A New System of Government

Donald L. Miller with Virginia Scharff, Louis P. Masur, and Pauline Maier


Miller: After the Revolution, the awesome and thrilling task of creating a new system of government. Some of the best minds of the day come together. They're drafting a new government in Philadelphia. It's done in secrecy, absolute secrecy. They have armed guards around there.

Scharff: Since they wanted to conduct debates in secret, they closed the windows. It was summertime. And they wore wool clothes. Can you imagine what it's like?

Masur: It was all-out warfare. There's contested understandings in meanings of those documents. I mean, those anti-Federalists did not buy into what was going on in Philadelphia. And they said that that was a group of 55 well-fed, well-read men, slave-owners many of them, who had lost faith in the people, who were repudiating the principles of the American Revolution.

Miller: Could a Constitution be created that would hold the fragile new nation together? That challenge, today, on A Biography of America.

A New Independence [Picture of Professor Maier]

Maier: "You and I, dear friend, have been sent into life at a time when the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live." So John Adams wrote his friend in 1776. "When, before," he asked, had three million people "full power and a fair opportunity to form and establish the wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive?"

The excitement of designing new governments for the American people attracted the best minds of the day, and what they did transformed a colonial rebellion into a world revolution. "If the colonists had only secured their independence from Britain," Thomas Paine wrote in 1792, "their Revolution would have been a matter... of little importance." But because independence brought, as Paine put it, "a revolution in the principles and practice of governments," the American Revolution became a landmark event for all mankind.

[Picture of Thomas Paine]

We're more inclined to emphasize other changes that the Revolution brought, such as its transformation of American society. Twenty years earlier the colonists thought a ranked society like Britain's was perfectly fine; they could even look forward to having an aristocracy of their own. Then, quite suddenly, "aristocracy" became "un-American." Equality, which, had, in fact, long since been more characteristic of American than British society, became a ruling principle.

After independence the Northern states began dismantling their slave systems, which were at odds with the country's assertion that "all men are created equal." That "first emancipation" not only made slavery a distinctly Southern institution, but also produced a community of free blacks, who became the nation's most ardent opponents of both slavery and racism. Meanwhile, women began questioning the assumption that they were "naturally" subordinate to men.

The American economy also underwent a seismic transformation. When Britain excluded Americans from their old markets, they went out to find new ones -- in China, for example, or the trans-Appalachian West, to which settlers streamed in the 1780s. State legislatures started granting patents and copyrights as they had never done before, and they also gave out charters of incorporation to encourage groups to build bridges and roads, or to found schools, banks, and "manufactories."

It's not too much to say that the modern American economy has its roots in changes the Revolution brought. We instinctively appreciate those social and economic changes, in part because they remain part of our lives. We still argue about the meaning of equality; we still encourage individual enterprise.

A New Republic

Government is another matter. The change Paine celebrated consisted in the founding of republics, governments without kings or hereditary rulers, in which all power came from the people. Today republics are everywhere; they seem anything but revolutionary. The same is true of written constitutions, which first appeared during the American Revolution.

It takes imagination to go back to a time when most of the world's people were governed by kings or other hereditary rulers, a time when no republics in Paine's sense existed; and to found one seemed a chancy gamble at best. There were, of course, republics in history: In ancient Rome, for example. But they had disappeared. That was the trouble with republics: they had a nasty way of failing. If the people rule, the line went, who will be ruled?

Republics produced anarchy; then the people turned to a strong ruler to restore order. A Caesar, for example, or -- in a later time -- a Napoleon. If the founding of a modern republic was revolutionary in the 18th century, the founding of a federal republic -- that is, a substantive government that incorporated a large number of smaller states -- was more so.

It was to do what had never been done before. And again, the issue was survival. Could a federal republic last any reasonable length of time? After 200 years of republican constitutional government, the answer seems obvious. But it wasn't at first. In fact, the whole experiment, and that's how the founders regarded the American republic, almost failed time and again.

How did the republic begin? Almost inadvertently, in the course of the Independence movement. Under the "revolution principles" that the colonists honored, resistance to an established government had to involve "the body of the people."

[Picture of Samuel Adams]

As a result, all the resistance organizations, the Sons of Liberty, for example, and the non-importation associations, tried to build broad bases of support. That, in fact, was the genius of Boston's Samuel Adams: he devised committees of correspondence that carried news of British actions to colonists in distant towns and drew them into the opposition movement. One colony after another followed his example. Gradually these broad-based resistance organizations began exercising what were normally powers of government -- keeping the peace, regulating trade, preventing price gouging when the supply of imports declined.

After the war began, these ad hoc arrangements became insufficient. Early in 1776, both New Hampshire and South Carolina, whose royal governments had collapsed, established temporary new governments with written constitutions. They at first expected to go back to more conventional governments under the Crown once the conflict with Britain was settled.

A Balanced Government

But then something unexpected happened: self-government turned out to be better than the royal government. "What everyone dreaded as the greatest misery, they now unexpectedly find their greatest advantage." So wrote a group of South Carolinians only two months after their new government went into effect.

Carolinians could choose their governors from capable men among themselves, men who, unlike the governors sent by the Crown, knew the state well. Now, too, laws promoted the state's prosperity, not that of the Mother Country. Who would go back to Crown rule when they had experienced a government, as the state's chief justice put it, "in every respect preferable"?

[Picture of 'Join or Die' cartoon]

What began in South Carolina and New Hampshire became universal after the Continental Congress called on the states to suppress "every kind of authority" under the British Crown and asked those states that hadn't already done so to adopt new governments, putting "all the powers of government" under the "authority of the people." By the end of 1776, ten states had new constitutions. In 1777, New York and Georgia joined the list. That left Massachusetts, which in 1780 finally adopted the last and what many regarded as the best of the first American state constitutions.

Before long some states began replacing their first constitutions, taking into consideration their experience and that of the other states. What were the most important developments worked out in those early state constitutions? First of all, balanced government. In the beginning, the states tended to center power in their elected legislatures. That made some sense: before the Revolution, the only part of colonial government that was everywhere elected, and so answerable to the people, was the lower house of the legislature, or assembly.

So Americans naturally trusted the assemblies most. From the start, however, John Adams said it was dangerous to give unchecked power to legislatures because they could oppress the people every bit as much as governors or kings.

[Picture of Thomas Jefferson]

Thomas Jefferson agreed. He criticized Virginia's constitution of 1776 because it put "all the powers of government, legislative, executive, and judiciary" in the legislature. That concentration of power, he said, was "precisely the definition of despotic government."

A New Constitution

Gradually the constitutions separated and balanced the branches of government. And constitutions themselves began to look different. The earliest, Virginia's and Pennsylvania's, for example, just listed their many provisions, one after another, in a continuous numbered sequence.

But the Massachusetts constitution, which John Adams drafted, was divided into articles. The first was on the legislature, the second on the executive, the third on the judiciary. Sound familiar? You might say it's just like the federal Constitution, except that the Massachusetts constitution came first.

The states also found a way of making constitutions different, and more fundamental, than ordinary laws. Elected legislatures adopted the earliest constitutions, and then felt free to change or ignore them whenever they liked. How could the Americans create constitutions that even legislatures had to obey?

Massachusetts again came up with the answer, and, interestingly enough, it didn't come from men like Adams so much as ordinary people in rural towns like Concord or Pittsfield. There the constitution was written not by the legislature but by something new, a specially elected constitutional convention. Then the convention sent its draft back to the people for ratification. The Massachusetts constitution of 1780 was therefore a direct act of legislation by the sovereign people.

Its text made that clear. "We... the people of Massachusetts," it said, "... do agree upon, ordain and establish, the following Declaration of Rights, and Frame of Government, as the CONSTITUTION of the COMMONWEALTH of MASSACHUSETTS." Again, does that sound familiar? The federal constitution of course also begins, "We the people...."

The Constitution of 1787 did not, however, emerge automatically from state precedents. A nation that had just spilled its blood breaking away from one central government was not ready to go out and establish another strong central government five minutes later. First it adopted Articles of Confederation, which were a clear step forward when Congress first sent them to the states for adoption. They formally bound the states together in a "perpetual union," and made a good stab at dividing responsibilities between the states and Congress.

A Constitutional Convention

The Articles of Confederation, however, put all power in one elected assembly. The Articles did not allow Congress to raise taxes or lay duties on trade. That meant it couldn't retaliate when other countries closed their markets to American shippers. It couldn't stop states from violating the rights of creditors, nor could it help Massachusetts in 1786, when that state's hard-money policies caused the debtor uprising known as Shays' Rebellion.

And meanwhile Britain, which had never left its posts in the northwest, was trying to make Vermont part of Canada. There was, in short, good reason to think the country was falling apart. This was very upsetting to men like Washington, who'd spent eight hard years fighting for the United States; his old military adjutant, New York's Alexander Hamilton; or James Madison, a short, physically unimpressive Virginian who was becoming perhaps the nation's greatest expert on constitutional design.

The delegates who assembled at Philadelphia in May 1787 saw their job as nothing less than saving the republic, and so saving the American Revolution from imminent failure. So Congress took up a plan submitted by the Virginia delegation and began creating a new federal government from scratch. The delegates agreed on many things. On some other issues they disagreed violently.

The convention almost broke up over representation. Finally a compromise solved the impasse. The convention made so many compromises, in fact, that few delegates were entirely happy with the finished Constitution. Even Madison, who had helped design the original Virginia plan, confessed that he thought the Constitution had several fatal flaws. But, like most other delegates, he took the closing advice of Benjamin Franklin that they "doubt a little" of their infallibility, and work "heartily and unanimously" for the Constitution's ratification.

The outcome was no sure thing: as soon as the people got a look at the proposed Constitution, the critics came out loud and strong. Powerful men like Patrick Henry in Virginia insisted that that the Constitution would create a "consolidated government," destroying the states, and that it included no real checks on its own power. Some, like Richard Henry Lee, said the Constitution recreated everything the colonists had rejected in 1776--a strong central government with the power to tax. Worse yet, the Constitution had no bill of rights.

[Picture of Constitutional debate]

Nine of the thirteen states had to ratify before the Constitution went into effect. But when the ninth state, New Hampshire, ratified on June 21, 1788, Virginia and New York were still undecided. The debates in Virginia were long and passionate, with Patrick Henry taking the floor time and again, driving some of the younger delegates like Madison to distraction with his long, rambling, emotional speeches. In late June, Virginia ratified the Constitution by a close vote, as did New York a month later.

Both states, and some others, proposed lists of amendments that should be adopted to "fix" the flawed new Constitution. How long could a constitution that provoked such strong opposition hope to last? Virginia's example wasn't encouraging. It declared that the powers granted to the new government by the people of Virginia "may be resumed by them whenever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression." That amounted to a threat of disunion.

On the other hand, George Washington agreed to serve as first President. He had presided over the Philadelphia convention, and threw his support behind the Constitution. No American commanded the trust and respect of his countrymen like Washington. They knew he could have been America's Caesar.

[Picture of George Washington]

There were some among the nation's military officers who, confronted with a fumbling government under the Articles of Confederation at the end of the war, would have made Washington king. He rejected any suggestion of that sort, resigned his command, and went home to his plantation, Mount Vernon. His willingness to serve the country once again gave the new government a good chance of succeeding.

The Spectre of Secession

[Picture of Alexander Hamilton]

By the time he left office, Washington had reason to regret his decision. He and his administration had come under attack by a group that called itself "Republicans" because they were, as they saw it, trying to save the republic from "Federalists" and "pro-British subversives" led by Alexander Hamilton, Washington's Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton had fought for American independence, but he did admire some aspects of British government. Nonetheless, he and other Federalists thought they were themselves struggling to save the republic from wild-eyed demagogues like Thomas Jefferson, a leader of the "Republicans."

Tensions declined briefly after John Adams became President and Jefferson Vice President. Those two men had been close allies in the struggle for independence, and their friendship deepened during the 1780s, when they both served as representatives of the United States in Europe. Neither, in truth, had much love for Hamilton. But their friendship frayed as the country moved toward war with revolutionary France, a country to which Jefferson and the "Republicans" were deeply committed.

As the Republicans' opposition to the Adams administration mounted, Federalists in Congress adopted a series of measures, the Alien and Sedition Acts, to repress what they understood as "Republican" sedition. That prompted Vice President Jefferson and his close ally, James Madison, to draft resolutions that the legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia adopted. Virginia denounced the Alien and Sedition Acts as efforts to establish a monarchy on the ruins of the republic. Kentucky even spoke of state "nullification" of unconstitutional acts of Congress.

Could the nation survive if individual states could decide which national laws they would obey and which they would disregard? The end of the "war scare" with France and Jefferson's election as President in 1800 seemed to end the crisis. In his inaugural address, Jefferson reached out to the opposition: "We are all Republicans," he said; "we are all Federalists." Fears for the nation declined, until Jefferson's decision to purchase Louisiana led die-hard Federalists to call for New England's secession from the Union.

Threats of secession surfaced again after 1819, when Missouri requested admission to the Union as a slave state, and a New York representative, James Talmadge, proposed that first the state must begin a program of emancipation. A compromise resolved the crisis, but not before Southerners threatened disunion and predicted "seas of blood."

Even Jefferson was pessimistic. If the problem of slavery emerged during the Missouri crisis as, in Jefferson's words, "a firebell in the night," it was not a problem that could be solved easily. On that Jefferson and John Adams agreed. Those veterans of 1776 had renewed their friendship in 1812, and exchanged letters with each other through the rest of their lives.

The Jefferson Legacy

They lived to see a great resurgence of nationalism after 1815. By then the Declaration of Independence had become for many a revered and even sacred document. Its importance, however, lay increasingly in its second paragraph, not the last one, with its announcement that the colonies had become "free and independent states." Independence, after all, was by then almost a half-century old.

Neither the federal Constitution nor the Bill of Rights said anything about equality or men's "unalienable rights" to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

As a result, those who wanted to assert those principles in national politics had to cite the Declaration of Independence. And so what was once a revolutionary manifesto took on new life as a statement of rights that the established government had to honor and protect, much like a bill of rights.

[Picture of Jefferson]

For Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence became the crowning achievement of his life. Discouraged by the Missouri crisis and conscious that his administrative career was less than glorious, worried about the University of Virginia, the pet project of his old age, as well as his own health and his debts, he asked what he had accomplished in his long life. He had no idea that he would become THOMAS JEFFERSON, the most idealized member of the founding generation. The inscription he proposed for his tomb began: "Here lies buried/Thomas Jefferson/Author of the Declaration of Independence..."

The pain he suffered while Congress edited his text was, it seems, forgotten. His death came at mid-day on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, as he wished. In bouts of consciousness he had asked his family, "Is it the Fourth?" Later that day, in Massachusetts, John Adams uttered his own last words: "Thomas Jefferson survives."

The deaths of those two patriarchs, and on so remarkable a day, filled the nation with awe. Another generation had inherited responsibility for carrying on the achievements of the Revolution. Just keeping the nation together would be a challenge to its skills. And that challenge would become more trying before it went away.

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Last modified: Thursday, 5 January 2012, 04:10 PM