A Source Book of American Political Theory

By Benjamin Fletcher Wright Jr. | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER VI THE GROWTH OF CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY

INTRODUCTION

Since 1787 there has been no national constitutional convention by which the changing political ideas of the American people could be gauged. There have been scores of conventions in the states. And although the convention of 1787 is one of exceptional importance in the history of American political theory it gives us only a picture of the ideas held by the politically experienced, the wealthy, and the well educated. In the state conventions, particularly those of the nineteenth century, practically all shades of experience, wealth, and education are represented. Unfortunately the earlier conventions kept no record except a brief and relatively unsatisfactory journal of proceedings. But, after about 1815, records of the debates were kept and printed by most of the conventions. These debates afford much the best single source of our information as to the general currents of American political thought. They do not give an adequate reflection of all important controversies, those over slavery and state rights for example, but they do afford an unusually good picture of the way in which traditional American doctrines were being adapted to fit the needs and desires of a changing society.

Some of these convention debates make rather dull reading in comparison with many earlier writings or with the contemporary books and orations on slavery and state sovereignty. But their lack of literary or philosophic appeal is not indicative of unimportance. Frequently the speeches of greatest intellectual interest in the conventions, those for example of Story and Webster in Massachusetts, of Kent in New York, and of John Randolph in Virginia, were but un

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