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
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
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"?
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
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
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."