BOOK REVIEW: Two Revolutions and the Constitution: How the English and American Revolutions Produced the American Constitution by James D. R. Philips (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2021)
In his concise Two Revolutions and the Constitution, the Australian lawyer and law professor James D. R. Philips traces the roots of the American Founding back to England’s Glorious Revolution and to the even earlier English civil war of the mid-1600s. He does a competent job, and students of American history should benefit from his treatment of seventeenth century English politics, which, in conventional treatments of the American Revolution, often appear as a hazy background. What most stands out, however, is Philips’s respectful if not reverential treatment of all, or at least most, things American. His description of the Declaration of Independence is only one of several examples. “To read it is to be in awe: at the audacity of its purpose; at the idealism of its vision; and at the beauty of its prose” (page 90). Early on he acknowledges the problem of American slavery, but even here suggests that the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the common law “established such a robust framework for personal rights” (3) as to make the abolition of slavery essentially a matter of time. Many ordinary Americans would undoubtedly agree with his assessments; most American academics would probably be less charitable.
In Philips’s account, England’s troubles began with James I and Charles I, who attempted to defend the divine rights of kings in defiance of the Magna Carta (1215). The Protestant Reformation, moreover, had weakened the monarchy by undermining belief in the need for an intermediary between God and the people. Charles’s inability to adjust to the new realities led to civil war, his execution, and a decade without a king. Between 1649 and 1659, Parliament grew in power and, Philips argues, a more democratic government stimulated technological innovation and economic prosperity. Charles’s Catholic sympathies had fueled much of the opposition to his reign, and fears of Catholicism persisted after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. They came to a head during the reign of James II who, in 1688, was deposed in favor of the Protestant William of Orange. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 and 1689, which saw the adoption of the English Bill of Rights and the emergence of Parliament as a check on the monarchy and as a bulwark against Catholic domination of England, was, Philips writes, “truly momentous” (38). Democratization, limited though it was, further spurred the commercialization of English society but only partially benefitted the American colonies. Royal prerogative declined as a threat to “the core rights of free colonists” (40), but the issues of taxation and trade regulations would become increasingly contentious. The continued over-representation of agricultural interests, Philips suggests, may explain why Parliament was not more sensitive to colonial economic needs in the years preceding the American Revolution.
The rise of Parliament had taken centuries. England had a national assembly, largely to advise the king, by the tenth century, but the outlines of the modern legislature did not begin to emerge until much later. The assembly was apparently first called “Parliament” in 1236; by 1254, some members were elected, as opposed to serving simply by virtue of the offices they held. But as late as 1295, the king could still promulgate some laws with only the approval of a council of barons and church leaders. In the 1300s, elected representatives began meeting separately from the nobility and the prelates, and what we know as the House of Commons claimed control over the imposition of new taxes. The practice of Cabinet government, with the monarch being the final authority within the executive branch, developed after 1688. The accession of George I to the throne in 1714 marked another turning point. German-born, with a weak hereditary claim to the monarchy, George I’s chief asset may have been his Protestantism, and cautious by nature, he tended to defer to his de facto prime minister Robert Walpole. George II exercised a similar, prudent restraint.
George III’s attempt to use patronage to bolster royal influence in Parliament provoked allegations of corruption from England’s Radical Whigs. They found a receptive audience in America, and the story Philips recounts of British efforts to tax the Americans after 1763 is familiar. As to the Revolution itself, he focuses on the process of state constitution-making. The Virginia constitution of 1776, with its Declaration of Rights, assertion of popular sovereignty, and provisions for the separation of powers embodied the essence of the American Revolution: Americans hoped to remake their political system while preserving their rights under the common law tradition they had inherited from England. The adoption of the Constitution completed the longer process of creating a viable national government and required a few innovations in political theory, including the doctrine of federalism and the idea that because sovereignty resided in the people, not the monarch, it could be allocated among the branches of government as the people saw fit, with the courts peacefully resolving jurisdictional conflicts.
Two Revolutions is a bit old-fashioned in relying heavily on the official documents of the day and generally taking them at face value, but for student readers, it is a solid and unabashedly sympathetic introduction to the rich constitutional history of the American Founding.