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The Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution

Gordon S. Wood


The Constitution was created at a stroke in the summer of 1787, but its intellectual origins and sources, like those of all great events, reached back deep into the past. The Constitution has been described as the climax of the Enlightenment-that great eighteenth-century attempt to apply the results of Western science and learning to human affairs. As the product of Western "enlightened" thinking, the Constitution could scarcely have sprung simply from a summer's meeting. Its sources have often seemed to be the whole of previous history. No thinker, no idea, has been too remote, too obscure, to have been involved somehow in the making of the Constitution. Thus historians and political theorists have rummaged through the past looking for the particular philosopher or book that might have especially influenced the Framers of the Constitution. Some have seized on the Englishman John Locke; others, the Frenchman Montesquieu; still others, the Scot David Hume or the Swiss Burlamaqui; and some have even made a case for the ancient Greek Polybius. But not one of these was the sole source of the thinking of the Founding Fathers.

Thus searching for one key person in order to explain the Constitution is doomed to futility. Influence on something as monumental and as collectively created as the Constitution does not work in such a simple and direct way. The writings of Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Burlamaqui, and even Polybius were all important to the creation of the mental world of Americans in the 1780s. But so too were the works of countless other thinkers. All formed virtually inseparable aspects of the Americans' political culture. To be sure, the Founders often referred to this book or that philosopher in their speeches and writings; indeed, they cited and quoted from every conceivable source available to an educated man in the eighteenth century-from Plutarch to Pufendorf, from Cicero to Blackstone, from Plato to Rousseau. But so many sources were cited so promiscuously, it is difficult to perceive the dominant influence of any one.

This does not mean, however, that there were no intellectual influences affecting the thinking and actions of the Framers of the Constitution. Although isolating the influence of any one thinker on the Founding Fathers may be impossible, describing the Currents of the political culture in which they were immersed in 1787 is not. The Founders were experienced, pragmatic political leaders, but they were not such practical, down-to-earth men that they Could not be bothered by questions of political philosophy and theory. On the contrary, they were men intensely interested in ideas and especially concerned with making theoretical sense of what they were doing. They were participants in a rich, dynamic political culture that helped determine the nature of the Constitution they created. Understanding the Constitution requires an understanding of that political culture.

The most pervasive characteristic of that political culture was republicanism, a body of ideas and values so deeply rooted that it formed the presuppositions of American thinking. This body of thought not only determined the elective political system the Founders believed in; it also determined their moral and social goals. To become republican was what the American Revolution had been about.

It is difficult for us today to appreciate the revolutionary character of this civic culture. We live in a world in which almost all states purport to be republican; even those few states such as Britain or Sweden that remain monarchies are more republican in fact than some others that claim to be in theory. But in the monarchy dominated world of the eighteenth century, republicanism was not so widespread or acceptable. It was then a radical ideology; indeed, this body of civic thought was to the eighteenth century what Marxism was to be for the nineteenth century. For the eighteenth century republicanism was a counter cultural ideology of protest, an intellectual means by which dissatisfied people could criticize the luxury, selfishness, and corruption of monarchical culture.

It is not surprising, therefore, when eighteenth-century Americans and Frenchmen alike decided upon revolution that they should have repudiated royal authority and erected republics in its place. Republicanism was the ideology of the democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth century; it was the Ideology of the people against monarchs and hereditary aristocracies. Even the English who held on to their king and their House of

GORDON S. WOOD is chairman of the department of history at Brown University. He is the author of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, for which he won the Bancroft Prize in 1969, and The Confederation and the Constitution: The Critical Issues. He also edited the volume The Rising Glory of America, 1760-1820.

Lords through the upheavals of this period nevertheless felt compelled to claim that, because of the power of the House of Commons, their constitution was already greatly republicanized. By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, being enlightened in the Western world, it seemed, was nearly equivalent to believing in republican values.

The deepest origins of these civic and moral values went all the way back to ancient Rome and the great era of the Roman Republic. The modern world found most of what it wanted to know about the Roman Republic from the writings of the period that Peter Gay has called the Roman Enlightenment-the golden age of Latin literature between the breakdown of the republic in the middle of the first century B.C. to the establishment of the empire in the middle of the second century A.D. The celebrated Latin writers of this time--Cicero, Sallust, Tacit us, and Plutarch among others-lived when the greatest days of the republic were fading or already passed; and thus they contrasted the growing stratification, corruption, and disorder they saw around them with an imagined earlier world of rustic simplicity and pastoral virtue. Roman farmers had once been hardy soldiers devoted to their country. But they had become selfish, corrupted by luxury, torn by struggles between rich and poor, and had lost their capacity to serve the public good. So went these Latin writers' pessimistic explanation of the republic's decline. They left a collection of writings embodying beliefs and values-about the good life, about citizenship, about political health, about social morality-that have had an enduring effect on Western Culture. Their work is Rome's greatest legacy to Lis.

This great body of classical literature was revived and updated by the Renaissance, especially in the writings of the Italian philosopher Machiavelli. All was blended into a tradition of what has been called "civic humanism." This tradition stressed the moral character of the independent citizen as the prerequisite to good politics and disinterested service to the country. To be good citizens, men had to be independent, property-holding farmers free of control by other men, and free of the influence of selfish interests. The importance of this classical conception of political morality can scarcely be exaggerated. Among educated people it rivaled Christianity for dominance.

This tradition of civic humanism passed into the culture of northern Europe. In English culture it inspired the writings of the great seventeenth-century republicans, Milton, Harrington, and Sidney. And it was carried into the eighteenth century by scores of popularizers and translators. It was not so much the treatises of philosophers like John Locke as it was the essays of coffee-house journalists like John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon that spread republican values throughout the eighteenth-century, English-speaking world. Gordon, for example, in addition to writing about the importance of free speech and religious liberty, also translated editions of Sallust and Tacit us. But these classical republican values, are confined neither to the radical fringes of British thought nor to the British world. They permeated the thinking of educated people throughout the West-so much so that even eighteenth-century French aristocrats could acclaim Jacques Louis David's painting "The Oath of the Horatii" and celebrate the valor and selflessness of the republican citizens of antiquity without fully comprehending the dangerous anti monarchical and anti aristocratic implications of what they were doing.

What precisely did this body of ideas mean? It meant most obviously the elimination of a king and the institution of an electoral system of government. But these were just incidental means to a larger end. Republicanism really meant creating a political system concerned with the res publica, public things, the welfare of the people. Liberal critics of eighteenth-century monarchism believed that kings had become too wrapped up in their own selfish dynastic purposes and were ignoring the good of their people. By eliminating hereditary kings and instituting governments in which the people themselves would elect their political leaders, liberal reformers hoped that governments at last would promote only the public's welfare.

This civic culture, however, had more than political significance; it had social and moral significance as well. Republics required a particular sort of egalitarian and virtuous people: independent, property-holding citizens without artificial hereditary distinctions who were willing to sacrifice many of their private, selfish interests for the good of the whole community. This dependence on a relatively equal and virtuous populace was what made republics such fragile and often short-lived polities. Monarchies were long-lasting; they could maintain order from the top down over large, diverse, and stratified populations through their use of hereditary privilege, executive power, standing armies, and religious establishments. But republics had to be held together from below, from the consent and sacrifice of the people themselves; and therefore, as Montesquieu and other theorists had warned, republics necessarily had to be small in territory and homogeneous and moral in character. The only republics left in the eighteenth century-the Netherlands and the city-states of Italy and Switzerland-were small and compact. Large, class-ridden states that had tried to establish republics-as England had in the seventeenth century-were bound to end up in some sort of military dictatorship, such as that of Oliver Cromwell. It was little wonder that Americans in 1776 embarked on their experiment in republicanism in a spirit of great risk and high adventure. There had been nothing to resemble their confederation of republics since the fall of Rome. By 1787, however, Americans had become increasingly anxious about what they were attempting.

Americans of 1787 were not the republican enthusiasts they had been in 1776. In a decade's time many of them had had their earlier dreams and illusions about republicanism considerably dampened. Experience with popular government, especially in the state legislatures, had cast doubt on the American people's capacity for virtue and disinterestedness. By 1787 many leaders. therefore, were ready for what James Madison called a "systematic change" of government, a change that resulted in the creation of the federal Constitution. But

dissatisfied as many American leaders were with the Confederation and with the state legislatures, none of them-not even Alexander Hamilton who was the most monarchically minded among them-was prepared to give up on republican government. They knew, as Madison said, that "no other form would be reconcileable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the revolution; or with that honorable determination, which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government." Hence in the new Constitution, the Framers provided for periodically elected officers of the executive and legislative branches, and they made the federal government guarantee a republican form of government for each state (Article IV, Section 4), and forbade the United States from granting any titles of nobility (Article 1, Section 9).

Still, the new federal government was sufficiently different from the Confederation and the governments of the states to arouse fears among many people that it was not "strictly republican." Did it not have a strong king-like executive and a powerful Senate with an aristocratic bearing? Unlike the Confederation, did it not operate directly on diverse peoples over half a continent despite the warnings of theorists and experience that such a large republic could not last? Fears and questions like these are what led Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay to spend so much time in The Federalist trying to prove that the Constitution was really "conformable to the true principles of republican government. " In the process they helped to develop and shape further American ideas of republicanism.

In1787, classical republicanism was the basic premise of American thinking-the central presupposition behind all other ideas. However, it alone was not responsible for the peculiar structure of the revolutionary governments, including that of the federal government created by the Constitution. There was another set of ideas encapsulated in the theory of balanced or mixed government. It came likewise out of antiquity and was closely if not inextricably entwined with the tradition of classical republicanism. The classical theory of balanced government provided much more than the foundational ideas for the structures of the several state governments. The classical theory also included the notion of an independent president, the aristocratic Senate, and the popular House of Representatives.

Since at least the time of Aristotle, theorists had categorized forms of government into three ideal types-monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. These types were derived from the number of rulers in each: for monarchy, one person; for aristocracy, a few nobles; for democracy, all the people. Aristotle and others believed that each of these rulers when alone entrusted with political power tended to run amok and to become perverted. By itself monarchy became tyranny; aristocracy became oligarchy; and democracy became anarchy. Only by mixing each of these types together in the same constitution, only by balancing the tendencies of each of them, could order be maintained and the perfections of each type of simple government be achieved. The result would be a governmental system in equilibrium-the very kind of static model that the eighteenth-century Enlightenment admired.

For most enlightened thinkers of the eighteenth century, including those of the American colonies, there already existed at least in theory such a perfectly balanced government-the English constitution. The English constitution with its balance between king, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons corresponded marvelously with the classical categories of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy; and it, therefore, seemed to intellectuals everywhere, not just to Englishmen but to continentals like Voltaire and Montesquieu, to be what William Hooper of North Carolina in 1776 called "a system that approached as near to perfection as any could within the compass of human abilities."

When Americans in 1776 revolted from this perfect English constitution, most of them had no intention of repudiating the classical ideal behind it. Nor did they believe that this ideal of balanced government was incompatible with republicanism. They thought the), could have single governors and senates of wise men,, even within an elective system. Their quarrel with the English constitution was not, therefore, with its theory but with its recent practice and its current workings. They and other English critics, speaking out of the civic humanist tradition of republicanism, thought that in the course of the eighteenth century the ideal English constitution had degenerated and become corrupted. The kin-, was using his power to appoint men to crown offices in order to bribe and influence members of the House of Lords and House of Commons. The monarchical or executive part of the constitution was, in other words, unsettling the balance among the three supposedly independent, ruling forces, and it was subtly absorbing all power to itself. The so-called balanced

constitution of England had become a hollow shell disguising an insidious monarchical tyranny. When in 1776 Americans declared their independence from the British crown, they were determined to prevent anything like this tyranny from reappearing in their own, new, balanced state constitutions.

Most of America's revolutionary state governments created in 1776-77 were meant to be miniature republican copies of the ideal English constitution. Although elected, the governors, senates, and houses of representatives of the several states were intended to resemble the king, House of Lords, and House of Commons of the English constitution; indeed, they still do. But in order to prevent their balanced governments from degenerating in the way the English constitution had, most of the states in 1776 severely limited the appointing powers of the governors or chief executives; and, more important for American constitutional development, all of them forbade members of both houses of the legislature and the judiciary from simultaneously holding office in the executive branch. In justifying this prohibition, some of the states in 1776 invoked a doctrine made famous by Montesquieu of separating the executive, legislative, and judicial powers from each other. This triad of functioning powers was really not the same as the classical triad of ruling elements-governors, senates, and houses of representatives-but the goal of the two triads-the prevention of corruption-was the same.

There is no exaggerating the importance of this American exclusion of the legislators from simultaneous executive or ministerial office. This fundamentally divided America's constitutional tradition from that of the former mother country. By this prohibition alone, Americans prevented the development of an English or European-style parliamentary cabinet form of government. Members of America's executive branch, unlike those of most of the democracies in the world, cannot at the same time hold seats in the legislatures. The separation of the legislature from what was thought to be the perverse, corrupting influence of the executive was written into the revolutionary state constitutions of 1776-77. This division was instituted for the sake of maintaining the independence of the ruling parts and the balance that an ideal government ought to have. Since separation of powers was often used to justify the maintenance of this independence and balance, there was the likelihood that separating powers and balancing parts of the government Would blend in people's minds.

By the time Americans came to form the federal Constitution in 1787-88, the two sets of ideas had become thoroughly confused. Undoubtedly most of the Framers at Philadelphia thought they were creating a balanced government Much In the form of the several state governments-only with a stronger chief executive and Senate than in most of the states. Although the ultimate source of this structure was the ideal English constitution, by 1787 few American political leaders felt comfortable any longer saying so in public. (John Adams was a conspicuous exception.) Referring to the chief executive as the monarchical element and the Senate as the aristocracy in a balanced government was politically impossible in the popular atmosphere of the 1780s. Thus the Framers had to find justifications for their two-house legislature and their strong, independent president in some place other than the English constitution and the classical ideal of mixed government.

What they did was blend the notion of separating the functional powers of government-executive, legislative, and judicial-with the older theory of balanced government; and they used both indiscriminately to describe the now incredibly fragmented and countervailing character of America's political system. "The constant aim," wrote Madison in The Federalist No. 51, which summed up the Founders' thinking on their parceling of power, "is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other." Bicameralism, the presidential veto power, the independent judiciary, even federalism itself-the apportioning of authority between the national and state governments-all became various means of dividing, checking, and balancing a mistrusted political power.

Republicanism, [lie theory of balanced government, and the doctrine of separation of powers-these were the assumptions that determined much of what went on in 1787-88. But actually they are not the most palpable and immediate sources of American constitutionalism. They may not even be the most important sources. Although the classical traditions of republicanism and mixed government formed the presuppositions of American thinking, they were presuppositions shared by the whole Western world. Other nations, such as eighteenth -century France. were influenced by republicanism; indeed, most countries in the world now have republican governments. Other states also have attempted balanced governments, two house legislatures, independent executives, and separated powers. But few of them have our particular concern for personal and political liberty: for the rule of law, for private personal and property rights, for constitutional and judicial limitations on the use of governmental power. If the origins of these concerns are to be found in sources other than America's own experience, then they Must be found neither in the ideas of classical antiquity nor in those of Renaissance civic humanism but in the peculiarities of the English legal tradition.

Nothing was more important for the development of American constitutionalism in 1787 and in the years following than the fact that most of the Founders had been reared as Englishmen and had thus shared in the English preoccupation with liberty and in the unique protections of the English common law. England was, as Montesquieu said in 1731, "the freest country that exists in the world.- and eighteenth-century English-

men on both sides of the Atlantic prided themselves on that reputation. The colonists began the Revolution in defense of their English liberties. Liberty was an English obsession before it was an American one.

As much as Americans developed and expanded their individual rights and freedoms in the late eighteenth century and after, they always began from the elevated base of English constitutionalism-a more liberal base than any in the world. Thus if America seemed to have a hundred religious sects and consequently moved to separate church from state, England had at least thirty of them and a degree of religious toleration that stunned continental observers like Voltaire. If Americans admitted truth as a defense in questions of a free press, England, unlike France, at least had no prior censorship of what was published. If Americans broadened the suffrage and political representation to an unprecedented extent, the English had a representative Parliament that went back more than half a millennium. If American judges in the late eighteenth century drew distinctions between statute law and the fundamental law of the Constitution, had not Chief Justice Edward Coke in the seventeenth century construed and set aside portions of acts of Parliament in order to do justice? Whatever Americans did to extend liberty and protect individual rights, from the encroachments of governmental power, the English had done it first: trial by jury, writs of habeas corpus, concern for property fights. fear of standing armies, bills of rights-all were English before they were American. Without the influence of the English constitutional and legal tradition. it is inconceivable that Americans in 1787 or later would have believed and acted as they did.

Yet ultimately, of course, the American political and legal system is not the English system, and this difference should make us aware that looking for intellectual origins and tracing intellectual influences are only part of the explanation of how we have come to be what we are. More important perhaps is what Americans have done with these inherited ideas how they have used, expanded, and reshaped their intellectual legacies to fit the dynamics of their changing experience.