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  • American Constitutionalism Heard Round the World, 1776–1989: A Global Perspective
  • Carl J. Guarneri
American Constitutionalism Heard Round the World, 1776–1989: A Global Perspective. By George Athan Billias. New York: New York University Press, 2009. 544 pp. $60.00 (cloth).

In recent years scholars have unearthed a paradox at the core of American exceptionalist ideology. According to many of their admirers, U.S. political institutions are the product of a unique history that developed blessedly apart from global trends; once codified, however, they embody universal truths that can (and should) be adopted everywhere. Both sides of this exceptionalist coin turn out to be counterfeit. Contrary to exceptionalist claims, U.S. constitutional arrangements were built upon a deep history of Renaissance and Enlightenment political thought as well as British precedent. When imitated elsewhere they were transformed profoundly by local institutions, cultures, and histories, producing unforeseen and not always happy consequences. In many cases their provisions simply papered over authoritarian arrangements or gave them a democratic veneer. Experience suggests that U.S. constitutional features proved beneficial to other nations only when they fit with local traditions, practices, and aspirations.

These implications for exporting American-style democracy are among the many messages—not always explicit or consistent—that emerge from George Athan Billias's impressive encyclopedic survey of the fate of American constitutionalism abroad. Building on a volume on the same subject he edited two decades ago (American Constitutionalism Abroad [1990]), Billias has undertaken the mammoth task of documenting the impact of American constitutional ideas globally during the two hundred plus years between U.S. independence and the European revolutions of 1989. To make this ambitious program manageable, Billias concentrates on six founding documents (the Declaration of Independence, the first state constitutions, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution of 1787, The Federalist, and the Bill of Rights) and the key features of U.S. constitutionalism that they embody.

Over the course of two centuries, declarations of independence modeled on the U.S. precedent were issued by many new nations breaking their colonial chains, and the practice of adopting written national [End Page 524] constitutions, perhaps the most influential American innovation, became the global nation-building norm. Bills of rights also seemed essential to republican regimes emerging from colonial oppression or local tyranny, although broader versions that encompassed social rights were equally as influential as the American one. Other U.S. constitutional features proved less attractive abroad. American-style federalism initially interested liberal republicans in Europe and Latin America but was not deemed centralized enough to ensure national unity, as the U.S. Civil War demonstrated. Assent to the American principle of judicial review emerged only gradually owing to differences between common law and civil law countries as well as popular preferences for legislative primacy. Finally, undiluted American "presidentialism" was adopted abroad far less than other features, because citizens who had suffered through monarchies or dictatorships feared strongman rule—which in fact emerged in Latin America when presidential power merged with caudillismo.

Billias traces the up-and-down fortunes of these constitutional influences through seven period "echoes," from the Atlantic "Age of Revolution" in Europe and Latin America (1789–1848) and the "Wilsonian moment" promising national self-determination after World War I to the massive decolonization that followed World War II. American Constitutionalism Heard Round the World ends with the wave of democratic constitution making that coursed selectively through continents in the 1970s, climaxed in the Eastern European "Revolution of 1989," and continued with the breakup of the Soviet Union two years later.

By limiting the discussion of constitutionalism to foundational U.S. documents, Billias gives shape and clarity to the book's analysis and can offer detailed comparisons between national constitutions over a huge swath of time and space. The book's panoramic sweep is a major strength, reflecting the author's prodigious research and allowing the work to serve as a reference volume and a point of entry for students and scholars. Another admirable feature is the author's attempt to assess specific influences with precision and evidence rather than inferences drawn from national parallels or resemblances. Of course, in such an encyclopedic volume, the author's case studies...


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pp. 524-527
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