Government for the people’s sake in Colonial America

Posted on October 5, 2018. Filed under: Colonial America, Politics, Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 4 in our series on Bernard Bailyn’s masterful description of American political thinking in the transitional decade of the 1760s.

We left off describing the common American conception of government as a purely practical delivery system in which their representatives to the colonial seat of government, meeting in a general assembly once or twice a year, followed their written instructions by asking for things their towns wanted, then came home. There was no sense of government as something larger than the sum of its parts. Government was not something that expressed certain ideals. It didn’t inspire people, it wasn’t generally seen as an instrument that could be used to expand the common good.

Government for most American colonials was, in fact, an ever-present danger. Bailyn spends the first part of his book illustrating that the deepest fear Americans had about government was that it would abuse its power–that it would become tyrannical. If you were to tell representatives that they were politicians, that meant their job was being in the government, working in government, and soon they would do anything to preserve and extend their power. Better to keep reps firmly in place as the dispensable, dependent servants of their constituents, sent to the assembly to do a short-term job for someone else.

This served to restrict the power of government by preventing it, as much as possible, from taking on a life and meaning of its own. As Bailyn puts it,

In effect the people were present through their representatives, and were themselves, step by step and point by point, acting in the conduct of public affairs, No longer merely an ultimate check on government, they were in some sense the government. Government had no separate existence apart from them; it was by the people as well as for the people; it gained its authority from their continuous consent. [173]

That’s why most colonial assemblies only met once a year. The idea of a standing government, like a standing army, always around, always acting, was unnatural and repellent to most Americans. It was the norm in Europe for all national legislatures to meet for short periods only–Parliament met briefly then disbanded. It did not stay in session all year. Government came into being, into existence, when the people came together to make their demands. Then it disappeared again when they left. The people were the government.

We begin to see in this alien state of affairs the seeds of our own familiar American conception of government. The people would accept a colonial assembly coming into being because they made it come into being by sending their reps to the capital. The people controlled their reps, and so controlled the government. Thus the people felt safe consenting to the decrees of the temporary assembly. If their representatives stayed in the capital all year, and talked amongst themselves, and came up with laws on their own,  based on their reading or some other source than their direct voters, then those voters–the people–would not accept those laws or consent to them.

Electing reps each year was a way to ensure that no one stayed in politics so long that they began to pursue their own, or someone else’s, agenda. In this way, short terms in brief assemblies secured consent. Voters had to feel that their positions were represented   in their assemblies, or they would not consent to the laws the assemblies passed. This was government by the people, as much as possible, and for the people (who could vote), not government for government’s sake. Government for the sake of promoting and protecting a leader (a monarch or governor), for the sake of providing people with government jobs, for the sake of enriching politicians and capital cities–this was anathema to Americans.

Of course, some men were elected as reps over and over by their towns, for decades. But even these men could be suddenly and swiftly unseated if they crossed their constituents. Men who represented their town for years on end were men who did their town’s bidding.

Underlying this state of affairs, and making it possible, was the lack of a king in America. Yes, the American colonists were servants of the king, just as people in England were. But they did not participate in Parliament, and so their experience of their own government passing laws to please the king, or enrich him, or reflect his religious beliefs, etc., was extremely limited. A series of English monarchs declared war on France, and Americans fought the French in Canada many times. This was the most directly felt impact of having a king for most American subjects. Otherwise, Americans governed themselves to serve themselves.

Bailyn quotes the Tory Anglican minister Samuel Seabury apprehending in 1774 how differently  the American perception was from the British, and anticipating the trouble it must cause:

The position that we are bound by no laws to which we have not consented either by ourselves or our representatives is a novel position unsupported by any authoritative record of  the British constitution, ancient or modern. It is republican in its very nature, and tends to the utter subversion of the English monarchy.

Next time: constitutions and rights


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