« PreviousContinue »
COLONIAL ORIGINS OF AMERICAN INSTITUTIONS
AMERICAN government did not originate in any abstract theories about liberty and equality, but in the actual experience gained by generation after generation of English colonists in managing their own political affairs. The Revolution did not make a breach in the continuity of their institutional life. It was not a social cataclysm, the overthrow of a dominant class, the establishment of a new estate in power. It was rather an expansion of the energy of the ruling agricultural and commercial classes, that burst asunder the bonds with which the competing interests in England sought to restrain their growing enterprise. American shipwrights could build vessels as fleet and strong as any that sailed the seas, and they were determined to conquer by main strength a free place in the world's market. American merchants were as ingenious as those who made England the nation of shopkeepers, and they could ill brook the restraints which condemned them to buy important staples in the marts of Great Britain. America was rich in timber, raw materials, and mineral resources, and American manufacturers chafed under laws compelling consumers to look beyond the seas for commodities which might well have been made in New England or Pennsylvania. It was discontent with economic restrictions, not with their fundamental political institutions, which nerved the Revolutionists to the great task of driving out King George's governors, councillors, judges, revenueofficers, and soldiers. The American Revolution, therefore,
was not the destruction of an old régime, although it made the way for institutional results which its authors did not contemplate; and it was not motived by the levelling doctrines with which the French middle class undermined the bulwarks of feudalism.1
There had long been executive, legislative, and judicial offices in all of the colonies, and the Revolutionists merely took possession of them. Unlike the French popular party, they did not have to exercise their political ingenuity in creating any fundamentally new institutions. The Revolutionists of Rhode Island and Connecticut, where the governors, councillors, and judges were not appointed by the crown, found their ancient systems of government, based on seventeenth-century charters, so well suited to their needs and ideals that they made no alterations beyond casting off their allegiance to the King of Great Britain. The royal charter granted to Connecticut by Charles II in 1662 remained the constitution of that commonwealth until 1818; and the charter of the neighboring state of Rhode Island, granted in 1663, remained in force as the fundamental law until 1842. The distribution of representation, the suffrage, the qualifications for office-holders, and the legislative, executive, and judicial institutions of old English origin were continued after the Revolution without many radical alterations.
Even the federal Constitution, in spite of Mr. Gladstone's high praise that it was the most wonderful work struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man, was based as far as possible on the experience of the colonies and the states. The very names applied to the Senate, House of Representatives, and President were taken from the institutions of some of the states, while many clauses of the Constitution, such as those providing the process of impeachment, the presidential message and veto, the origin of money bills in the lower house, and the freedom of each house to determine its procedure under certain limitations, were taken almost verbatim from state constitutions. The powers which the Convention of 1787 vested in
1 Compare, for instance, the following chapter with the account of the institutional reforms of the French Revolution in Robinson and Beard, Development of Modern Europe, Vol. I, chaps. xi and xii.
2 For a study of the sources of the federal Constitution, see Robinson, Original and Derived Factors of the United States Constitution, and the note
Congress were scarcely experimental, for six years' practical experience with the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation had taught statesmen the inexorable necessity of giving the national government those very powers, and limiting the states in the exercise of the authority which they had previously enjoyed.1 Nor must it be forgotten that the right later assumed by the Supreme Court to pass upon the constitutionality of laws and declare them void had already been exercised by many state courts.2
The dictum of Stubbs that the roots of the present lie deep in the past has now become commonplace; but it is true of American institutions in a very peculiar sense, for they are founded on written documents which, in spirit and form, bear the impress of the political and economic conditions prevailing at the time of their creation. Many state constitutions still reveal distinct traces of Revolutionary days, and the written letter of the federal Constitution, notwithstanding the fifteen amendments and the revolution wrought by the Civil War, remains unchanged so far as the machinery of government and the powers of its. three departments are concerned. It is, therefore, from American history alone that one can learn, for instance, why there are two Senators from each state, why the system of checks and balances, so characteristic of American institutions, was adopted, why the President is chosen through an elaborate electoral system, why interstate commerce powers are vested in the federal government, or why certain political practices have sprung up in the attempts to operate our governments, national and state.3
The Colonial Governor
On the eve of the Revolution there were thirteen colonies in America each with its separate institutions and its peculiar
to chap. iv of Bryce, American Commonwealth, Vol. I, taken from Johnston's article in the New Princeton Review, September, 1887.
1 See an illuminating article on this point by Professor Max Farrand, in the American Political Science Review for November, 1908.
* Early cases illustrating the power of the courts to declare state laws invalid on constitutional grounds are to be found in Thayer, Cases on Constitutional Law, Vol. I, pp. 48 ff. See also Professor Charles G. Haines' valuable essay on The Conflict over Judicial Powers (Columbia University Studies). * Goodnow, Politics and Administration, especially chap. ii. Delaware was under the proprietor of Pennsylvania.