Willi Paul Adams
The First American Constitutions:
Republican Ideology and the Making of the
State Constitutions in the Revolutionary Era.
Expanded Edition. Lanham, Maryland:
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
400 pp. $85.00 (cloth), $28.95 (paper).
There was no miracle in Philadelphia. A miracle is an event without any natural causes. The framing of the world's most successful written constitution in the city of brotherly love in 1787 had many, perhaps thousands, of
preceding natural causes. This is a lesson derived from Willi Paul Adams' recently reissued and expanded study of The First American Constitutions. The men who met in
Philadelphia were deeply experienced in contriving governments and making them work because they, like generations before them in what became the United States, had done this in townships, counties, and colonial assemblies, and in non-importation associations and
on committees of correspondence and safety as the revolutionary movement took shape. These thousands of acts of local government caused our constitution and all the good it has done.
Adams argues in effect that our Revolution succeeded where others have failed because Americans' involvement in
governing themselves at the local level prior to the revolution gave them a set of habits that they could rely on to get them through the dissolution of the colonial governments. Everyone knew what to do and how to do it
because they had been doing it for years. Anarchy was never a danger. When royal governors suspended assemblies because they questioned the authority of the king, the
members simply carried on doing as they had done. When new practices were tried (e.g., unicameral legislatures), Americans judged them by experienced and shared standards of efficiency and effectiveness and adjusted as necessary. By the time the revolution occurred, Americans had acquired from their local self-governance a shared practical wisdom in politics unequaled in the world.
This made them masters at contriving workable governments.
Adams makes clear that government at every level in our founding period was not only a question of contrivance. It was contrivance informed by and in the service of
principle. The fundamental principle was equality, the common understanding that men were by nature equal. All the principles and much of the practice of government
flowed from this idea. If men were equal by nature, then no man had the right to rule another. Men were by nature free, therefore. Consequently, they could be ruled only by
their consent. In consenting to government, however, men did not give up their natural liberty entirely or finally. Some natural liberties or rights—freedom of religion, for example—they could not give up. The liberties they did give up, they could justly take back if government became oppressive.
Because individuals held onto some of their natural liberty and could take back the rest, they were the ultimate, the sovereign source of political power. This is the origin of popular sovereignty, which manifested
itself during the revolution in the new idea that constitutions, the rules governing how equal and free individuals would rule themselves, should be drawn up by assemblies elected especially for that purpose and then ratified by the people, subject to subsequent amendment. This arrangement established a constitution as superior to ordinary legislation, an important way of assuring that men were governed not by the whims of other men but
only by laws to which they had consented, as required by their natural equality and freedom. This fundamental procedure was worked out at the local level of American politics, first in Massachusetts, before it was used at the
The prevalence of the idea of equality gave rise to a question. If men were equal by nature, should they be equal in society as well? The two most prominent ways this
question arose were with regard to slavery and property. Most in the founding generation recognized that slavery contradicted the natural equality of men. Few wanted to do anything about it, even at the state level, because Southern concern with emancipation threatened to dissolve
the new Union. Yet, the strength of local government meant that the issue of slavery was dealt with eventually at that level. While only Vermont, not yet part of the Union, abolished slavery in its constitution (1777), Pennsylvania
began the process of abolition by legislation in the northern states in 1780.
On the relation between property and equality, no disagreement existed. Natural equality did not imply the need for equality of property in society or any limitation on its accumulation. The reasoning here was simple.
Property was necessary for survival. If the government could control a man's property, then it could control him. His equality and freedom would be no more. The founding
generation recognized that this deference to property would lead to differences in wealth among Americans. With an abundance of land available and corporations not yet powers in America's economic life, the effects of these
differences in wealth were not a pressing matter.
The founding generation recognized also that protecting property would lead not just to differences in the quantities of property that individuals held. It would lead as well to the accumulation of different kinds of property. The founding generation knew too that each kind of property would create an interest that would express itself politically. Farmers, manufacturers and merchants, for example, did not have the same interests. Farmers wanted to pay as little for manufactured goods as possible,
while manufacturers wanted tariffs raised to keep foreign competition out even though this raised the price of manufactured goods.
Problems like this gave rise to discussions of what the common good might be. Adams argues that the Founding generation was so focused on the rights of individuals that it could conceive of the common good only as the sum of the individual goods of every citizen. Their practical experience in local government taught Americans that they could reconcile the different interests in their communities by a system of government that represented every interest. The right to vote was widely shared but the
drafters of our first constitutions set requirements for office that often included certain amounts or kinds of property. They designed bicameral legislatures to represent different interests. This practical approach was a better solution to the problem of the common good, Adams
suggests, than what men had before contrived, clouds of idealistic rhetoric attempting to obscure the sacrifice of
every good to that of a very few.
Not every interpretation that Adams offers of local practice and principle rings true. He claims, for example, that equality meant nothing more than the equality of the colonists with Englishmen, despite his careful attention
to the issue of slavery which shows that the founding generation understand the profound revolutionary force of this idea. Similarly, his claim that the founding generation understood the common good only in procedural terms misses something. For the procedures of self-government as local government to work,citizens had to possess certain characteristics. They had to be independent, active, assertive, tolerant, and skeptical. Not only did local government require these traits among those involved in it but, by affecting their interests, it encouraged them. These traits are really virtues, of course, and as such show that local government did require and encourage a common good.
Whatever might be the limitations of Adams' interpretation, its own virtues remain paramount. Adams shows clearly the importance of traditions and habits of local government for the success of our experiment in
self-government on a continental scale. Adams notes that among the founding generation it was commonly believed that a republican government could survive only if it periodically returned to its first principles. In the
United States, we should understand the recurrence to first principles to mean a return to the virtues of local self-government.
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David Tucker is an Associate Professor in the
Department of Defense Analysis at the Naval
Return to the Spring, 2004 edition of Local Liberty