by Beau Breslin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 232pp. Cloth $50.00. ISBN: 9780801890512.

Reviewed by Keith E. Whittington, Department of Politics, Princeton University. Email: kewhitt [at] Princeton.EDU.


Beau Breslin is an associate professor of government and assistant dean of the faculty at Skidmore College. FROM WORDS TO WORLDS is his second book, and his second with Johns Hopkins University Press. This one is published as part of the newly active Johns Hopkins Series in Constitutional Thought, now under the editorship of Sandy Levinson and Jeff Tulis. It is perhaps best described as a work of comparative constitutional theory.

Its inclusion in the series is particularly appropriate because Breslin’s new book is in many ways a nice realization of the form of constitutional studies associated with the “Princeton group,” a loose set of scholars connected with Walter Murphy in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of those scholars shared an interest in “a constitutionalist’s concern for constitution making, maintenance, and change” (Barber and George 2001, 2 [emphasis deleted]). This tradition of grand constitutional theorizing represented by the Princeton group and others was less concerned with justifying judicial review and guiding Supreme Court decision-making than with what functions constitutions perform within the political system and what the conditions of constitutional success might be (Whittington 2000). For Murphy in particular, such investigations led in a naturally comparative direction. His “Constitutional Theory” graduate seminar was rich on questions of constitutional design and nation-building, featuring literatures on such problems as civil-military relations and the establishment of educational systems in new nations. One fruit of the seminar recently appeared in the form of Murphy’s (2007) own book in the Hopkins series. Levinson and Tulis were both among the group of scholars who were associated with Murphy during that period. Breslin’s new book likewise reflects traces of some of the concerns that occupied his advisor, Will Harris, a Murphy student. As Harris (1993, 2) explored the conceptual difficulties of “the bonding of word and polity,” so Breslin is interested in how societies make the move “from words to worlds.” Where Harris was resolutely abstract and analytical, however, Breslin writes accessibly and grounds his analysis in comparative examples.

Breslin’s approach is to focus on constitutional texts. They are, he observes, important political documents in their own right and a building block of polities. Breslin is concerned, however, that constitutional scholars too often forget the text as they examine either the “legal” constitution or the “political” constitution, and too quickly move past the text itself to examine the legal doctrines, institutions, practices and cultures that grow up around and from the text. If “constitutions matter,” he [*338] suggests, then the distinct texts that different peoples adopt are worthy of study. Of particular interest to Breslin is the possibility that constitutions “help to form collective public identities; they help to shape a country’s public character” (p.4). They have the “ability to envision a distinct political community” (p.5). Examination of constitutional texts can help inform us of the kinds of political communities that different peoples have envisioned for themselves over time. Breslin is not interested in textualism as an interpretive strategy for understanding constitutional meaning. His interest is in the textuality of constitutions and content of comparative constitutional texts.

He posits that constitutions perform at least seven functions, and the book is organized to address each. Constitutions might 1) destroy an old regime and create a new one, 2) articulate collective aspirations, 3) structure governing institutions, 4) manage political conflict, 5) provide official recognition to minority groups, 6) empower institutions to make decisions and take action, and 7) limit government power. The book is designed to illustrate the fact that constitutions perform these functions and to observe some features of the constitutional choices involved in performing these functions.

This list of functions follows the order in which they are presented in the book. As a list, this organization does not seem quite logical. The chapters discussing these topics are largely independent from one another, but there is a choice to the structure. Breslin self-consciously decenters, if not necessarily subordinates, the function of constitutions that we tend to most emphasize, their power constraining function. Many would start with this issue, but Breslin chooses to save it until the end. Moreover, his discussion of constitutions as limiting government is paired with (and follows after) a discussion of constitutions as empowering government. In keeping with his broader theme, his opening chapters focus on constitutions as instruments of political transformation. The creation of a new political regime is now marked by the adoption of a constitution that overturns the old order and “represent[s] the birth of a new community” (p.31). In this new beginning, constitutional drafters are prone to using the occasion to telling a story of peoplehood that outlines a particular vision of national identity and political aspiration. Once Breslin has discussed these symbolic beginnings of a constitutional regime, often embedded in constitutional preambles or the very idea of adopting a new constitutional text, then he turns to functions associated with the operational features of the constitution and the management of political groups and conflicts that plays out across the remaining chapters in the book.

The individual chapters take the form of learned essays on each of these functions, with two introductory chapters on the textuality of constitutions and relationship between constitutions and constitutionalism. They are not analytical in argumentative style, nor do they systematically examine a variety of constitutions. Instead they offer meditations on a given issue, in dialogue with existing literature and informed by examples from across the globe and history. Thus, the chapter on constitutional aspirations observes [*339] that modern constitutional texts routinely imagine “a brighter political future” (p.47), and modern preambles have frequently become the place for drafters to “tell[] a story of oppression . . . and embrace[] the idea of the text as an instrument to achieve meaningful political and social reform” (p.51). Examples ranging from Cambodia to Bulgaria to Mozambique to Poland are offered to elaborate the point. On the other hand, his chapter on the use of constitutions to provide official recognition to minority groups references the American and South African case but primarily focuses on an extended case study of the Canadian constitutional experience, from the Constitution Act of 1867 to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982.

On the whole, FROM WORDS TO WORLDS is probably one of the most successful works of genuinely comparative constitutional theory to emerge recently. Breslin does not simply write about the American case or problems of American constitutionalism and reference a couple of foreign examples. He builds his understanding of constitutionalism on a broad foundation of thinking about what role such texts might play within political systems, particularly in new political systems, and the problems and examples that are front and center in the book and in his conceptualization of constitutions and what they do are not centrally or uniquely American. Breslin’s writing is also readily accessible, and the book could easily be assigned to undergraduates. His points are clearly developed, and his examples are illuminating.

The target audience for the book is less clear. It would function reasonably well as an introduction to constitutionalism. The essays rarely make evident what point, if any, they are contesting within the scholarly literature or how exactly the perspective offered here would alter prevailing understandings of constitutions and how they operate. Breslin’s chapter on how constitutions manage conflict is among the more interesting precisely because he departs from his usual style and identifies antagonists and arguments that he wants to take up and advance against criticism. Breslin begins the book by suggesting that the goal of his project is to demonstrate that there are “similarities both in the aims and in the functions of many of the world’s constitutions,” and that “most contemporary constitutions” share “important features” (p.4). He does not quite marshal the systematic empirical evidence to support that conclusion, but the book does provide good reason to think that many constitutions attempt to perform the seven functions listed above (whether they are effective in performing those functions is not Breslin’s project). In keeping with its learned essay style, the book is also a bit casual about empirical evidence. That is not necessarily to say that it gets things wrong, but there is little effort to give detailed evidence to support ready claims about such things as whether a given constitutional arrangement eases political conflict.

Breslin has produced an interesting introduction to constitutionalism that nicely weaves important questions about how constitutions operate and the functions they perform within a political system with myriad examples of constitutions from around the world and [*340] over the past two centuries. It focuses our attention away from the interpretation of any particular constitutional text and debates over the substance of constitutional law to the creation and ordering of political regimes. As such, it invites us to theorize with a constitutional drafter in mind rather than with a Supreme Court justice, and that is an invitation we should be prepared to accept.

Barber, Sotirios A., and Robert P. George. 2001. CONSTITUTIONAL POLITICS: ESSAYS ON CONSTITUTION MAKING, MAINTENANCE, AND CHANGE. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Harris, William F., II. 1993. THE INTERPRETABLE CONSTITUTION. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Whittington, Keith E. 2000. “Herbert Wechsler’s Complaint and the Revival of Grand Constitutional Theory.” UNIVERSITY OF RICHMOND LAW REVIEW 34:509-543.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Keith E. Whittington.