events of two centuries ago may thus find their efforts well rewarded. The volume certainly aids in understanding the difficulties and uncertainties of those in the newly-emerging European nations who face similar problems and fears of their own.
Michael Bordelon is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Houston Baptist University.