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A New System of Government
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Jefferson vs. Hamilton Key Events Maps Transcript Webography

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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."



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