Topic 14
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TOPIC XIV

Constitutional Experiments in the New Republic

 

 

 
 
 
 
Daniel Shays and his so-called rebellion have become a symbol of the tensions and controversies of the post-war years of republican experimentation.
Reading:
bulletCountryman, Part II
bullet Republican Government
bullet Deficiencies of the Confederation
bullet Adams, Thoughts on Government, 1776
OVERVIEW: After 1776  Americans  not only had to fight for their independence as a new nation; they also had to develop new structures of government. The years between 1776 and 1789 were a time of remarkable creativity, a classical age of political theory and experimentation. In abandoning monarchy they had to discover what it meant to establish republican forms. The states  fashioned new constitutions and  wrestled with the question of how to relate to a central government, an issue that had been at the heart of the controversy with Britain in the first place. By the end of the 1780s, a period seen as one of crisis by many leaders  and labeled the Critical Period by some historians, the final experiment was put in place, the Federal Constitution of 1787.

Transformation: British Whigs into American Republicans

In devising constitutions for the states, Americans drew on several sources:

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The 18th-century British understanding of the principle of balanced government, a concept going back to Aristotle, saw the genius of the British constitution in the balance of interests among the One (King), the Few (Lords) and the Many (Commons). Compare this tradition of balanced government with John Adams' Adams, Thoughts on Government, 1776

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 Montesquieu's misreading of the British constitutional system gave the concept of the separation of powers

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Enlightenment thinkers provided models for order, reason, and progress in government.  They laid the theoretical basis for worldwide republican Revolution

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Colonial legacy of a written charters of government

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The British colonial legacy was the most fruitful source of governmental concepts.  Americans absorbed the common-law tradition and a body of civil liberties obtained by Englishman in the 17th century.  George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 is an example.

NEW CONSTITUTIONS FOR NEW STATES

Common Assumptions, Features, & Procedures

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A constitution is a form of higher law, superior to ordinary legislation

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The authority to establish Constitution came from the people
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All the states submitted the new documents to popular vote for approval

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All the states submitted the new documents to popular vote for approval.

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The social dynamics: the traditional elites and new people brought into politics by the revolutionary movement had to work out some system of cooperation.  So-called popular leaders tried to expand the suffrage and make access to public office easier.  Most leaders wanted to preserve as much as they could of the past.

Range of Constitutional Experiment

Radical

bullet Pa. Constitution, 1776 (Click to read the source) Pennsylvania adopted the most radical Constitution. 
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 A one-house Legislature with an executive council selected from each county. 

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The constitution went into effect by common consent without ratification.

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A conservative opposition arose quickly. After the war the Constitution was the center of a party conflict in the state.

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Iin 1790 the critics of the 1776 constitution wrote a new constitution modeled on the new Federal Constitution:
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A single executive and a two-house Legislature. But the almost universal white manhood suffrage established in 1776 was retained.

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Georgia, like Pennsylvania also a state with a large frontier population, had a similar experience.  In 1775 a small group of radicals set up a council of safety and took control of the government which had been firmly Royalist.  In 1776 the council issued call for a convention and allowed all white male taxpayers to vote for the delegates. The Constitution that emerged in 1777  had a unicameral assembly and almost universal white manhood suffrage.  But conservatives regained power and in 1789 revised the constitution, patterned on the new federal Constitution.

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Delaware and New Hampshire also wrote liberal constitutions.

Moderate

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Virginia and North Carolina wrote middle-of-the-road constitutions with powerful legislatures and weak executives.  The system of representation by counties, rather than population, insured a greater influence for the Tidewater regionat the expense of the West and Piedmont.  The traditional Whiggish  Whig elite, which had controlled the colonial assemblies and managed the Revolution, dominated the politics of Virginia and North Carolina for half a century after the  Revolution.
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Virginia Constitution, 1776

bulletJefferson's Draft Bill for Religious Freedom, 1779 , although it was not adopted, shows the movement to change the traditional relationship between church and state in the early republic

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Massachusetts Constitition.  Drafted by John Adams in 1780 this was a moderately conservative Constitution based on their colonial charter.  It provided for an  independent judiciary, and popularly elected governor with veto powers.  Adams was concerned for a separation of legislative, executive, and judicial functions. Adams made few concessions to democracy. A commercial elite dominated the politics of the state in the postwar years, managing debts and taxes to suit your interest. 
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Shays' Rebellion was a reaction against this situation. Another presentation.

Conservative

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New York, Maryland, and South Carolina wrote the most conservative constitutions. They had high property qualifications for voting and holding office. They gave legislative power to the upper house as well as the lower house and imposed  rigid property qualifications for senators.
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New York Constitution, 1777

What do these first state constitutions show?

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All embraced the separation of powers and an independent judiciary

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Except in Massachusetts and New York, the powers granted to governors made them relatively weak.

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These first constitutions were not too radical but over the following decades more changes made the balance of power among the branches of government more equal. In the colonial period the Councils (Upper Houses) were dominated by lawyers, merchants, and large land holders. After 1776 a restricted suffrage added more farmers. Gradually the traditional governing elite weakened as voters and leadership increasingly overlapped and more people from lower in the social scale came to participate.  Just as the popular appeals of revolutionary Patriot propaganda stimulated political awareness, so did popular  participation come to increase the power of the common people. This was a longer-term legacy of the constitutional experimentation of the posts-war years.

NATIONAL EXPERIMENT
ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION & THE CRITICAL PERIOD

Historians continue to debate the years leading up to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. That discussion mirrors the conflicting views of Americans in the 1780s. As the documentary Liberty says in its last segment, when the war was over the battle to govern began.

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The basic question was whether the thirteen republics could transcend their various interests and form a nation.

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At bottom the revolutionary movement had  developed out of a constitutional struggle over the rights of individual colonies and the central government of the Empire.

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During the war the Continental Congress served as a kind of government for the emerging republic but it had few real powers and the states guarded their sovereignty jealously.

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Between 1783 and 1787 Americans had to grapple with the major issue in Whig ideology: How to strike the right balance between power and liberty.

The Articles of Confederation, not adopted until 1781, was basically a description of how  the Congress had managed to function as a war government. Could a new nation be built on it? Could it lead to the right balance between power and liberty. There were those who thought it could and those who came to differ strongly. Historians who agree with the its critics have called these years the Critical Period. For them, the republic was in danger of losing the peace and the men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 were seen as the saviors of the nation, the Founding Fathers.

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Deficiencies of the Confederation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

bulletArticles of Confederation, 1781  

http://www.sjchs-history.org/shays.html

 

William Manning, A Laborer, Explains Shays Rebellion