Cornell Law Review Volume 94 Issue 1

Daniel Defoe and the Written Constitution

Today, as constitutionalism spreads around the globe, it is embodied de rigueur in written documents: even places that sustained polities for centuries without a written constitution have begun to succumb to the lure of writtenness.  America, we think, spawned this worldwide force, inaugurating a radically new form of political organization when it adopted the Constitution as its foundational text; yet the notion of the written constitution had, in fact, received an earlier imprimatur from the pen of Daniel Defoe—English novelist, political pamphleteer, and secret agent.  Plying his trades in the early eighteenth century, Defoe, now known largely as the author of Robinson Crusoe, advocated the development of written documents setting forth the basic principles of a governmental order—and restraining the power of legislative majorities—in a number of disparate literary and political guises.  Just as the individualist ethos of Robinson Crusoe grabbed the American imagination from the mid–eighteenth century onward, a conception of written constitutionalism similar to the one that he promulgated took root on American soil.  This Article elaborates the contours of written constitutionalism that Defoe outlined and demonstrates the close alignment of some of Defoe’s arguments with the scholarship of today, an alignment that suggests the persistence of  some of the mythic ideals of written constitutionalism that Defoe constructed in the early eighteenth century.

 

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