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American Constitutionalism Heard Round the World, 1776-1989

A Global Perspective

George Billias

Publication Year: 2009

Winner of the 2010 Book Award from the New England Historical Association

American constitutionalism represents this country's greatest gift to human freedom, yet its story remains largely untold. For over two hundred years, its ideals, ideas, and institutions influenced different peoples in different lands at different times. American constitutionalism and the revolutionary republican documents on which it is based affected countless countries by helping them develop their own constitutional democracies. Western constitutionalism—of which America was a part along with Britain and France—reached a major turning point in global history in 1989, when the forces of democracy exceeded the forces of autocracy for the first time.

Historian George Athan Billias traces the spread of American constitutionalism—from Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean region, to Asia and Africa—beginning chronologically with the American Revolution and the fateful "shot heard round the world" and ending with the conclusion of the Cold War in 1989. The American model contributed significantly by spearheading the drive to greater democracy throughout the Western world, and Billias's landmark study tells a story that will change the way readers view the important role American constitutionalism played during this era.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

My vision of the republic of letters is broader than most. It acquired an international dimension when not only American colleagues but also foreign scholars came to my assistance. Time as well as space was involved as I became more aware of how much I relied on the findings of past scholars. The borders of my republic expanded ...

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pp. xi-xv

American constitutionalism represents this country’s greatest gift to human freedom. This book demonstrates how its ideals, ideas, and institutions influenced different peoples, in different lands, and at different times for more than two hundred years. But the story of its influence abroad remains largely untold.1 ...

Part I Definitions

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pp. 1

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1. Of Constitutions and Constitutionalisms

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pp. 3-14

On a chilly day in late November 1989, Zdeněk Janíček, dressed in grimy overalls, rose to address a rally of his fellow Prague brewery workers. Janíček and his listeners were among the several million in Czechoslovakia who had walked off their jobs in a two-hour general strike that had brought the country to a standstill. ...

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2. American Constitutionalism Defined: Six Seminal Documents

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pp. 15-50

America’s six founding documents were viewed from a global perspective right from the start. The Declaration was addressed, after all, to the whole world as well as to the American people. Jefferson’s prescient claim in his famous deathbed letter in 1826 established its global import: “[The Declaration is] an instrument, pregnant with ...

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Part II Seven Echoes of American Constitutionalism: A Global Perspective

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pp. 51

Part 2 of this book is organized around seven “echoes,” or peak periods, of American constitutional influence. Each occurred following a war, revolution, or similar upheaval. The first echo, 1776 to 1800, resounded after the American Revolution and set off a round of Americaninfluenced constitutions in northwestern ...

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3. First Echo: Europe, 1776–1800

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pp. 53-104

“The ‘shot heard round the world’ sounded sharp and clear in the Gardens of the Tuileries,” wrote one scholar.1 The first echo of American constitutionalism abroad reverberated through countries bordering the northwest corner of the Atlantic basin and their central European hinterlands. Within the North Atlantic Basin, ...

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4. Second Echo: Latin America, 1811–1900

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pp. 105-141

The second “echo” sounded in Latin America when Europe’s revolutionary upheavals reached across the Atlantic and influenced Spanish American colonists who began their movement to independence with Venezuela’s declaration in 1811. Inspired by the example of British American colonists to the North, they, too, threw off ...

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5. European Interlude:1800–1848

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pp. 142-175

A long interlude separated the two echoes of the shot heard round the world: the era of the American and French revolutions and the European revolutions of 1848. Though continuing, the influence of American constitutionalism did not have as much effect as before. Three distinctive periods of Western constitutionalism ...

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6. Third Echo: European Revolutions of 1848

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pp. 176-200

Writing from Europe where he was serving as minister to England in early March 1848, George Bancroft, the historian-diplomat, observed, “Our republic is teaching Europe to do the same. Of the six great civilised States, two now are republics: and more will follow.”1 Two weeks later, on the eve of the European revolutions ...

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7. European Interlude: 1850–1900 and the American Civil War

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pp. 201-222

European history from 1850 to 1900 may be divided arbitrarily into two periods concerning the influence of American constitutionalism. During the first period, 1848 to 1865, Europe was coping with the effects of two momentous events: the 1848 revolutions and the American Civil War. In the second period, from about 1860 to 1900 ...

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8. Fourth Echo: American Empire

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pp. 223-249

The fourth “echo” of American constitutionalism resounded with the Spanish-American War in 1898, after which the United States strode like a colossus across the world stage to become an imperial power. Winning the war meant acquiring the Philippines and Puerto Rico and ultimately the Hawaiian Islands and the Samoan archipelago, ...

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9. Fifth Echo: World War I to World War II, 1919–1945

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pp. 250-275

The fifth “echo” occurred in the era after World War I when there was an outbreak of democracy in Europe. During this time when monarchies were transformed into republics, many resorted to using features of the American model, issuing declarations of independence, calling constitutional conventions, adopting written constitutions, ...

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10. Sixth Echo: American Crescendo, 1945–1974

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pp. 276-319

World War II ranks as the most momentous event in modern world history. Had the Allies been defeated, Western constitutionalism might have disappeared or else emerged badly deformed. With it might have gone America’s ideas about democracy, the rule of law, and limited government. To indulge in such speculation ...

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11. Seventh Echo: American Constitutionalism and Democratization, 1974–1989

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pp. 320-356

The seventh and last “echo” was distinguished by four major developments. The first was the remarkable surge of democracy that started sweeping the globe. Thirty countries changed from nondemocratic to democratic regimes from 1974 to 1989, doubling the number of democracies to almost sixty.1 ...

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12. Global Consciousness: Then and Now

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pp. 357-372

When formulating the principles of American constitutionalism and creating institutions to realize them, the founding fathers were well aware of their role as innovators. Their goal was to originate for their compatriots a workable and lasting system of republican government. But did they intend something more? ...

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Appendix: A Note on the Historiography of the Influence of American Constitutionalism Abroad: 1776–1989

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pp. 373-376

The historiography on the influence of American constitutionalism abroad from the American Revolution to the breakup of the Soviet empire in 1989 reveals a serious gap in the literature published in the United States. No single historical narrative synthesizes the worldwide influence of American constitutionalism abroad ...


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pp. 377-490


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pp. 491-543

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About the Author

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pp. 544

George Athan Billias is the Jacob and Frances Hiatt Professor of History, emeritus, at Clark University. He is the author, editor, and coeditor of a number of books, including The Massachusetts Land Bankers of 1740; General John Glover and His Marblehead Mariners; Elbridge Gerry: Founding Father and Republican Statesman; ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780814739013
E-ISBN-10: 0814739016
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814791073
Print-ISBN-10: 0814791077

Page Count: 560
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Constitutional history -- United States.
  • Constitutional history.
  • World politics -- To 1900.
  • World politics -- 1900-1945.
  • Mysticism.
  • Constitutional law.
  • World politics -- 1945-1989.
  • Civilization, Modern -- American influences.
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