Here in part 5 of our series on Bernard Bailyn’s masterful description of American political thinking in the transitional decade of the 1760s, we come to the second revolution in political thinking that occurred in a very short period: the idea of a constitution of principles.
English legal tradition had defined the “constitution” as the legislature itself–“a legal constitution, that is, a legislature”, as Richard Bland put it. Bailyn describes how the work of the American lawyer James Otis began to articulate a new definition of a constitution as a moral foundation for the work of a legislature, a set of principles that informed and put boundaries on what a legislature could do. Bailyn sums this up as “a set of fixed principles and rules distinguishable from, antecedent to, more fundamental than, and controlling the operating institutions of government” (176).
In this understanding, a constitution authorized and limited the legislature’s actions. Since all of this thinking was going on in the context of English law, the question of whether a constitution authorized and limited the monarch’s actions did not come into play. And as we know, after the Revolution there was still substantial support in the new United States for a monarch-like president who stood above the law. But the idea that Congress, House and Senate, had to abide by a constitution of principles was firmly established–so much so that the American people famously demanded a Bill of their rights be added to the Constitution that they, the people, ratified, so that Congress would be clearly bound to protect principles of personal liberty, and, even more important to people at the time, restrained, constrained, and prevented from expanding its powers and becoming tyrannical.
But that’s leaping ahead. During the period 1765-1775, Americans were working out the first step, which was how to define the principles a constitution should uphold. Were they simply the recognized legal principles handed down from legislature to legislature over the centuries of English practice? Were they religious principles of Anglican Christianity? Were they the new and radical tenets of natural law? It was easier to use the term “fundamental law” and “formal principles” than to define them, especially in America, where there had been so much steely and deliberate resistance to the idea of men in a legislature serving any other principle than “I will follow the orders my townspeople gave me.”
Otis wrote that Parliament could not be allowed to violate natural laws “which are immutably true,” because that would violate “eternal truth, equity, and justice,” and therefore any act of Parliament that violated natural law would be “void.” But how do we define what is “immutably true”? How do we come to agree on what is eternally true, fair, and just? What we discover is that the foundation of any constitution is a shared agreement on, and belief in, some powerful concepts of truth, fairness, and justice.
We see this shared agreement stated elegantly in the opening words of our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We hold these truths–it took years of debate, ten thousand letters and editorial essays printed in newspapers, tens of thousands of sheets of paper, a million letters between Americans, and countless millions of conversations in taverns, family homes, business offices, and farm fields to define who “We” were and what the “truth” was. That all this intellectual activity was compressed into about 10 years–1765-1776–is remarkable, and shows how important those definitions were to Americans at all levels of society. The same debate went on for another ten years, until our Constitution was drafted in 1787.
Even Otis did not go as far as his fellow Revolutionaries would. He did not believe that a constitution would “furnish judges with grounds for declaring [laws] nonexistent because they conflicted with the ‘constitution,’ but only[provide] judges with principles of interpretation by which to modify gross inequities in ways that would allow traditional [definitions] of justice to prevail.”  The idea that inherited laws and legal procedures, inherited concepts of law that were centuries-old, should still stand as the test of whether an act of Parliament was valid would be vehemently discarded by the men who wrote our Declaration and, eventually, our Constitution. Longevity was not truth, tradition was not equity.
We’ll finish next time with the path to concretizing the new American idea(l) of a modern constitution of principle.