How the U.S. Constitution was born

Posted on October 18, 2018. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Colonial America, Politics, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

Welcome to part the last of our series on Bernard Bailyn’s masterful description of the transformation of American political thought in the decade before 1775. Here we look at how the idea of a Constitution of principle took off once it was properly presented. As Bailyn puts it:

The transition to more advanced group was forced forward by the continuing need, after 1764, to distinguish fundamentals from institutions and from the actions of government so that they might serve as limits and controls. Once its utility was perceived and demonstrated, this process of disengaging principles from institutions and from the positive actions of government and then of conceiving of them as fixed sets of rules and boundaries, when on swiftly. [181]

Americans, as Bailyn spends a long early chapter explaining, seemed to fear nothing more than unlimited government that became tyrannical. Abuse of power was the worst possible abuse. That’s why most Americans had resisted a government based on theory–theory could infinitely expand and be used to justify any abuse of power. Better to send reps to the legislature with a few concrete demands than to have them while away their hours coming up with “ideas” to guide them.

But it became clear to these Americans that Principle did not have to be used for evil expansion of power. Principles could be used to limit government. The U.S. Constitution is a tribute to where this thinking quickly led–it can definitely read sometimes like it’s primarily a list of what the federal government cannot do rather than what it can. Principles can be used to curb government by giving natural rights to the individual citizen, and institutions like the free public press.

If politicians drew their power to act from a set of written principles that the voters had agreed upon, then those principles–the Constitution–began to seem like it had a lot in common with those written rules and requirements towns used to send their reps to the legislature with. One knew that one’s reps were bound by the principles of the Constitution, and, if that constitution was properly written, it would curb the power of the government.

This helped Americans to separate bodies of law from actual bodies of government. Parliament, or the colonial legislature, were not the constitution. They were not the law. They did not write laws by their own authority. Americans quickly adopted the idea that legislatures were authorized to write laws by authority of the constitution they were governed by. They could not create laws that violated that constitution. Legislatures were not synonymous with the law, and they were not above it.

This flew in the face of the established English legal tradition that the body of laws Parliament had created over the centuries was the English constitution, and therefore Parliament itself was the ultimate authority. As Zubly put it, the Americans were diverging into the belief that

Parliament derives its authority and power from the constitution, and not the constitution from Parliament… the constitution is permanent and ever the same, [and Parliament] can no more make laws which are against the constitution or the unalterable privileges of the British subjects than it can alter the constitution itself… The power of Parliament, and of every branch of it, has its bounds assigned by the constitution. [181-2]

This leads fairly naturally to the idea that a people and their legislature must have a written constitution to operate by. The English tradition that the entire great body of law and precedent created over the centuries was the constitution was unacceptable. That great body of law had no guiding principles–it contained laws that contradicted each other, laws that were written on the spur of the moment, laws that were the brainchild of individual men. And it put the cart before the horse: a legislature doesn’t make a constitution possible; a constitution makes legislation possible.

Bailyn goes on to the end of this chapter to describe how different colonies began to implement this idea, and it’s good reading. But we’ll close our series with a final quote from this great historian:

These changes in the view–of what a constitution was and of the proper emphasis in the understanding of rights–were momentous; they would shape the entire future development of American constitutional thought and practice.

It’s great to really study the intellectual history of our revolution, and to remind ourselves that it was not all about “Americans didn’t want to pay taxes”.

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