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American Circumstances




What were the circumstances in which European ideas were so transformed? First of all, American political thought in 1787 was not an empty bottle to be filled. There was a century and a half of constitutional experience. In terms of practical politics, the colonists generally elected their legislatures, and the governors were Crown-appointed. As in England, the legislature controlled the purse and had effective control of the militia. The governor, on the other hand, did not have an upper house whose members were lords since there was no aristocracy in America. For this and other reasons, attempts to divide the legislature by awarding representatives paying jobs in the executive branch failed to work. The governor faced a united legislature and had little patronage to disburse. By the middle of the eighteenth century the legislatures in most colonies had more power than did their respective governors. The colonists had evolved a form of separation of powers – holding several offices at once was generally prohibited. This undercut the patronage system, which formed the basis for Hume's analysis and which made Montesquieu's analysis less erroneous for American colonial government than it was for England's government.

Bicameralism was a popular feature of most early state constitutions as a primary means of separating the aristocratic from the democratic. Most failed in this respect since the men attracted to the upper house, despite stiffer property requirements for those who sought office there, were similar to those attracted to the lower house. The two houses, thus, did not differ markedly in the kinds of policies they supported. At the center of this problem lay a broad electorate, the same one that voted for both legislative branches. Plentiful land in America, among other things, had transformed England's forty-shilling voting requirement into a means of extending the broadest suffrage known to the world at that time. Geography, English common law, religion, and colonial status all conspired to create an electorate that had to elect both houses. That in turn destroyed the possibility of bicameralism as a means for instituting mixed government.

One legacy of colonial politics was a deep distrust of executives, with the result that state governors were essentially figureheads. As weak as colonial governors had been they did have the British navy behind them, and a certain social status as well, so they could come reasonably close to limiting the legislature. The state executives after independence could not rein in the democratic element, so American constitutional government at the state level was unbalanced. Connecticut and Rhode Island were clear exceptions. By their charters, the colonists elected the governors, who had therefore been entrusted with real power. A balance closer to the mixed government model thus existed in these colonies despite the absence of an aristocracy. Again, American circumstances, primarily the experience with colonial governors who had no lords to support them, had prevented the importation of any version of English government.

Along with the colonial institutions went a theory of government with deep roots in dissenting Protestantism. The American Whig theory generated a view of politics different from that dominant in England. It also generated documents of political foundation upon which rested the written constitutions. Sectarian diversity had significant effects. Whereas the court automatically included high officials of the Church of England, church-state relations in America were entirely different, further vitiating the utility of any model of government that had a role for the aristocracy. Perhaps even more important, sectarian diversity required the creation of institutions and practices that first expressed American pluralism. Madison's deep involvement in the issue of religious toleration, and thus his acute awareness of how to treat diversity when there was no natural majority, must have influenced his denying by analogy a broader solution to diversity in general. Hume had a theory about dealing with factions, but Madison had direct experience. His approach to dealing with several religions may have led him to consider Hume's idea and decide it was sound.

The constitutional tradition in America had produced the expectation that any constitution could be written as a single document. All English models relied on informal arrangements that included an aristocracy and a king. Americans' formal, written arrangements did not require any specific social structure in order to operate. That a constitution had to be written altered fundamentally the prospects for adopting English models. This simple idea transformed every aspect of politics. Ironically, it also allowed the blending of different political models in America, there had been several colonies, and after independence there were several states – each had its own government that had existed for many years. No model of English government, which was unitary, could deal with these states. Their existence was one of those facts that rendered all English models virtually irrelevant.

The reasons why Americans did not adapt European ideas intact thus include: one hundred fifty years of colonial government; no long-entrenched hereditary aristocracy; the world's broadest suffrage; an existing political theory; the expectation of written constitutions; religious diversity; and the existence of states with their own governments. The list could be extended, but it is long enough to illustrate that Locke, Montesquieu, Blackstone, Hume, and a hundred others gave America ideas for a constitutional order, but America already had one. That order had to evolve to meet new circumstances, the most important of which was the sudden absence of the English Crown. The constitutional system had become unbalanced, and the Articles of Confederation was a modus vivendi inadequate to the circumstances.

Still, using a written constitution, the Americans did borrow from European thinkers. Montesquieu, the most widely cited, did seem to understand the process they were undergoing, He wrote of the laws' spirit conforming to the genius and circumstances of a people. Montesquieu in this regard gave voice to what Americans already believed, what they were already practicing. Americans matched their government to their circumstances because this inevitably happens in a constitutional system worthy of the name. They took Montesquieu's analysis and transformed it into an accurate prediction. They were going in that direction anyway, and brought Locke, Montesquieu, Blackstone, and Hume along with them.

John Locke(1632-1704) – English philosopher, who discussed the concept of empiricism in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). He influenced political thought, especially in France and America, with his Two Treatises on Government(1690), in which he sanctioned the right to revolt.

Montesquieu(1689-1755) - French philosopher and jurist. An outstanding figure of the early French Enlightenment, he wrote the influential Persian Letters (1721), a veiled attack on the monarchy and the ancien régime, and The Spirit of the Laws (1748), a discourse on government.

David Hume (1711-1776) – an eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher, historian, and social theorist who influenced the development of skepticism and empiricism, two schools of philosophical thought. Hume's economic and political ideas influenced Adam Smith, the Scottish economist and theorist of modern capitalism, and James Madison, the American statesman who helped shape the republican form of government through his work on the U.S. Constitution.

Sir William Blackstone(1723-1780) – the famous English jurist is remembered for his Commentaries on the Laws of England, the first attempt since the 13th century to provide a comprehensive treatment of English law.

The 40 shilling franchise – the statute of 1429, finding that elections had recently been crowded by people of "low estate", decreed that only freemen who owned freehold land (that is, not leased from the land's owner) worth 40 shillings had the vote. This restricted the vote to a much smaller group of landowners, and the 40 shilling franchise was only abolished in 1832 by the Great Reform Act.

modus vivendi – a temporary agreement between contending parties pending a final settlement.







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