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The Independent Institute
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Did the Constitution Betray the Revolution? No: The Constitution as a Resolution of Revolutionary Debates


The interpretation of the constitutional movement as an elitist plot to push through a national government was first voiced by some of its opponents and is still with us today. A corollary of that view is the belief that the Constitution represented a betrayal of the Revolutionary principles of 1776.

Any answer to this question must begin with an examination of just what the Revolutionary principles of 1776 were. The great document of that year was, of course, the Declaration of Independence. That statement, however, was hardly a blueprint for government. Placed at the beginning of a myriad of reasons for separation from Great Britain was the famous passage about self-evident truths such as “that all men are created equal” and that their Creator endowed them with “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Just what this would mean about the government of this new nation was not self-evident at all.

Despite the belief of some contemporary neoconservatives, among them Irving Kristol, that the American Revolution was different from others. By their very nature revolutions are fought by coalitions, whose elements have a variety of views about the nature of the good society. Sometimes all that unites the revolutionaries is their opposition to the old regime.

Americans of that generation no doubt overwhelmingly agreed with Jefferson about “life” and “liberty,” but we have been contending ever since about the meaning of “created equal.” And as the historian Merrill Jensen has observed, Jefferson “abandoned the traditional formula that the purpose of government was the protection of life, liberty, and property,” substituting instead, “the pursuit of happiness,” a much less controversial point. Further, he notes, Jefferson “did not use the word democracy, but others did so.”

One might add that he did not use republican either, which was certainly more consistent with the opposition tradition he represented than was democracy. Quite apart from the fact that his purpose was to declare independence, not to discuss forms of government, including terms such as property would have been divisive to the coalition he was addressing.

Writing in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that equality was the motivating principle of human action in America and would soon extend itself throughout the world. The Declaration of Independence was evidence of its importance in the American Revolution, and it has been the engine of revolutions throughout history. The recurring question in all such revolutions for social change, however, has been whose definition of equality within the coalition would prevail.

Thus, for example, the Peasants' Revolt in the late 14th century began as a rather bourgeois protest in the towns of the eastern British nation against increased taxes and wage and price controls, which had been Richard II's response to the labor shortage and rising wages resulting from the Black Death. The elimination of a few tax collectors was essentially a defense of property rights, hardly a bloodbath to eliminate all social distinctions. It might have been successful if the townspeople had had any real supply of weapons. As that initial protest receded, radical priests roused the peasants in the countryside with a much more egalitarian program, which was not supported by the towns, and the movement was brutally suppressed by the government.

These same differences about what constitutes equality and the nature of the “good society” were evident in the English Revolution almost three centuries later. The revolutionary coalition ranged from conservatives on the right, who hoped to emerge as leaders in a Protestant revolution that would maintain many of the inequalities of the old order; through those libertarian-equalitarians of the middle, curiously described as Levellers because they wished to eliminate social and legal distinctions based on birth; to the religious, communist, egalitarian Diggers and Jesus-men on the extreme left.

Oliver Cromwell first compromised with the right wing of the coalition, and after his death further compromises resulted in a return of the monarchy. Thus was frustrated not only the egalitarianism of the smaller groups on the left, but also the equalitarian views of the much larger group of revolutionaries in the center.

Three decades after Cromwell's death, the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 affirmed the ultimate power of Parliament over the king and heralded an almost century-long struggle between “court” and “country,” mirrored by the development of political parties, Tory against Whig. Then as now, two parties were an awkward dichotomy within which to express the variety of contending interests—agrarian and mercantile, king and Parliament, established religion and proponents of greater religious freedom, to name a few. John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon's Cato's Letters, later so popular in America, opposed the political party jobbery and corruption so characteristic of this period and set the tone for groups opposing royal prerogatives in the emerging colonies.

English preoccupation with revolution in the 17th century, and later a long period of “salutary neglect,” allowed the Americans an unusual degree of economic and political growth and participation compared to the colonies of other nations. Under such circumstances, a large part of the American population came to perceive their rights as Englishmen in terms of a liberal Whig worldview. As recent writers such as J.G.A. Pocock have emphasized, this worldview went back at least as far as Machiavelli and Florentine republicanism.

Indicative of some of the unresolved tensions in this outlook was an agrarian orientation manifested in Jefferson and later Jeffersonian leaders. The extreme wing spoke of “the Agrarian law,” an egalitarian commitment to level society by a radical program of land redistribution in the belief that republican virtue could not exist in an environment characterized by extreme differences between the rich and the poor. While more moderate republicans distrusted such “court” jobbery as the financial manipulation inherent in the creation of the credit structure of the Bank of England, the agrarians, often even moderates such as Jefferson, distrusted not only banking but also commerce and industry.

For the better part of a century, the American colonials disputed the unresolved equalitarian questions of the English Revolution. The meetings of the Revolutionary Congress took place within the context of a continuing debate in America, focused around greater popular representation for both western settlements and emerging urban groups in an increasingly stratified society.

One of the major differences was with respect to property. While some radicals argued for popular political participation regardless of property qualifications, others suggested that the best way to achieve this was to distribute property to those who lacked it. More moderate leaders such as John Adams argued for a balanced republican government that would reflect the several orders of society.

Merrill Jensen, in The American Revolution Within America, is quite right that “serious debate over a central government began at the First Continental Congress in 1774.” The exodus of the Loyalists weakened the elements seeking a “balanced” constitution, and, Jensen notes, “to assume, as has been done, that Americans were a united people in 1776 and dedicated to the establishment of a single form of republican government, is an assumption that is unjustified by the evidence.”

Further, he observes, a writer such as Gordon Wood, in The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1789>, “emphasizes the unity among Americans and virtually ignores the sharp debates in 1775 and 1776 over the nature of the constitutions to be created, and the concern of practical politicians with such matters as suffrage, representation, local self-government, and the balance of power between those elected to office and the voters who elected them.”

The Revolutionary movement was not monolithic. As Thomas Paine's Common Sense was pushing independence early in 1776, John Adams's Thoughts on Government was a statement of the balanced government position. The draft for the Articles of Confederation, authored by John Dickinson, gave wide-ranging powers to the Congress. The ensuing discussion, Jensen notes, focused on “issues that Americans continued to debate for decades thereafter, most notably in the [Constitutional] Convention of 1787,” and seven of the members of that Congress attended the later meeting. The Congress deadlocked on the draft of the Articles in the summer of 1776, although it did pass a Declaration. whose wording sought to maximize agreement within the Revolutionary coalition.

In an unstable military situation, Congress had to flee ahead of the British army and did not complete the Articles of Confederation until November of 1777. The Articles were then sent to the state legislatures for ratification. Thomas Burke had altered the Dickinson draft by inserting what became Article Two: Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled [emphasis added].”

Ten years later an attempt was made to add that phrase to what became the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, but it was defeated. The debate over that small phrase, however, demonstrated two distinctly different conceptions of the proper relationship between the central government and the state governments.

The Articles were not ratified until early in 1781, only after the large states had agreed to renounce their claims to vast tracts of land in the West. Under the exigencies of war, both the Declaration as a philosophy and the Articles as an instrument of government represented minimal positions reflecting the maximum agreement possible in a coalition whose first task was to win the military struggle. Given the deep differences about the nature of government, the debate had only been postponed until a more opportune time.

During 1780, in the darkest days of the war, with the nation ravaged by inflationary paper money, some of the more extreme nationalists in the Congress and the army sought a central government verging on a military dictatorship. George Washington's unwillingness to accept any such scheme, as well as subsequent American military successes and the signing of a peace treaty, prevented it. Despite the failure of such extremists, more moderate advocates of balanced government wanted to reopen the debate, while even some advocates of the Articles began to realize the need for revision.

There is not space here to detail the many ways in which the military struggle, the new state constitutions, and the subsequent development of state governments changed the nature of American society during and after the war.

The number of Loyalists who fled, most never to return, was a larger percentage of the total population than in almost any of the allegedly more radical modern revolutions. As Forrest McDonald pointed out in a paper some years ago, much of the abandoned Loyalist property was confiscated by the “new” men entering government and the military as avenues for advancement.

Moreover, the turnover of elites in the American polity was far and away greater than in any of the modern revolutions of this century. A study of the Russian Revolution, for example, found that 10 years after the event, the elite turnover was only 50 percent. In the American case, however, only slightly more than 20 percent survived the transition to the new order: the political turnover averaged 77 percent, ranging from 50 percent in some states to 100 percent in others.

In this sense, the American Revolution was perhaps the most radical revolution for which we have any real data. The evidence assembled by James K. Martin in Men in Rebellion: Higher Government Leaders and the Coming of the American Revolution, contrasts starkly with claims by neoconservatives about the conservative and consensus nature of the Revolution.

The importance of this rise of new men was touched on by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, published as the “colonial problem” was heating up. In 1778, while reassessing policy, the British government asked many of its intellectuals what ought to be done about the rebellious colonies. In a letter discovered only in the 1930s, Smith replied that he saw little hope for reconciliation, for the “leading men of America, we may believe, wish to continue to be the principal people in their own country.” The importance of this phenomenon extended throughout all of the 13 colonies, down to the local as well as the national level, and it constituted the single most important factor in the development of Revolutionary society.

We know, for example, that given the lack of literacy, Paine's Common Sense had to be read to groups of American soldiers. Wood's Creation of the American Republic describes how some of these illiterates were elected to office in the midst of these social changes and had to have bills read to them before they could vote!

All of this could not but raise questions in the minds of men who believed in the liberal, republican, Whig worldview. The “virtue” that they believed could triumph over “corruption” was based on the concept of the gentleman and an educated yeomanry, not illiterates seeking to use government to secure a place. (A vivid description of this factional fight is found in James Madison's famous Federalist No. 10, which was perhaps more historical than philosophical.)

This is not to deny that there were some major accomplishments under the Articles, especially considering the war and the subsequent economic recession. It is simply a mistake, however, to suggest that the absence of a stronger central government meant less government. The new men in the state legislatures were legislating with a vengeance! The actions in the states raised great concern among advocates of balanced government. Inflationary paper money, restrictions on trade, and lack of protection for contracts were all distinctly unlibertarian products of legislatures during this period.

To this should be added meddling by foreign governments and the seeming inability of other nations to take the American government seriously. The internal discontent evidenced by Shays' Rebellion and other lesser disturbances were indicative of the social dislocation of this era. The alternatives were not, as we perceive from a perspective of 200 years, either the Articles, perhaps with some amendments, or the eventual Constitution. Some still thought monarchy or a dictatorship might be necessary. In 1786, for example, no less than the president of the Congress, Nathaniel Gorham was involved in negotiations with Baron von Steuben to invite Prince Henry of Prussia, the brother of Frederick the Great, to rule in America.

The alternatives facing Americans were described quite accurately by Pennsylvania's James Wilson at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia: “At this period America has it in her power to adopt either of the following modes of government: She may dissolve the individual sovereignty of the States, and become one consolidated empire; she may be divided into thirteen separate, independent and unconnected commonwealths; she may be erected into two or more confederacies; or, lastly, she may become one comprehensive Federal Republic.”

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights, like the Declaration of Independence or Articles of Confederation, consisted of a number of compromises. At least these could be debated and decided upon without the exigencies of war and the need to first develop state constitutions.

Writers as different as Merrill Jensen, an advocate of the Articles with perhaps the need for revision, and Herbert Aptheker, a Marxist who favors the Constitution, agree that the constitutional movement was an effort to protect property in its various forms (land, money, contracts) from the majoritarian state legislatures that were then dominant. In addition, as Aptheker notes, the Constitution guaranteed much greater freedom of religion than the states many of which kept religious qualifications well into the l9th century.

For all its failures, the Constitution remains after 200 years one of the great protectors of property rights in human history. As such, it was not a betrayal of the principles of 1776 as much as an effort to reopen the debate of that period, freed of the pressure of war. It represented a compromise reflecting one version of the idea of a balanced government to protect property rights as essential to the enjoyment of more broadly defined human rights. The Constitution was a balance between monarchy and military despotism on the one hand and extreme majoritarian populism on the other.

From a “what if” perspective, the burden is really on those who argue for the Articles, with perhaps some revision. Adam Smith's observations, along with the present-day researches of such scholars as James Buchanan and Mancur Olsen, suggest that there was simply no incentive for those new men in the states to concede power willingly to a government at a locus higher than their own. Whatever the corruption and abuse of rights at the national level, throughout our history the worse abuses have been, and remain, at the state and local levels.

The Progressive movement at the turn of the century, for example, was in a way a response to the increasing state economic regulation that was preventing the creation of national markets. To do business on a national scale, you had to buy all of the state legislatures, and the lower you descended, the less likely the politicians were to stay bought.

And does anyone really believe that the southern states would have moved willingly away from slavery and later segregation by law? In addition, the taking of property, whether from zoning or newer environmental “growth management” legislation, is greater at state and local levels than at the national. The great growth of government in the last several decades has been at these levels, not at the federal.

Since the administration of Richard Nixon, there has been an effort to return power to the states. But like the era of the Articles of Confederation, this has meant more government, not less. We now have 50 states competing in a more or less mercantilist struggle for advancement. In my state of Florida, the ex-governor, now Senator Bob Graham, conducted his own foreign policy with Latin America, and legislative committees junket in Asia with the aim of promoting economic development. A growth-management plan initiated in Oregon several years ago was developed by consultants from Florida.

The threat to human liberty and property rights, especially at the state and local levels, is as great now as it was in the 1780s . The preoccupation of so-called conservatives like Ronald Reagan with asserting the power of the United States in the world, and his circumlocutions of the Congress on a scale to rival previous imperial presidencies, remind us that we still lack something by way of “virtue” or an adequate system of checks and balances. Corruption, in the sense that the Founders used the term (as a whoring after power) is still with us.

Yet it is the Constitution that checks this corruption and keeps the politicians from achieving their nefarious ends. The defense the Constitution provides against their tyranny is sufficient reason to celebrate its Bicentennial.
For further articles and studies, please see OnPower.org.
William Marina was a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and Professor Emeritus in History at Florida Atlantic University.