Constituting the Nation, Project Overview and Evaluation

On August 1961, the renowned Ghanaian lawyer and politician J.B. Danquah delivered a paper at the Fourth Annual Conference of the Ghana Bar Association. The title of the speech was: “The Constitutional History of Ghana in the past Fifty Years.” In this document, Danquah recounted the evolution of Ghana’s constitutional development from the colonial past until the then, recently approved, Republican constitution of 1960. Danquah took this opportunity to criticize the new constitution for going against what he saw as a long tradition of constitutional debate that had characterized the Gold Coast and Ghana since it had become  a British colony. 

It has been claimed by some that our constitutional history during the last fifty years has been fashioned by the ideologies of Marcus Garvey. Others have claimed that our constitutional history has been fashioned by the Pan African Congress. It seems to me that when we look at the momentous change of direction which took place in Ghana constitutional struggle during the First Great War, we should discover that the wind of change that overtook our land was motivated, firstly, by local conditions and local talent and, secondly, by the general conditions and the universal stress of the first great war.

I do not believe that our great leaders of the century were moved into action by the fissiparous congresses or movements on Africa which took place in atmospheres at which neither John Mensah Sarbah nor Joseph Ephraim Casely Hayford or King Ghartey IV of Winneba, or James Henley Coussey or George Alfred Grant (who are some of the founders of modern Ghana) were present, or even known.

Danquah, J. B. “”A Paper on ‘the Constitutional History of Ghana in the First Fifty Years’ Read at the Fourth Annual Conference of the Ghana Bar Association on August 29, 1961.” in A. Adu. Boahen (ed.) The Ghanaian Establishment : Its Constitution, Its Detentions, Its Traditions, Its Justice and Statecraft, and Its Heritage of Ghanaism . (Accra: Ghana Universities Press, 1997).

In Constituting the Nation students will examine the constitutional struggles that unraveled in the Gold Coast on its way to becoming Ghana. The site provides students with documentary tools to ask questions about how, the diverse societies that came to form the Gold Coast colony, negotiated the tricky waters around building a new political community.

The exhibit was created as a tool for instructors that want to introduce and guide students through the process of asking questions and drafting arguments after reading primary documentary materials. Ultimately, the goal of the project is for students to learn to think historically by making some history themselves. 

Having taught an introductory course to historical writing for many years and, being an Africa specialist, I struggled finding primary source materials that my students could use for class assignments. Although there are several published and digital primary source compilations, these are often carefully curated, generally transcribed and, largely removed from their arrival context. My intention in this site was to present students with scanned copies of documents that I have collected during my own research. Although I do provide some curation and organization, together with some contextual information, I try to balance this by presenting the copies without a specific description. I want students, for example, to learn to use the metadata provided by most archives to get clues about what the document is, both as an object as well as a digital representation. In this way I hope students will get used to asking themselves questions about the original purpose of some of these documents as well as of the ways in which they come to be collected and organized in archival settings or digital collections.

I also made the decision of using materials from my own research because I want to emphasize to students that they will be working with exactly the same materials that I read and work with regularly. The debates and questions they will be reading about in the documents and secondary sources are exactly the same I have been working on over the past five years. The working premise of the exhibit is that students are being invited to join a conversation among historians by adding questions and answers to the debates that already exists in the historical literature. For that reason, I thought it was important to bring my own research work and let my students become collaborators in the enterprise.


Since the guiding question of the site revolves around the history of constitutional ideas in the Gold Coast, I organized the site chronologically. Starting in 1872, there were five moments when colonial administrators and Gold Coast politicians and intellectuals debated and revised constitutional instruments. For each of these sections I have created two sub-sections, one that introduces the main issues debated in that particular document or revision, and a one where students can read selected documents, and are asked some questions about them. In the first section I introduce contextual knowledge about the documents themselves, but also some questions from secondary sources to introduce students to some of the conversations among historians. By doing this, I will try to guide students’ attention to how the reading of primary and secondary sources goes hand-in-hand. In this sub-section I also introduce names of places and individuals that will help students read the documents as well as important dates related to the issues discussed in the documents. In the second sub-section I encourage students to “describe” the document. Here I want students to focus on the document as an object with a purpose in its time. This is a first important step before students can consider the document as a source. Then students are asked to describe the content of the document, it is here when they can start thinking of the document as a historical source. 

Ultimately I hope to create a student survey to assess students’ experiences using the site. I am sure I will learn a lot from samples of students work, but I think it will be also very useful to get information about the specific aspects of the site that students think are working well and which they think are not working so well. Given that there are several sections and sub-sections, it is possible also that I can make some changes to the specific documents that I chose to include. My initial choice was dictated by the need to include not just documents produced by colonial officials, but also some where one could read African perspectives. In both cases, however, most documents can be long and obscure for students with little knowledge of the topic. For that reason, I hope students will comment on which sections they found easier to navigate. That will be the may tool to make additions and improvements to the site.

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