American Revolution and Constitutional Theory

Author:Gordon S. Wood

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The era of the American Revolution was one of the greatest and most creative periods of CONSTITUTIONALISM in modern history. The American revolutionaries virtually established

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the modern idea of a written constitution. There had, of course, been written constitutions before in Western history, but the Americans did something new and different. They made written constitutions a practical and everyday part of governmental life. They showed the world how written constitutions could be made truly fundamental and distinguishable from ordinary legislation and how such constitutions could be interpreted on a regular basis and altered when necessary. Further, they offered the world concrete and usable governmental institutions for carrying out these constitutional tasks.

Before the era of the American Revolution a constitution was rarely distinguished from the government and its operations. In the English tradition a constitution referred not only to FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS but also to the way the government was put together or constituted. "By constitution," wrote Lord Bolingbroke in 1733, "we mean, whenever we speak with propriety and exactness, that assemblage of laws, institutions and customs, derived from certain fixed principles of reason, directed to certain fixed objects of public good, that compose the general system, according to which the community hath agreed to be governed." The English constitution, in other words, included both fundamental principles and rights and the existing arrangement of governmental laws, customs, and institutions.

By the end of the revolutionary era, however, the Americans' idea of a constitution had become very different from that of the English. A constitution was now seen to be no part of the government at all. A constitution was a written document distinct from, and superior to, all the operations of government. It was, as THOMAS PAINE said in 1791, "a thing antecedent to a government, and a government is only the creature of a constitution." And, said Paine, it was "not a thing in name only; but in fact." For the Americans a constitution was like a Bible, possessed by every family and every member of government. "It is the body of elements, to which you can refer, and quote article by article; and which contains ? everything that relates to the complete organization of a civil government, and the principles on which it shall act, and by which it shall be bound." A constitution thus could never be an act of a legislature or of a government; it had to be the act of the people themselves, declared JAMES WILSON in 1790, one of the principal Framers of the federal Constitution in 1787; and "in their hands it is clay in the hands of a potter; they have the right to mould, to preserve, to improve, to refine, and furnish it as they please." If the English thought this new idea of a constitution resembled, as Arthur Young caustically suggested in 1792, "a pudding made by a recipe," the Americans had become convinced the English no longer had a constitution at all.

It was a momentous transformation of meaning in a short period of time. It involved not just a change in the Americans' political vocabulary but an upheaval in their whole political culture.

The colonists began the imperial crisis in the early 1760s thinking about constitutional issues in much the same way as their fellow Britons. Like the English at home, they believed that the principal threat...

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