The American Constitution: The First Two Hundred Years, 1787-1987

The American Constitution: The First Two Hundred Years, 1787-1987

The American Constitution: The First Two Hundred Years, 1787-1987

The American Constitution: The First Two Hundred Years, 1787-1987

Synopsis

Papers by leading British and American scholars provide a comparative historical and political analysis of the US Constitution, ranging over its birth, infancy and maturity.

Excerpt

The Constitution which emerged from the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 was the product of learned debate and judicious compromise. Born out of a sense of necessity, it was designed to suit a small agrarian republic of virtuous citizens. The document was couched in legalistic language and its uncompromising formality made it unlikely material for later veneration. It has, however, attained the status of a sacred text. Today, the Constitution reigns supreme over the law of the United States and is considered a fundamental birthright of all Americans.

But how truly 'American' was the Constitution? In various guises and forms, this question is as old as the republic itself. Its particular relevance to the framing of the Constitution is examined by Iain Hampsher-Monk whose essay focuses on the contribution of British and European political thinkers. The Founding Fathers were conscious that they were forging a new and special political system, but their preoccupation over such concepts as 'republicanism' and 'virtue' reflected their debt to European precedents. Iain Hampsher-Monk places particular emphasis on the writings of Montesquieu and Hume and shows how their ideas were central to the debates at Philadelphia.

Michael Duffy notes the sense of crisis which prompted the calling of the Convention. He explains how jealousies and rivalries were moderated to allow a positive conclusion which went well beyond the original mandates given to the delegates. In his view, the desperate desire for a government which would work, persuaded delegates to borrow more from British political ideas and practice than they were publicly prepared to admit. The new federal system superseded government by the Articles of Confederation, but Lyman Sargent argues that the latter are too readily dismissed as an abject failure. After all, the Articles had also sought to deal with the fundamental issue of how political power should be exercised in a society of free citizens. The framing of the new Constitution implied that the Articles of Confederation were discredited, but Lyman Sargent points out that a balanced government had been achieved under the Articles. The dilemma over power was not resolved in 1787 and would continue to reverberate throughout American history up to the present day.

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