Constituting the Nation: Public History Project

Constitutions are generally seen as symbols of a modern nation. Yet, many of us have little understanding of what gives these documents the authority they hold or how they represent the history and value of the societies they rule. Constitutions are meant to be founding documents that encapsulate the essence of a nation; but what gives them this power? How do they become legitimate? What gives them authority? Can the sources of legitimacy and authority change over time?

These are some of the questions we hope to explore in Constituting the Nation. This is a site where history students and researchers can read and identify resources to study the evolution of Constitutional thought in the British Colony of the Gold Coast (present day Ghana) between 1821 and 1950. The main purpose of the site is to use documentary resources and bibliographical references to introduce students to the use of documents in a manner that simulates an archive. The site will include collections of documents relative to different moments of constitutional revision, organized tutorials, and a bibliography. The central goal is to help students identify key techniques to examine different kinds of documents, learn what it means to contextualize primary sources, and understand the contribution that primary and secondary sources make to historical thinking.

A secondary goal of the site is to introduce visitors to the rich and complex constitutional history of the Gold Coast. The site includes sources that document the evolution of constitutional ideas in the British colony of the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana) between 1821 and 1955. In 1821, on the eve of the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, Great Britain established its first foothold of colonial control over the Gold Coast, a small strip of land on the coast of West Africa. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth century, British authority expanded in-land and new territories were incorporated into the Colony. By 1957, when the Gold Coast gained independence from Great Britain, the new nation included a diverse mix of societies from the largely stateless communities that inhabited the Northern Territories, the powerful kingdom of Asante, and coastal communities that spoke different languages and were organized in multiple political forms. During the colonial period, British officials drafted several constitutions that sought to establish the legitimacy of Britain’s control over the colony. Even though these constitutions were drafted and approved by colonial authorities, they were often debated and challenged by African lawyers, Chiefs, and politicians who fought hard to influence the creation of new social and political structures. 

The sources included in this site tell the history of what many Africans saw as the constitutional challenges facing the diverse communities that gradually came to form the Gold Coast and later Ghana. These sources will help students and scholars examine the role that  African Chiefs, lawyers, and politicians played in the creation of a tradition of constitutional thought that, well before independence, grappled with the challenges of imagining legal and political frameworks that could incorporate diverse societies. 

At a time when the role of constitutions is questioned throughout the world and many African nations face constitutional crises, it is worth asking ourselves where do constitutional ideas come from? What makes constitutions legitimate? What role do they play in the evolution of modern and diverse societies?

The site is primarily targeted to advanced-level high school students who typically have very limited access to documentary sources. A secondary audience includes graduate students and scholars interested in the history of the Gold Coast who may not have direct access to some of the documents included in these collections.

The site is built using Omeka Classic. Tutorials will be built using the Exhibit Builder Plug-in. It will also incorporate a Timeline made with Timeline JS and the necessary plugin to incorporate it in Omeka.

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