November 27, 2014

“The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution” by Jack P. Greene

Map of the British colonies in North America, ...

Image via Wikipedia

Time for a segment of “A moment in obscure history.” This time, we’re looking at the constitutional dispute that resulted in the American Revolution.

Since sometime in 2009, the Tea Party movement has lead a revival of interest in the US Constitution.  Senator Mike Lee summed up why the increased interest of late during the release of his new book , The Freedom Agenda: Why a Balanced Budget Amendment is Necessary to Restore Constitutional Governmentmany of our problems today stem from when the “federal government started ignoring those Constitutional boundaries about what Congress is supposed to be doing.”

Suddenly, propelled by Glenn Beck, books like The 5000 Year Leap , a right-wing conservative’s guide to the making of the federal constitution, “leaped” to the Amazon best seller list (it’s now listed at 2,615 overall and the top 100 under “Politics”). While it provides only a simple, somewhat white-washed, and superficial vision of the US Constitution, no amount of increased attention in our federal constitution is too little.

“Where does the Constitution,” goes the rallying cry, “give the President and Congress the authority for the laws they are passing?”

Neither the revival, however, nor questioning the constitutionality of the federal laws, is unique in history. In fact, it was a dispute over the constitutionality of a central government’s actions that lead to another major event in our country’s history: the American Revolution.

"The fruit of half a century of research and reflection, Greene's masterly book restores legal pluralism and constitutional controversy to their proper place among the causes, course, and consequences of the American Revolution." - David Armitage, Harvard University

In his short, and dense, review of the century and a half leading up to the American Revolution, The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution, Jack P. Greene postulates and examines that evidence that the American revolution did not erupt purely as a simple dispute over “taxation without representation,” but rather that such rallying cries emerged after decades of disagreement on who justly had the right to legislate for the American colonies

Whether the king-in-Parliament, the ultimate source of statute law in Great Britain, could legislate for British colonies overseas was the ostensible question in dispute, but many other related and even deeper legal issues involving the nature of the constitution of the empire and the location of sovereignty within the empire emerged from and were thoroughly canvassed during the debate.

(From Constitutional Origins, p. 1)

It was only after the conflicting opinions of metropolitan Britain and that of the colonists failed to be reconciled that open warfare broke out in 1775, and it was why the decision to broach the topic of and ultimately pursue independence from Great Britain was so cautiously and tentatively pursued. The colonists considered themselves British subjects, citizens, not vassals and secession was not a choice they relished.

They saw themselves as part and partial of the British Empire. Indeed, as one Virginia lawyer at the time phrased it, they might be “subordinate to the Authority of Parliament,” but only “in Degree” and “not absolutely so.” (p.78).  As free men and

As free-born Britons, the colonists assumed, they could not be subjected to any but what Bland referred to as “a constitutional Subordination” to the parent state.

(From Constitutional Origins p. 78)

This political cartoon (attributed to Benjamin...

This political cartoon (attributed to Benjamin Franklin) originally appeared during the French and Indian War, but was recycled to encourage the American colonies to unite against British rule. From The Pennsylvania gazette, 9 May 1754. Abbreviations used: South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and New England. This is a somewhat odd division: New England was four colonies, and Delaware and Georgia are missing. Image via Wikipedia

The nature of this “constitutional Subordination” was such that the colonists readily accepted the authority of Parliament in certain areas, but balked at the idea of taxation, seeing it as beyond Parliament’s authority. “Indeed, considerable evidence suggests that the colonists’ strong initial impulse was to exclude Parliament from all jurisdiction over the domestic affairs of the colonies.” (p.79) Like our modern idea of the federal government, the states concern themselves with their domestic activities while the federal government’s most basic responsibility is national security.

Interestingly, from a historical perspective, we start to see the first signs of federalism in the disputes between the colonies and the home country.

Further,

[s]o long as Parliament confined its regulations to “restrictions on navigation, commerce, or other external regulations,” they reasoned, the ‘”legislatures of the colonies” would be “left entire”and “the internal government, powers of taxing for its support, and exemption from being taxed without consent, and [all] other immunities which legally belong[ed] to the subjects of each colony agreeable to their own particular constitutions” would thereby, according to the “general principles of the British constitution,” remain “secure and untouched.”

Sound familiar? If you hear the foreshadowing of the federalism that would be later inscribed into the US Constitution, there’s a reason. It was rooted in the relationship between Great Britain and its far-flung colonies.

If, during the last couple years, you’ve found yourself at all more interested in the federal constitution and the limitations it places on the federal government, I urge you to look at the role constitutions, and constitutional disputes, played in leading to our own American constitution.

It’s a great read, if a bit scholarly, and evidence that whether a law is constitutional is not a new question, but actually may be  at the very root of the American experiment and its origins in the American revolution. The American revolution was not, nor is it today, an obscure moment in history, but rooted in obscure legal disputes between the colonies and mother country, long predating the Stamp Acts and the Boston Massacre.  It began  as a constitutional dispute between the central government in London and the British colonies in America.

Understanding why the colonist went to war, how they got there, and the legal battles that preceded the battlefields can be useful in understanding why the Founders drafted what they did–into the Declaration of Independence and into the federal constitution–and what those words mean to us now, even in the midst of our own constitutional disputes.

Pick up The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution by Jack P. Greene from Cambridge University Press, 2011.

(h/t Patrick Charles, who introduced the book to me, and  Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic)

Enhanced by Zemanta