The American States during and after the Revolution, 1775-1789

By Allan Nevins | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR THE WRITING OF THE STATE CONSTITUTIONS

Even if we make allowance for the fact that the main elements of the new governments were simply adapted from the old colonial forms, the labor of writing the State constitutions in 1776-77 was one of forbidding magnitude. In the State that was the very keystone of the Union, Pennsylvania, the party animosities aroused during this task brought on a convulsion which threatened civil war. In another rich and powerful State, New York, the perplexities of constitutional theorizing gave birth to several institutional monstrosities that it required two generations of bitter experience to wipe out. In still other States, such as North Carolina, the glaring imperfections of the new government half disabled it during the Revolutionary struggle. But the task was approached with ardor, for the radical patriots saw in it the chief opportunity and reward of the early phase of the revolutionary conflict.

It was the first time in the world's history that a large group of communities had begun the formation of their own governments under written constitutions. It gave such instruments, indeed, an importance they had never before possessed. We are taught to look upon the written political compact, embodying the two ideas of representative government and full equality before the law, as Anglo- American in origin, the Mayflower Compact being its first true exemplification. Certainly no other people had ever regarded their written constitutions with quite the proud jealousy with which the eighteenth century Americans regarded their charters. According to John Locke, political rights existed independently of the mere scratches of ink and pen on paper, but in practice, the charters had been the bulwarks of the people against oppression, the stepping stones to a larger freedom. The settlers did not look upon them as revocable grants, but as agreements inviolable except by mutual consent. It was precisely because the three leading New England Colonies had been founded upon the charter principle and had

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