The Early Modern Social Contract as Imagined in Philadelphia and Madras: A Comparative Analysis of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution and the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak

The Early Modern Social Contract as Imagined in Philadelphia and Madras: A Comparative Analysis of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution and the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak

Paper presented at the 40th anniversary workshop of the Society for Armenian Studies held in Yerevan, Armenia, October 3-5, 2014


The end of the 18th century was an innovative era in terms of political organisation. The revolutions in the United States and in France, as well as such less enduring movements as the Polish Constitution, were echoed halfway across the world in Madras, India (modern Chennai), where a small but wealthy and active community of Armenians expressed ambitious plans for a future Armenian state. Although those plans did not come to fruition, the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak reflects the Western discourse inspired by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and others, refracted not just through an Armenian lens alone, but the specific perspective of Persian-Armenian merchants in India – a country quickly coming under the British yoke, alongside the presence of other European powers, such as the French and Portuguese. Meanwhile, after about a decade of an inefficient arrangement under the Articles of Confederation, the US Constitution tried to bring together “a more perfect Union” for its part, marrying the ideological drive of the Declaration of Independence to practical considerations of the day-to-day affairs of running a country.

This paper will examine the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak in light of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. It presumes familiarity on the part of the reader with the latter, American documents. It will first discuss the texts of the Vorogayt Parats and the Nshavak, including some analysis, followed by a comparison with the two founding documents of the United States in terms of the conceptions of statehood and in other detils. Additionally, the problems of the authorship of the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak will be taken up, as will its dating, and the designations of the documents in question.

The Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak[1]

As the name suggests, the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak is a document of two parts. The first part is a lengthy introduction, spanning around 20,000 words, that gives a reading of Armenian history that necessitates the adoption of a social contract for the sake of sustaining and developing the nation. The line of thinking is rather similar to John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, admonishing monarchy, celebrating man as a rational enough being to tend to his own affairs. However, one must note a great deal of use of religious language in the Vorogayt Parats and, crucially, the application of social contract thinking to specifically the Armenian case. Rather than having universal thoughts about humanity and self-determination, it is Armenian history – with input from the Bible – that leads the author to more or less the same Enlightenment-era conclusion.

The author, for example, cites five arguments right at the beginning of the Vorogayt Parats as to why the Armenians are a chosen people: it is not for no reason that God caused Noah’s Ark to land in Armenia; it is not for no reason that the first record of an uprising against tyrannical monarchy was by the Armenian protogenitor Hayk; it is not for no reason that, without even any apostles, any preaching, any miracles, it was first of all an Armenian king, Abgar of Edessa, who accepted Christ; similarly, the miraculous survival of St. Gregory and his success in converting the Armenian king and people is not for no reason; and it is no small surprise that, even after four hundred years of losing sovereignty and of undergoing much suffering, the Armenians maintain their faith in the Lord God – naturally, the Christian one is meant. (pp. 10-12) There is thus much reference to religion in the text to get the point across. However, the author at the same time says, “It is not necessary for me to preach to you from Holy Scripture, as I do not wish to read you a sermon, and neither do you need to hear any teachings from me”. (p. 26)

The religiosity in this case is not so much an act of proselytisation, as it is a framework through which to read Armenian history. This is the value of the Vorogayt Parats. The author has information and some knowledge of the past of the Armenian people (although one may note inaccuracies in terms of dates, for example, at least as pointed out by more modern research). The author takes that information and sieves it through the concept of the danger of monarchy – but not by secularisation. It is not the case that the idea of one God becomes analogous to the idea of one monarch, which is the classical narrative of the Divine Right of Kings, and then, by tearing down the Divine Right, divinity itself is attacked. Rather, more than once, the Vorogayt Parats mentions how only God is perfect, and therefore only God is allowed to rule. Men cannot be kings, because men cannot be gods.

“… the same ancestor of ours, Adam, received power from the Lord and our Creator by his rational nature [բանական բնութեամբ – banakan bnuteamb] that he may rule solely over the natural nature [բնական բնութեամբ – bnakan bnuteamb] of beasts on this earth, but not over the rational nature of man. I mean to say that, just as Adam did not receive permission to rule over the rational nature of man, similarly he could not rule over his own nature, for had he received from the Lord the power to rule over rational nature as over natural nature, he could very well have kept his nature under control so as not to transgress the commandments of the Lord, …” (pp. 42-43)

It is the law, in the end, which is to take over the role of Divine Right. Just as God’s laws are followed by nature, so must man follow laws, but laws that he decides for himself. This is all very much and unsurprisingly in keeping with Du Contrat Social by Jean-Jacques Rousseau – a volonté générale by which all members of society must participate and by which all must abide. But there is certainly tension between the agency of human beings in deciding their own order and the role of God and of religion in the process. The Vorogayt Parats looks to God and the Bible as a source for man to apply his rationality, which is divine in origin.

“… for He made us of worthy honour and He loved us so much,[2] that he did not create us solely by the orders of his words as other creatures, but, through His resplendent and pure ineffable breath, He inspired strength and rationality to our souls, …” (pp. 70-71)

The Vorogayt Parats also brings up European history, specifically that of the Romans. The point once again is about the necessity of the rule of law, something that has its positive effects even in case of a hereditary monarch (the British example being foremost on one’s mind in Madras in the late 18th century, certainly). The downfall of Rome is also cited, blaming absolute monarchy as the cause in later centuries. This same theme is applied back to Armenian history, with the same conclusion, as mentioned throughout the text.

As the Vorogayt Parats draws to a close, the author already begins to outline elements of a regime for Armenia, and also mentions recent historical events, citing not just goings-on in Persia and Georgia, but also George Washington (more about that reference later).

The second part of this document, the Nshavak, is not a classical constitution per se, it turns out, inasmuch as only a small part of it deals with distributing political power among various institutions or offices. Most of its 521 articles are in fact legislation, regulations, sometimes regarding minute details of taxation and trade, movements of the armed forces, and general policy positions or even moral conduct that citizens should adopt. A number of the articles, around fifty in all, are sample credentials for public offices or sample documents for contracts or other undertakings by citizens.

There are many elements in the Nshavak that seem progressive for their era while also being at times amusing in retrospect. Article 73 creates the office of Pet Tkarats, roughly “Keeper of the Weak”. Besides looking after the disabled, his duties include research and development of cures – new technologies and inventions being, for their part, publicly rewarded as per Article 119. Articles 115, 191, and 461 regulate violence with regards to thieves or burglars; the victim is in the right to use violence against the criminal in order to defend his life and property, rather in the spirit of John Locke justifying such actions vis-à-vis those who break the social contract. Article 170 has corrupt officials removed for good and publicly humiliated, the bribes demanded by them being returned to those who gave the bribe, and an equal amount being donated to the Tounn Voghormoutyan Hayots, “The House of Mercy of Armenia” – the public charity which is often mentioned throughout the text (also being referred to as the Tounn Aghkatats, “Poor House”). Article 381 outlaws striking women, although her husband may do so and courts may punish women, in all cases only up to twelve lashes on soft flesh, without causing harm. Article 460 prohibits groping of women by men. There is a great deal, in fact, of regulating affairs of women in the Nshavak in terms of running households, marriage and inheritance rights, or education, again, often impressing as progressive from today’s perspective.

There is also a great deal of regulating church affairs. The separation of church and state is expressed in Article 397, in which both parties are called to keep away from the affairs of the other – although the government is to accept internal Church regulations – echoing the earlier articles 155 and 156, which prohibit clergymen and lay officials from meddling in each other’s matters, except for representatives of each within public bodies of the other. However, it is quite clear in the Nshavak that the Armenian Church is very much a part of the state. Right at the beginning of the text, although articles 3 and 5 give freedom of action and religion to all, including foreigners, Article 4 in between makes special mention of the patriarch in Etchmiadzin and Article 6 immediately following condemns apostate Armenians to death, bestowing their property to their Christian kin. As such, all offices are explicitly open to Armenian Christians alone, that too, born in Armenia and adherents of Armenian Christianity, presumably under Etchmiadzin, as opposed to other forms of Christianity, such as in the case of Catholic Armenians. Conversely, the Nshavak prohibits bishops from ordaining priests younger than the age of thirty (Article 384), and even allows the state in Article 386 to intervene to free clergymen from their vows upon their request once every three years. It is thus not immediately clear how the principle of separation of church and state would exactly work in the day-to-day of the regime, although that principle is invoked.

The regime of the Armenia envisioned in the Nshavak can be said to follow the Westminster model. Article 14 creates constituencies out of regions of 12,000 households, each village offering one Armenia-born Armenian Christian, “meek and humble”, as representatives, out of which two are chosen by lot, one to be a member of the Tounn Hayots, “House of Armenia”, the other to serve as Tanouter, “Master of the House” – analogous to the executive and legislative respectively. Article 20 has a Nakharar, or “Prefect” chosen out of the members of the House of Armenia.[3] The articles that follow address the appointment of judges and of the military leadership.[4] All officials serve for three years, with the possibility of re-election or re-appointment.

The decision-making process of the Armenia of the Nshavak is not so clear. The nuts and bolts of the checks and balances are not fully described. Most power of appointments rest with the House of Armenia or the Nakharar, even as officials have authority over their own domains. What is noteworthy, however, is that, soon after the highest offices are described, articles 52-57 offer regulations for the possibility of a family, descending from past Armenian nobility, enjoying the highest office of the Nakharar on a hereditary basis. This arrangement may be a reflection of British influence on the thinking of the Armenian merchants of India: if the model being followed in general in London has proved successful, resulting in an impressive power over land and sea, perhaps there is something to a constitutional monarchy after all. Vazken Ghougassian states that King Hercalius II of Georgia was foreseen as the hereditary Nakharar by the Madras Group, being a scion of the Bagratouni (Bagratid) line.[5] The Nakharar, however, would be subject to the laws of Armenia, in all events. The Nshavak is explicit in avoiding any form of arbitrary rule. Article 235, in describing the physical setting of the gathering of highest officials, says that, “The table around which the Masters of the House sit is the House of Armenia, the laws arranged thereby shall be the King of Armenia. Thus shall be found for all the Armenian nation together concordantly the king over all Armenian lands, carrying on and remaining over all rights and justice according to the form of the law and corresponding to it, to which I hope that there be no want of this rule”.

As can be noted from the translation above, the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak is written in a somewhat haphazard style. Indeed, the author himself apologises for a lack of education in the Vorogayt Parats, something which is repeated in the brief epilogue after the Nshavak, which includes a lot of religious language in hoping for the future salvation of Armenia.

The Outlooks from Madras and Philadelphia

The document prepared in Madras is an imagined state, many details of which are set out in a spirit of “let’s pretend” – or “building castles in the air”, as Razmik Panossian puts it[6] – rather than a template around which a regime will be run. So many minutiae of legislation are included, such as items regarding trade and taxation with a long series of goods given by name (articles 412-459), while, at the same time, the clothing of public officials are also described (articles 284-299), to give just two examples. The Nshavak cannot therefore be considered a serious constitution or proto-constitution, as it is often described. It is a fascinating historical curiosity, nevertheless. And it does, in any event, reveal a political outlook, an orientation with regards to regimes in general, and what an Armenian state would look like in particular.

Simon Payaslian characterises the Armenia envisioned in the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak as “a statist, mercantilist political economy not dissimilar to European practices at the time”.[7] The US Constitution (and also the Articles of Confederation) may not quite be deemed “mercantilist”, but it does address the issues of commerce and trade as well, even though not in as much detail. Certainly property rights are enshrined rather explicitly and forcefully in both documents. Similarly, the US Constitution reserves the highest office in the land for those born in America alone (Article II, Section 1), while the Nshavak maintains that all offices would be meant for Armenia-born Armenian Christians. There is a brief oath of office provided in the US Constitution for the presidency; a large number of sample credential documents are included in the Nshavak for all offices, listing at length their duties, being signed and sealed, with names and dates included. Thus, the US Constitution and the Nshavak at times tend in the same direction, but the Nshavak works on a grander scale, as it were, with greater detail. How worthwhile it may be to include so much detail, of course, is arguable.

Both the Founding Fathers and the Madras Group were unsurprisingly influenced by British customs of the time. For example, the US Constitution has the president deliver the State of the Union address to Congress “from time to time” (Article II, Section 3), a practice echoing the speech from the throne of the monarch in London. Likewise, the Nshavak foresees the possibility of a hereditary Nakharar, thereby planning for more of an Armenian constitutional monarchy in the Westminster style, rather than a presidential regime, including, for example, the analogue of a Privy Council (Tsatsouk Khorhourt, articles 23, 54, 58). Trial by jury is also a Common Law principle that found favour in both Philadelphia and Madras, enough to be included in a fundamental legal document.

Another legislative practice that both documents foresee is amendments to themselves, but they do so quite differently. The US Constitution outlines a rather lengthy process, involving input from both houses of the legislature and the various states.[8] The Nshavak ends with an article that characterises the preceding 520 articles more as objectives, aims, or even policy positions (the word used is “nshavak”; see the relevant section below for a discussion on this term), to be enacted only upon approval of the senior leadership of the state, including from the Armenian Church.

The Madras Group consisted of Armenian merchants from Persia, a class that revolved around its occupation and was marked in its own larger society very distinctly by its religious designation – that too, not just as Christians, but as Armenian Christians. This description shines through in both the role the Armenian Church is given in the envisioned Armenian state, and also in the numerous articles outlining policies on commerce and calculations of taxations, even budgetary provisions or sample accounting (articles 81, 278, 519, 520). The Founding Fathers, for their part, also valued rule of law, the sanctity of contracts, and gave much importance to trade, as mentioned. “Money talks” was as much a motto back then as it has always been, regardless of which language or location. There is a strong divergence, however, on two inter-related fronts: the role of religion and the self-identification of the authors.

The exclusivity given to Armenian Christians at all levels of the state – indeed, to those born in Armenia alone – speaks to the ethno-national sentiments of those behind the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak, even with due provisions for freedom of religion or property rights for those of any ethnic or religious background. If one were to take the Declaration of Independence as analogous to the Vorogayt Parats in the same way as the US Constitution would be to the Nshavak, then the difference becomes even more stark: the list of grievances of the Thirteen Colonies were quite legal in nature, quite practical issues, surely reflecting policies that ran counter to the freedom and equality preached by Enlightenment thinkers. There may be mention in the end of the “Brittish brethren” of the signatories of the Declaration, with whom, though “common kindred” is shared, relations are soured because of their siding with the king in London or their not actively working against him. Any ethno-national feelings across the Atlantic are thus trumped by self-evident truths.

The Declaration makes mention of “Nature’s God” and “the Supreme Judge of the world”, as well as “divine Providence”, and although the Articles of Confederation end with invoking “the Great Governor of the World”, the US Constitution is absolutely silent on the subject of any divinity or its role in the formation of the state. In this sense, the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak runs completely counter in letter and spirit to the documents drafted in Philadelphia.

The Founding Fathers were not a small group of people, and their views on God or the role of religion in the state are famously not reconciled with one another. They were landowners, professionals, of European stock, of different denominations of Christianity – something which, at the time, might as well have meant of different religions altogether. Theirs was a political effort, transformed into military action. As a result of success on the battlefield, the United States of America came to function as a sovereign state, and pointedly a republican one. Provisions in the Nshavak for the likelihood of a hereditary Nakharar – a constitutional monarchy, as mentioned before – likewise echo considerations in Madras more in keeping with the Middle East of the time, in contrast.

The Madras Group had very much an Asiatic or Oriental experience above all, to use classical, if dated, terminology. Their Armenian identity was part of their day-to-day, and it had various affects on the trade with which they were occupied, sometimes serving as an advantage in reaching markets, but at other times yielding to greater powers. According to Sebouh Aslanian, it was in the fallout of Nadir Shah’s devastating rule in Persia and tighter competition with the emerging Europeans that caused the Armenian merchants of Madras in particular to “reinvent themselves … as members of the larger Armenian ‘nation’”. This novel concept was not centred solely on sentimentality or ideology: an Armenian nation-state would serve as a stable base for capital and commerce.[9] The Founding Fathers were of course much more comfortable in their position across the Eastern Seaboard, revolutionary battles notwithstanding. They were not dealing with issues pertaining to a distinct national identity, its preservation, or perhaps its revival. Theirs was much more a struggle for political rights and sovereignty in quite a legal sense of the word. That an American “national identity” may or may not have come out of the struggle is a secondary matter.

The Problems of Authorship, Dating, and the Titles of the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak

Just who wrote the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak and when remains somewhat a controversial question. The publication date on the cover is 1773. Vazken Ghougassian mentions the brothers Hakob and Yeghiazar Shahamirian, survived by their father, Shahamir Shahamirian. He indicates that Hakob could have produced the text as early as 1773, but records show manuscripts alone being sent to the Georgian king and Armenian Catholicos in 1787. Shahamir Shahamirian might have been behind the final form of the document, which would have been published at a later date.[10] Simon Payaslian separates the publications of the Vorogayt Parats and the Nshavak, dating them to 1773 and 1783 respectively.[11]

The Vorogayt Parats has itself something to say about its author or authors towards the end of the text, before the articles are introduced in the Nshavak: “And it is for two reasons that I would not like to indicate the name of this author. Firstly, so that the ignorant may not insult him, and secondly, so that the wise do not glorify him. But, due to the fact that there cannot be anything written unless there be some writer, following up on that thought, let this writer explain out of necessity that, in principle, he is but a humble son of the Armenians, a descendant of Togarmah, from the House of Nakhichevan at 42 degrees on the northern side of the world, by the slopes of the supreme Mount Masis [Ararat], at present being by the shores of the Coromandel Sea, at the gates of the metropolis of Madras, in the year of our Lord and Saviour Christ, 1773.” (pp. 135-136). The year 1773 is also the date on the sample credential documents and contracts in the Nshavak.

After a couple of pages, the Vorogayt Parats brings up George Washington as an exemplary freedom fighter: “And at present we hear about a new fervour, that is, some learned man, Washington by name, a descendant of the British, born in America, who was raised by the Great British [?]. Having gone against his masters and having gathered from the common people of America much armed forces, he is making efforts and working towards finding freedom, being disobedient to some. Although it is still not clear what will happen following what is going on, the desire of the hearts of the Americans is natural, from man’s nature, because there is nothing sweeter for man to receive on the face of the earth than freedom.” (p. 138)

Note that the writing about Washington is in the present tense, and what will transpire with the Thirteen Colonies is still not clear to the author. Military activity in the American Revolution did not really commence until 1775 with the battles of Lexington and Concord. It could be the case that news from across the oceans had not yet reached India, even with the East India Company’s presence there. Or it could be the case that the text of the Vorogayt Parats was written and compiled in parts.

Indeed, the structure of the Nshavak strongly suggests writing and redaction in bits and parts by more than one person. There might be some explicit cross-referencing of articles dealing with similar subjects (e.g., Article 93 referring to Article 14, Article 98 referring to Article 37, Article 501 referring to both Article 14 and Article 278). But there is also some repetition (e.g., articles 450 and 453, or Article 204 stating explicitly that officials can only be Armenians even though all descriptions of offices already make that clear), or at least articles that go along similar lines that are not placed next to each other. The series from both articles 301 to 347 and 387 to 391 regulate military affairs, for example. Another specific instance is that of articles 353 and 411, both being about military conscription; in fact, it would make sense for Article 411 to precede Article 353. To give another example, articles 394 and 500 both refer to general principles of freedom of action, of doing good and evil – two out of not few clauses peppered throughout the Nshavak that express general ethical principles or moral codes, as opposed to particular legislation. The use of the first person in Article 235 (translated above) also indicates some sloppiness in adding consistency to the document.

Due to the fact that the Nshavak is filled with items of legislation far more than an arrangement for a regime or the separation of powers – as one might expect out of a modern constitution – one could argue that the text does indeed predate the US Constitution. The first attempt of the Founding Fathers, the Articles of Confederation, was still an effort towards delineating the rights of the various colonies, now states, and the Constitution later was in the same spirit. Both are brief documents, certainly not spanning 521 articles. The American and Indian-Armenian documents thus do not speak to each other very deeply in terms of structure, and the less consistent form of the Nshavak could indicate that the members of the Madras Group did not have the more lean US Constitution (or Articles of Confederation) to use as a model.

It is highly unlikely that, in turn, the Nshavak was available to the Founding Fathers, of course. If there is an explicit reference to Washington, more inspiration from the former American colonies could have been expected in the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak, but nothing else as concrete can be pointed out. Moreover, the author or authors probably did not have a strong command of English in any case, as Article 510 would indicate. In it, the principle of all offices being occupied by Armenia-born Armenian Christians is contravened, allowing for the appointment in particular of military personnel from among Georgians (as Armenia and Armenians had been deprived of such practices for a long time, and therefore there might not be qualified officers for the job). If no-one would be found among Georgians, the Russians would come next, and, if not, the Germans. The clue about limited English-language skills here lies in the designation of that people: “nemtsa”, the word for “German” used in Slavic languages, or “alman”, the word used in Middle Eastern languages, including Persian [ի ազգէն նէմցայից, այսինքն ալմանէ – i azgên nêmc‘ayic‘, aysink‘n almanê].

Finally, a brief note on the names of the documents under examination. In the American case, a “structure” or “framework” of a regime was put in place, thereby being expressed as a “constitution”, ushering in the modern, political use of the word – although the legal, regulatory sense dates from as early as the 16th century, the Latin root referring to “arrangement” or “order”.[12]

The name “Vorogayt Parats” is often translated “Snare of Glory”. It might be more properly called “A Snare for Those Seeking Glory” or, roughly, “A Trap for Glories”, i.e., limitations on power. Early on in the text, the author discusses the necessity of “an unbreakable trap, made of law and justice” (p. 7) in order to immediately restrain men from committing acts of evil in violating their oath (breaking the social contract). That restraint and punishment will act as a cure for the “nshavakoutiun” – best translated here as “shame” – of the evil-doer.

Both the words “vorogayt” and “nshavak” feature a number of times in the text. Whereas the former immediately implies “snare” or “trap” or even “ambush”, an Armenian-English dictionary published in 1875 refers to “nshavak” much more as an “object of ridicule”, rather than the more neutral “target” or “mark”.[13] Acharyan’s etymological dictionary lists both meanings of the word, “target” and “object of ridicule”, but also “staff or other mark of royalty”, which would fit more within the meaning of order or regulations.[14] Ghougassian translates the word as “guidelines”.[15] The sense of “object” or “aim”, however, is quite clear throughout the text, although public humiliation is indeed an element of curbing undesirable actions by officials or inhabitants in the state envisioned in the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak. Interestingly, one more source indicates that there was a separate publication entitled “Nshavak” in Madras in 1783, which was meant to regulate the Armenian community there.[16]

The difference in the designations of the documents reflect the outlook on the part of the Founding Fathers and the Madras Group. The former already had their territories under control, and, indeed, functioning laws and a tradition of government. They “constituted” themselves in a different way, in a new, “more perfect Union”. The latter, however, still had an aim towards which they wished to head. The final article of the Nshavak, in fact, states that, “All of the above, both the sermon [presumably referring to the Vorogayt Parats section], and the 520 articles of the arrangements of the law, are simply an object [նշաւակ – nšavak] meant for publication …”, (p. 413) subject to the approval of the future leadership of the Armenian state. This provision, more than allowing for amendments (as mentioned above), makes it clear that the Nshavak can be whittled down to perhaps a more useful, a more workable document, after all.


The Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak and the US Constitution, alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, are documents that draw from the same well of early modern, Enlightenment principles of political freedom and equality. Their approaches are rather different, however, because they dealt with quite different circumstances. The backgrounds of the authors and their visions and hopes for the future did not match. More than just geographical separation – which was significant – the experiences, the realities on the ground, and the prospects of the Thirteen Colonies on the one hand, and the Armenians under Persian and Ottoman rule on the other, ran in different directions. It is easy to say so in hindsight, but the truth is that it is not for no reason that history played out so differently for these two groups.

Regardless, the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak has its rightful place in Armenian history. Razmik Panossian views this work, and other efforts and publications by Armenians in India – Shahamirian, Baghramian, and Emin are the prominent names – alongside the activities of Israel Ori as setting the groundwork for the ethno-nationalism that would arise in the Armenian provinces of the Ottoman Empire a century later, the shift being “from a religious interpretation of Armenian suffering to a political understanding”.[17] The Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak is replete with religious rhetoric and the role of the Armenian Church in the planned-for Armenian state is substantial – even though the actual Church itself wholeheartedly rejected any ideas of liberation or rebellion: Catholioc Simeon Yerevantsi had the book burnt, in fact.[18]

Although the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak is celebrated in Armenia today as an original Armenian constitution, such a characterisation is inaccurate and, in any case, it would be unfair to retroactively impose our modern notions of what a constitution is on that document. The claim that something like “constitutional thinking” went into that publication by Armenians in Madras in the 1770s or 1780s could, however, be substantiated, and one may indeed note that the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak may be the earliest (and unlikeliest, least expected) such piece of writing of its kind in modern times.

Moreover, the modern concept of Armenian statehood, that is to say, the conceptualisation of an Armenian state in modern times, based on modern, Enlightenment-era principles can be traced back to the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak, a path that not all countries on the map today can claim. Most states of the world – including the United States, in some sense – are the consequence of colonial-era territorial acquisitions and policies of erstwhile imperial powers. Although the current Republic of Armenia fits that description well too, the concept of an Armenian republic pre-dates the reality by two centuries – a highly unusual occurrence.



Հրաչեայ Աճառեան, Հայերէն Արմատական Բառարան (Երեւան: Երեւանի Համալսարանի Հրատարակչութիւն, 1926)

Hrač‘eay Ačar̄ean, Hayerên Armatakan Bar̄aran (Erewan: Erewani Hamalsarani Hratarakčutiwn, 1926)

Sebouh Aslanian, From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa (University of California Press, 2011)

Vazken Ghougassian, “The Printing Enterprise of Armenians in India”, Port Cities and Printers: Five Centuries of Global Armenian Print conference proceedings, November, 2012

Hacikyan, Basmajian, Franchuk, Ouzounian, The Heritage of Armenian Literature, Vol. 3: From The Eighteenth Century To Modern Times (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005)

Douglas Harper, Online Etymological Dictionary

Razmik Panossian, The Armenians: From Kings and Priests to Merchants and Commissars (London: Hurst & Company, 2006)

Simon Payaslian, The Political Economy of Human Rights in Armenia: Authoritarianism and Democracy in a Former Soviet Republic (I. B. Tauris, 2011)

Հայր Մատաթեայ Վարդապետ Պետրոսեան, Նոր Բառգիրք ՀայԱնգլիարէն (Վենետիկ: Մխիթարեանց Տպարան, 1875)

Hayr Matat‘eay Vardapet Petrosean, Nor Bar̄girk‘ Hay-Angliarên (Venetik: Mxit‘areanc‘ Tparan, 1875)

Յակոբ Շահամիրեանց, Գիրք անուանեալ Որոգայթ Փառաց (Թիֆլիս: Աղանեան, 1913 [1773])

Yakob Šahamireanc‘, Girk‘ anuaneal Orogayt‘ P‘ar̄ac‘ (T‘iflis: Ałanean, 1913 [1773])


[1] All citations, parenthetical page numbers of the Vorogayt Parats-Nshavak given throughout the paper are from the 1913 Tbilisi edition. All translations my own.

Յակոբ Շահամիրեանց, Գիրք անուանեալ Որոգայթ Փառաց (Թիֆլիս: Աղանեան, 1913 [1773])

Yakob Šahamireanc‘, Girk‘ anuaneal Orogayt‘ P‘ar̄ac‘ (T‘iflis: Ałanean, 1913 [1773])

available at

(accessed September 12, 2014)

[2] cf. John 3:16

[3] Interestingly, the word “nakharar” is used to mean “minister” in modern Armenian, that is, a member of the cabinet of the Republic of Armenia today, whereas it was in the past the term used for feudal lords, especially during the Arshakouni or Arsacid era (1st-5th cc. AD). Etymologically, it matches “prefect” in Latin in the sense of “first doer”, “first actor”.

[4] Also as a matter of interest, the top three commanders of the army described in Article 24 are designated with the colours red, blue, and yellow – the scheme upon which the flag of the modern Republic of Armenia is based (three horizontal bands of red, blue, and orange).

[5] Vazken Ghougassian, “The Printing Enterprise of Armenians in India”, Port Cities and Printers: Five Centuries of Global Armenian Print conference proceedings, November, 2012

available at

(accessed September 12, 2014)

[6] Razmik Panossian, The Armenians: From Kings and Priests to Merchants and Commissars (London: Hurst & Company, 2006), p. 93

[7] Simon Payaslian, The Political Economy of Human Rights in Armenia: Authoritarianism and Democracy in a Former Soviet Republic (I. B. Tauris, 2011), p. 63

[8] At the same time, the US Constitution allows for a particular section to remain free of possible amendments for a particular time – as per Article V, Section 9 of Article I is made privileged until 1808, quite possibly to allow for some freedom in the slave trade until that time.

[9] Sebouh Aslanian, From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa (University of California Press, 2011), pp. 213-214

[10] Ghougassian, “The Printing Enterprise of Armenians in India”

[11] Payaslian, Human Rights in Armenia, p. 62. Also see footnote 16.

[12] Douglas Harper, “constitution (n.)”, Online Etymological Dictionary

available at

(accessed September 12, 2014)

[13] Հայր Մատաթեայ Վարդապետ Պետրոսեան, Նոր Բառգիրք Հայ-Անգլիարէն (Վենետիկ: Մխիթարեանց Տպարան, 1875), p. 533

Hayr Matat‘eay Vardapet Petrosean, Nor Bar̄girk‘ Hay-Angliarên (Venetik: Mxit‘areanc‘ Tparan, 1875), p. 533

[14] Հրաչեայ Աճառեան, Հայերէն Արմատական Բառարան (Երեւան: Երեւանի Համալսարանի Հրատարակչութիւն, 1926), p. 461

Hrač‘eay Ačar̄ean, Hayerên Armatakan Bar̄aran (Erewan: Erewani Hamalsarani Hratarakčutiwn, 1926), p. 461

[15] Ghougassian, “The Printing Enterprise of Armenians in India”

[16] Hacikyan, Basmajian, Franchuk, Ouzounian, The Heritage of Armenian Literature, Vol. 3: From The Eighteenth Century To Modern Times (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), p. 161

Payaslian’s dating of the Nshavak to 1783 may be based on this other regulatory document. (see footnote 11)

[17] Panossian, The Armenians, p. 173

[18] Ibid., footnote 48 on p. 93