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Workshop in the History of Material Texts

Asheesh Kapur Siddique (UMass Amherst), "Documenting the Body of State: Paper and the Matter of the US Constitution"

U.S. Constitution, p. 1

Monday, November 8, 2021, 5:15pm, in person and via Zoom*

*For Zoom information, please please contact Aylin Malcolm.

Our speaker writes:

Historians conventionally understand the Age of Revolutions as a period of transition from early modern to modern statecraft in the Atlantic world, characterized by a set of political innovations in the nature of government. Paramount among these was the creation of nation states founded on the innovation of written constitutions – beginning with the new United States, whose form of written constitutionalism served as a model for other polities. This talk challenges that narrative. Building upon recent scholarship on the relationship between writing and state formation, I argue that the mode of constitution-making inaugurated in the aftermath of the American Revolution represented not an invention of written constitutionalism, but instead a revision of the relationship between document and statecraft in the early modern British empire. Whereas constitutional authority in the empire was conceived to be materialized in the multiplicity of paperwork produced by government bureaucrats and authorized by archival precedents, the new American constitution divorced power from archival authority. Linking disparate historiographies, I force both a fundamental rethinking of the transition between "imperial" and "national" constitutionalism in the early United States, and the role of writing in this transition.  

About our speaker:

Asheesh Siddique is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and currently holds an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship for Assistant Professors at the Institute for Advanced Study. He is completing a book entitled Rule Through Paper: Language and Archive in the Early Modern British Empire. This talk derives from a second project which examines concepts of 'written constitutionalism' in American political culture.

Talks will be held live, in person, in the Class of 78 Pavilion, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. They will also be available via Zoom (please contact us for details). All are welcome. If you would like to receive details on future talks, please sign up for our listserv using this link or visit the Workshop website.

The Workshop in the History of Material Texts is supported by the School of Arts and Sciences through the Department of English and hosted by the Penn Libraries. The co-directors of the seminar are Professor Zachary Lesser (English), Jerry Singerman (Penn Press, Emeritus), and John Pollack (Kislak Center, Penn Libraries).

Associated with the workshop is the book series in Material Texts published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, which includes many monographs that have emerged from presentations given at the workshop over the years.

For more information, please contact Aylin Malcolm.