Constitutional Experiments in the
Daniel Shays and his so-called rebellion have
become a symbol of the tensions and controversies of the post-war years
of republican experimentation.
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
devising constitutions for the states, Americans drew on several sources:
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
misreading of the British constitutional system gave the concept of the
separation of powers
thinkers provided models for order,
reason, and progress in government.
They laid the theoretical basis for worldwide republican Revolution
Colonial legacy of a
written charters of government
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
Virginia Declaration of Rights
in 1776 is an example.
NEW CONSTITUTIONS FOR NEW STATES
Features, & Procedures
A constitution is a form of higher law, superior to
The authority to
establish Constitution came from the people
All the states
submitted the new documents to popular vote for approval
All the states
submitted the new documents to popular vote for approval.
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.
(Click to read the source)
Pennsylvania adopted the most radical
one-house Legislature with an executive
council selected from each county.
The constitution went
into effect by common consent without ratification.
A conservative opposition arose quickly.
After the war the Constitution was the center of a party conflict in
Iin 1790 the critics of
the 1776 constitution wrote a new constitution modeled on the new
A single executive and a two-house
Legislature. But the almost universal
white manhood suffrage established in 1776 was retained.
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.
Delaware and New Hampshire also wrote liberal
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.
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.
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
What do these first state
All embraced the separation
of powers and an independent judiciary
Except in Massachusetts and
New York, the powers granted to governors made them relatively weak.
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.
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.
The basic question was whether the
thirteen republics could transcend their various interests and form a
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.
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.
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.
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.
Manning, “A Laborer,” Explains Shays Rebellion