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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter V. Regionalism, autonomism and the minority identity-building narratives

The constitutional truths

Hovsep Vartanian
Traduction de Ohannes Kiliçdaği

Texte intégral

1Title: Sahmanatragan jshmardutinner (The constitutional truths)

2Originally published: Constantinople, Dbaran Hovhannu Muhendisian, 1863

3Language: Armenian

4The excerpts used are from the original, pp.1, 3, 6, 7, 9–13, 16, 20, 22–24, 39–45.

About the author

5Hovsep Vartanian (Vartan Pasha) [1816, Istanbul–1879, Istanbul]: Ottoman statesman, journalist, author and translator of Armenian Catholic origin. He received his elementary education at the Kumkapı Bezcian School in Istanbul. In 1827 he was sent to the Mekhitarist Monastery of Vienna to continue his education. After returning to Istanbul in 1836, he started to teach at the Hasköy Nersesian School. In 1837 he entered the Navy as a translator, and in time, advanced to become the head translator. In 1856 he was appointed a member of the Encümen-i Daniş (Ottoman Academy of Sciences). He was given the title of Pasha around 1858. In 1860 he quit his military office and pursued a civil career. In 1868 or 1869 he was appointed as a member of the Divan-ı Ahkam-ı Adliye (Council of Judicial Ordinances). Vartanian was also actively involved in the affairs of the Armenian Catholic community. He was a member of ‘Administrative Board of the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate’ in 1851, and was among the founders of the Hamazkyats (National unity) Association established in 1846, which, among other things, organized conferences on social and political issues, delivered by prominent intellectuals of the time. As for his journalistic activities, in 1852 he began to publish the Mecmua-i havadis (Journal of events), a publication printed in Turkish written with the Armenian alphabet. The journal proved to be popular, and after a few years, took the format of a newspaper, appearing regularly until 1877. After this newspaper was closed down, Vartan Pasha worked, till his death in 1879, as the leading writer of Tercüman-ı efkâr (Interpreter of opinions), also published in Turkish using the Armenian script. His novel Akabi hikayesi (The story of Akabi) was the earliest example of this genre in the Ottoman Empire. The novel opened a new path in Turkish literature, and was republished in the Latin alphabet in Istanbul in 1991. Vartanian is, thus, recently acknowledged to be among the founders of modern Turkish fiction.

6Main works: Akabi hikayesi [The story of Akabi] (1851); Boşboğaz bir adem [A garrulous man] (1852); Tarih-i Napolyon Bonapart [The history of Napoléon Bonaparte] (v. 1–3 1855, v. 4–5, 1856); Telgraf risalesi [A treatise on the telegraph] (1857); Mecmua-i kıtaat-ı tevarih [Compilation of military annals] (date unknown); Yelekdragan herakir [The electric telegram] (1857); Sahmanatragan jshmardutinner [The constitutional truths] (1863); Şark muharebesi hikayesi [The story of the eastern war] (v.1 1878, v. 2 1879).


7In Europe, the nineteenth century was an era of constitutionalism, and the Ottoman Empire was not an exception. The late 1850s saw the emergence of a movement, generally described as the ‘Young Ottomans,’ which demanded a constitution and a representative Parliament. Thanks to the diffusion of liberal ideas throughout the Empire, a group of people, mainly constituted by intellectuals, asked for a more democratic and participatory way of government as a reaction to the centralizing policies of the Tanzimat.

8Similar tendencies existed within the Armenian community of the Empire. In a sense, the community had its own ‘young’ radicals. Throughout the eighteenth century, patriarchal and communal affairs had largely been administered by the clergy and a group of people known as the amiras, who were mostly either powerful bankers, who occasionally lent money to the state, or high-ranking bureaucrats who had direct connections with the Palace, such as the director of the gunpowder mills or the chief architect. These people largely financed the social activities and institutions of the Armenian community, and, in cooperation with the clergy, controlled communal affairs in an almost autonomous fashion.

9As for the Patriarchs, although the level of their power changed depending on the circumstances, they were accepted as the sole leaders of the community. Their authority on clerical issues and appointments was absolute. However, their authority was not limited to religious issues. The state recognized them as the exclusive representatives of the Armenian community and as mediators in all social and political matters between the state and the community. They were even responsible for collecting the taxes that the state demanded from their community. In Istanbul they were authorized to have a court in which they could hear cases apart from those related to public law.

10Against this ‘alliance’ of the amiras and the Patriarchs, by the early nineteenth century, a coalition composed of the artisans (esnaf), small merchants and newly emerging intellectuals with Western style education started to demand a more accountable administration and to have a say in communal issues. For them, the most essential prerequisite of all these demands was a constitution, that is, a document determining all principles of administration of the community. Although this group of people increased their authority by having some seats in various commissions of the Patriarchate in the first half of the nineteenth century, the Islahat Fermanı (Reform Decree) of 1856 provided them a solid legal base on which the demands of the constitution could be founded, since it stipulated the implementation of new administrative regulations for the internal matters of every community (millet). Each community was to prepare its own precept and present it to the Porte for approval. In accordance with this, the Armenians formed a committee in November 1856. The draft prepared by this committee was sent to the Porte in 1857, but was rejected on the grounds that it provided too much autonomy to the Armenian community. After some deliberation, the Porte endorsed an altered copy in March 1863, and the document, which was called the ‘constitution’ by the Armenians and ‘regulations’ by the state, was legally affirmed. Thus, the Armenian Orthodox community had a document regulating its internal affairs, while it did not have any authority over the Catholic or Protestant Armenian communities.

11The text was quite detailed and comprehensive in comparison to those of the other communities. A very detailed bureaucratic structure, the Patriarch being its supreme but accountable head, was defined. There was to be a ‘General Assembly’ in Istanbul consisting of 120 civil members elected by the Armenian people and 20 clerics elected by the clergy. Elected by this assembly, the duties of a ‘Religious Board’ and a ‘Civil Board’ were described. The latter was responsible for the social and economic matters of the community. A similar structure with religious and civil boards was also established for provincial towns, thus entailing a sizable bureaucratic network. However, the implementation of these regulations and the collection of taxes required an able executive apparatus, and neither the Patriarchate nor any other Armenian institution had such a capacity. Compounded by the unwillingness of the Porte for the implementation of the new regulations, the constitution became ineffective within a short time, although never being officially annulled.

12One of the important deficiencies, criticized by Vartan Pasha and others, was the injustice in the allocation of the deputies in the ‘General Assembly.’ The Anatolian Armenians constituted the overwhelming majority of the community and faced many serious problems such as poverty, double and arbitrary taxation, and assaults and cruelties by Kurdish and other Muslim tribes. There are various and conflicting figures on the population of the provincial Armenians, though none is entirely dependable. Vartan Pasha speaks of two and a half million. According to the estimate of the Armenian Patriarchate, there were three million Ottoman Armenians in the whole country. If Vartan Pasha's figure is correct, it means that more than eighty percent of Armenians were living outside of Istanbul. Nevertheless, less than fifteen percent of the seats were given to them, in contrast to the democratic representative claims of the constitution.

13Vartan Pasha’s ‘The constitutional truths’ was written in such a context and published in the year the constitution was endorsed. He seems to have espoused the constitution, although he was a member of the Armenian Catholic community, on whom the document had no jurisdiction. He uses the pronoun ‘we’ to denote the entire Armenian population regardless of confession. Therefore, it can be said that he ignored the denominational differences and considered the Armenians of the Empire as one nation. His general assessment was that it was too early to have a constitution because the general level of education among the Armenians was not sufficient for its implementation. But he conceded that since it had been established already, everybody would have to recognize, obey and protect the constitution.

14In the book he first deals with some general theoretical questions such as the nature of the constitution, the conditions of its emergence, the rights of man and so on. Later, he focuses on more specific issues related to the situation of the Ottoman Armenians and their constitution. When, at the beginning of his book, he argues that a constitution is nothing but the restriction of unlimited government, he draws upon the literal meaning of sahmantrutiun, ‘constitution’ in Armenian, which means ‘to draw borderlines.’ For him, a constitution regulates the mutual rights and obligations of a government and a people.

15Vartan Pasha’s understanding of liberty and human rights is a blend of ideas derived from Rousseau and the British liberals such as Bentham, John S. Mill, and Herbert Spencer. In fact, for its time, the first seven chapters of ‘The constitutional truths’ can be regarded as a competent piece of analysis on political theory. Vartan Pasha’s views on liberty and the rights of man seem to have been ahead of his time, particularly in the context of the Ottoman Empire. His remarks on religious rights are especially impressive, given that conversion was one of the most critically debated issues of the time. Although the ‘Reform Decree’ of 1856 officially recognized the freedom of religion, the Ottoman statesmen were very concerned about conversions to other religions from among the Muslim community, since, in their mind, the ideological and actual power of the state was proportional to the size of the Islamic population. On the other hand, the European states were urging the Ottoman state not only to allow free conversion, but also to provide security for actual and potential converts. While conversion became an international problem at this time, it was also an intra-communal issue of dispute for the Armenians. Similar to the Ottoman state, the Armenian Apostolic (National Orthodox) Church was worried about its members converting to Catholicism or Protestantism. The Church even demanded that the state should have prohibited such conversions. At the end, the state, willingly or unwillingly, recognized the Catholics as a separate millet in 1830, and similarly, the Protestant millet was recognized in 1850. In no other millet did this split trigger such enormous friction as in the case of the Armenian community. It was partly due to the intervention of foreign powers, and partly due to the pressure of important families who had been converted (especially to Catholicism) that the new millets were recognized. Adherence to Catholicism involved the acceptance of the supreme authority of the Pope and the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon of 451 A.D., which had occasioned the departing of the Armenians, the Assyrians and the Copts from the official dogma of Constantinople, and their depiction thereafter as ‘monophysites.’ Also, and more importantly, Catholicism demanded the use of Latin as the liturgical language. In such an atmosphere, Vartan Pasha’s approach was quite liberal since he argued that conversion was a natural right, independent of any state’s will or imposition. Rather than prohibiting it, constitutional states should provide appropriate circumstances for conversion and equal treatment for all members of recognized religions. One can surmise that, since Vartan Pasha was himself a Catholic, his denominational origins must have informed his views about religious freedom.

16Vartan Pasha regarded the Tanzimat reforms as positive changes that would increase the liberty of the individual by eliminating all intermediaries between the state and its subjects, since he saw all non-Muslim peoples as the slaves of their communal leaders. For him, these reforms also gave the opportunity to the community to improve its system of education. The increasing level of education in the community also strengthened the demands of freedom and participation. All these paved the way for the constitution.

17We do not have much information about the kind of reactions Vartan Pasha and his work elicited, due to the general scarcity of primary sources in Turkey concerning the social and intellectual life of nineteenth-century Ottoman Armenians. No doubt, the most important reason of this scarcity is that their annihilation at the beginning of the twentieth century inevitably brought about a cultural devastation that broke the intellectual continuity with previous periods. However, we can roughly trace the consequences of the constitution after 1863. First of all, one can say that it could not meet the expectation of improving the general situation of the Ottoman Armenian community. There were many reasons for this, such as the lack of executive power and financial resources, the injustice of the electoral method, and the overgrown and corrupt bureaucracy, dovetailed to the insincerity and interventionism of the government. As a matter of fact, the constitution and the ‘National Assembly’ were twice suspended by the state, once between 1866 and 1869 and once between 1891 and 1908. The second instance coincided with the most severe years of Sultan Abdülhamid’s reign for the Armenians. Although the constitution could not be practically implemented, one cannot say that it did not have any effect. For example, the first Ottoman constitution in 1876 did refer to the Armenian constitution of 1863, since the drafting commission included Armenian members who had also participated in the preparation of the Armenian constitution. As for today, this constitution is still a reference point for the Armenian diaspora communities. Although they are not organized entirely around this document, their churches are directed according to its related articles. Moreover, in Turkey today, though there have been some changes, the elections of the Patriarchs are still conducted on the basis of the 1863 constitution.


The constitutional truths

The birth of the Constitution

19National changes have their own logical consequences.

20If the power of monarchial governments had not been used in extreme the constitution would have not been born. Till now the world has not witnessed a monarchial regime that governs for a long time and does not degenerate; and the natural successor of a degenerated monarchy is a constitution. […]

21It is nothing but the restriction of an unlimited rule. […]

22If monarchial extremism gives birth to a constitution, of course, constitutional extremism also gives birth to monarchy. […]

23Today the regime that is accepted by the enlightened Europe is the restricted, which is to say, the constitutional monarchy. The majority of European states act on the basis of this principle, and there is no reason to doubt that the rest will follow the same path within a certain time.

24A constitutional monarchy has the whole appearance of an actual monarchy but its governments are formed on the necessities of democracy. There the king reigns but does not rule; the public rules but does not reign. The monarch contents himself with his formal status and the constitutional bodies with their tasks. A system that thus connects two opposite points promises to survive long.

25In order that the king reigns but does not rule and the public rules but does not reign, it is necessary that the rights and obligations of both sides should be defined and established, which is possible by a constitution.

The establishment of a constitution and its aims

26Only those societies that recognize and claim their rights can establish a constitution. […]

27It is unthinkable that a man is born, lives and dies but has no rights. What are the general, absolute and personal rights of people? […]

28When a man is subject to a government the answer of this problem is easy. In such a condition everyone has some obligations to the government, which is the right of the government; and the government has obligations to everyone under its rule, which is the right of people. As it follows from this, the rights and obligations are inseparable. Nevertheless, the rights of societies are not identical with each other. First and foremost, this depends on the style of the government. Even though constitutional governments provide quite a wide range of rights to their subjects, since all constitutional governments are not identical, this bunch of rights is not either, and this has its own reasons. A society has as many rights as obligations. Since not all societies can be naturally and morally mature enough to shoulder many obligations, it is essential that their obligations be determined according to their capacity. Accordingly, their rights will be also a derivative of this capacity. This is one reason why there are various constitutions.

29Secondly, although man is born with a wide range of natural rights, in his political condition, because of either weakness or indifference, we see that all his rights are extorted [by tyrannical rulers]. […] A constitution only tries to redeem the rights of man from the extortioners; but where the resistance is stronger than its ability, a constitution contents itself with less, where the resistance is weaker than its power, a constitution attempts to take more. This is another reason for the variety of constitutions. […]

30Ignoring little differences we can introduce and examine the rights of man that are recognized and accepted in constitutions:

  • Religious rights or rights related to the church
  • Political or national rights
  • Natural or individual (inseparable) rights

Religious rights or rights related to the Church

31Man’s right or freedom to maintain his religion or select whichever he wants is not a constitutional freedom but a natural right. […]

32There are different constitutional regulations for religious rights. Some accept only one national or dominant religion and recognize exclusively its rule. Some others permit every single religion; but here permission should not be understood as the freedom to change one’s religion because it should already be allowed naturally. In constitutional language this permission should be understood as such although a nation has a dominant religion and recognizes its rule, beside it, the constitution recognizes the rights and authority of other religions. These are to be treated equally or with little differences in comparison to the dominant religion. Whatever protection the constitution provides for the dominant religion should also be granted to other permitted religions. […]

33It is especially vital that a constitution regulate all aspects of its relations with the religions it permits or recognizes; otherwise, that constitution will be incomplete and inadequate, which can bring about terrible results. […]

Political or national sovereignty

34Every constitutional system accepts that sovereignty belongs to the nation, not to a king or race or another single individual. Consequently, the ruler of the nation is again the nation itself. […]

35A monarchy necessitates a monarch and subject people. A constitutional regime, on the other hand, cannot have such features. There is neither a monarch nor subjects. The nation both rules and obeys. […]

Natural or individual rights

36These are the bases or source of all other constitutional rights; and whereas only certain people will have other sets of rights the natural rights will be owned by everyone unexceptionally. […]

37I wish there was no limit and condition on the personal rights and everybody could do whatever he wants.

38But let’s see whether this is possible in the social condition of man? If one proves to me that man can exist without religion and society, I immediately wish such an unconditional liberty for him. But if it is not so, it naturally follows that under these two conditions man will sacrifice many of his natural rights, and have only as much freedom as they allow. […]

39In this case it is the most beneficial system for man, which demands the least possible sacrifice of freedom and in which this amount of sacrifice is equal for everyone. Needless to say, people are so lucky only in a constitutional or democratic system; but if they cannot use this fortune properly it immediately turns into misery. […]

The Constitution in the Armenian nation

40Is the Armenian nation’s present situation appropriate for a constitution? If someone had asked this question to me some time ago the answer would have been no.

41But the time for such an opinion has passed. The nation has established and approved a constitution, owned a constituent, nominees and electees, administration and committees. So, everything is set.

42Yes, it has been established and approved but its execution is another question. It is one thing to write a constitution but it is something different to carry it out. […]

43Let everybody know that the term constitution does not always denote the same system. There are different constitutions established on different principles, and they do not resemble each other. […]

44[There are] some nations that are not compact and their members do not have permanent relations. Since waiting for the general enlightenment of such a nation would require an endless patience, a progressive fraction of the nation can stand up and invite the rest to join the constitution. […]

45Unfortunately this is also the situation of our nation. […]

46Our nation’s conditions were such that the public did not call for the constitution but the constitution called on, and is still calling on, the whole public because the society was not prepared to accept a constitution.

  • 1 Here Vartan Pasha refers to the inequality between Istanbul Armenians and provincial Armenians.

47The constitution is itself an indicator of this situation since for whatever internal and external reasons, a few thousand Armenians got one hundred deputies whereas at least two and a half million got only forty, as if some Armenians are different from some other Armenians.1 […]

48We, and indeed the whole world with us, say that the rights and obligations are inseparable from each other. If this is so, how can more obligations be demanded from those who have fewer rights? How can we expect that those, who one night have slept as slaves and woke up in the morning as a people with a constitution, show the same progress and responsibility as the youth that received their education in Paris, London, Venice or Constantinople? […]

49One should demand from the public the obligations as much as their present ability allows … Extreme constitutionalists should be a little bit tolerant of provincial people and not be surprised that Van or Moush have not shown the same progress as them. […]

50I accept the establishment of the constitution but I see that its full implementation is still going to take time. […]

51Let us be aware of our times; those times in which nations and states were islands in human society separated by seas and rocks have passed. Today, everybody’s eyes are on everybody else, Europe is inside us and we are inside Europe.


1 Here Vartan Pasha refers to the inequality between Istanbul Armenians and provincial Armenians.


Ohannes Kiliçdaği (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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