Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution


February 21, 2022
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2021)

The eminent historian and author Gordon S. Wood has turned a series of recent lectures into his latest work, Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution. The focus of the book is what Wood considers to be something unique about the early history of the United States: “The Revolutionary era was the most creative period of constitutionalism in American history and one of the most creative in modern Western history” (page 2). National unity and identity was reinforced by emphasis on certain documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the federal Constitution of 1787. Popular interest in the process of government building, especially between 1787-1788, was remarkable, and Wood wants the reader to appreciate how amazing and exceptional this part of American history really is.

It was no wonder that there was so much activity surrounding constitutionalism when one considers the traditions of Great Britain. All British subjects, especially the colonists of North America, constantly debated the role of Parliament after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. These debates reached a fever pitch in the British colonies during the Stamp Act crisis. Did Parliament violate the traditions of Magna Carta? Discussions in the colonies were plentiful, led by such figures as Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, and Thomas Hutchinson. Other thinkers – James Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and a young Alexander Hamilton– advocated loyalty to the monarchy over Parliament. After blood was drawn at Lexington, Thomas Paine’s famous pamphlet Common Sensequestioned that loyalty. Attachment to the British crown was an obstacle to true independence, and many states formally severed their ties to Great Britain and started writing their own constitutions. The fact that the revolutionaries made the written constitutions a part of everyday governmental life was something new. The experience in state constitution-making made the Constitution of 1787 possible.

The changes wrought by the Revolution were much more extreme than many people had expected, and the Articles of Confederation were powerless to keep people’s new dreams and aspirations “in check.” The third chapter, “The Crisis of the 1780s,” explores the plight of the new nation immediately after the Treaty of Paris of 1783. Debt was rampant and the state legislators were too ineffective to govern successfully. Democracy was also considered to be too “excessive,” leading to an event such as Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts. The gathering of delegates in the summer of 1787 turned out to be even more radical because the Articles were completely thrown out instead of being revised. The delegates turned out to be nationalists, recognizing that the federal government had to be stronger than the states to keep the nation unified. The ratification debates gave all people (free white men) in each state an opportunity to learn about and discuss the various aspects of the new Constitution. Their heavy involvement led to the Bill of Rights.

The fifth chapter focuses on America’s original sin: “Slavery and Constitutionalism.” American race-based slavery was unlike anything in world history, and it became a problem for the idealism of the American Revolution. There had been early moves to get rid of slavery in northern states (Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania), and the Somerset decision in Great Britain undoubtedly influenced how people perceived the institution. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned slavery in the new territories, but compromises were made regarding slavery to keep the southern states in the Union (The Connecticut Compromise and the 3/5 Compromise). The dangers posed by the slave rebellion in St. Dominque put an end to serious consideration of gradual abolition.

The powers of the judicial branch were never fully understood or enumerated in the Constitution, according to Chapter 6, “The Emergence of the Judiciary.” The purpose of the judiciary seemed to be to serve as a check on rampaging democracy spreading through the nation. Although Hamilton referred to the idea of judicial review in The Federalist Papers (#78), the Supreme Court would not exercise that power until Marbury v. Madison, 1803. The final chapter introduces a new idea: did the Founders understand the differences between the public and private realms (Chapter 7 “The Great Demarcation Between Public and Private”)? This was especially necessary if the United States was to become, as the Founders intended, a secular nation. Religion was a public entity during the colonial days, with Christian churches supported by public taxes. After the Revolution, the intention was to keep religion out of public life and free from public tampering, “then it was perhaps inevitable that other public corporations came to be treated in a like manner” (p. 172).

Wood’s Epilogue is unusual because it is entirely devoted to the situation in the one state that refused to participate in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787: Rhode Island. The issues that cropped up in Rhode Island, such as a corrupt political bureaucracy and a heavy reliance on paper currency, demonstrated the need for a strong national government that would set things right in a disinterested manner. It is a unique and interesting way to conclude the book. Though brief, Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution is a worthwhile read. Wood has an easy and direct style, making the book accessible to both historians and non-historians alike.

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