Beyond the text

For me December 11, 2010 could have been a celebration day, the first anniversary of this blog. However, legal historians might remember there is another time measure in customary law, just a bit longer than one year. After a year and a day it is great to look back to the start of this blog. December 2009 saw a healthy start with a nice number of postings. I was not surprised that I could not maintain the stream of news I published in that month, but somehow I succeeded in posting at least a few items almost every month. This is far below the average number of blog items on other blogs, but this is also due to the start of www.rechtshistorie.nl.

Until now customary law has scarcely figured on this blog. For this posting I had in mind looking at the other end of the legal sphere. In the field of private law codifications tried to furnish among many other things more certainty than unwritten law and customs. Constitutions seem the very embodiment of guaranties for the rule of law in the public sphere. Searching for and editing old constitutions is a specific task for legal historians, but also lawyers searching for the present law have to be attentive to older versions of constitutions.

Many web guides for constitutional law point to websites presenting constitutions in force today. One of the best known sites with this aim is the Constitution Finder at the University of Richmond School of Law. This site has the advantage of not only containing links to (English versions of) constitutions, for some countries it even provides information about drafts or amendments. This website is maintained by law students. The list of National Constitutions of the Constitutional Society is of course impressive, and the gesture to create and indicate different formats is most welcome. I can sympathize with the makers of this site when I noticed that a rather large number of links does not function because of changed web addresses, a perennial concern for any webmaster. Relying on just one website is seldom possible and in fact not wise to do.

For Dutch history it is good to know that not only the constitution of 1848 is important, but also other versions to be found at the site for lawgiving in the Low Countries. The Institute for Dutch History in The Hague has digitized materials for the constitutions of 1815, and also the series of constitutions during the Batavian Republic (1796-1806) because one has also to be aware of the sources concerning the concept for the constitution of 1798. The Institute for Dutch History presents an online research guide for the Batavian-French period (1795-1813).

When comparing constitutions you have to cross national and linguistic frontiers. In my search for websites with constitutions it would not do to look only at texts in English. The German website Verfassungen der Welt is a portal to historical constitutions from Germany, Austria and Schweiz, and modern constitutions from Europe and worldwide in German translation. A project for international constitutional law at the University of Bern offers also overviews of the main event in constitutional history of the nations involved. The Archivio delle Costituzioni Storiche of the Dipertimento di Studi Giuridiche, Università di Torino, brings texts in English, French or Italian translation. The Université de Perpignan has a fine digithèque with many constitutions, often with their historical forerunners and useful weblinks, and also a nice list of major treaties. I have waited to mention The Rise of Modern Constitutionalism, 1776-1849,  a site with facsimiles of constitutions, because one can encounter more at this website only when you enter it from a subscribing library. This situation can help reminding you at least of the fact one cannot read and study constitutions in isolation. An example that has impressed me much is the creation and interpretation of the modern Japanese constitution which cannot be understood properly without bearing in mind the impact of the American constitution and American constitutional thought.

How can websites help you interpreting old constitutions, determining their ancestry and putting clauses and paragraphs into relief? The Liberty Library of Constitutional Classics is almost too famous. For Spanish history the site of the Biblioteca de Historia Constitucional Francisco Martínez Merina at the Universidad de Oviedo present a digital library with works on constitutional law, with also Spanish translations of foreign constitutions. I have to add here the Biblioteca Virtual Constitución 1812, a digital library which presents the Spanish constitution of 1812, and also the deliberations of the Córtes since 1810. Precious services are provided by the website for The Founders’ Constitution, a digitized and searchable version of the 1987 book by Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner. The five volumes of their study contain a wealth of documents which are not only important for the history of the constitution of the United States of America. The site was created by the University of Chicago Press and the Liberty Fund which presents in its Online Library of Liberty also a substantial number of books concerning constitutional history.

Only comparing one constitution with another constitution is just the beginning. Its impact on legal institutions and legal life can be very different. Think only of the vast difference between a legal system in which laws can be reviewed in the light of a constitution, where a supreme court deals with law suits involving the constitution, and a legal system in countries with a constitution where this is not provided for in some way or another.  All this should not hold you from getting acquainted with or revisiting these online resources and make them useful for your research or your curiosity.

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