Atlantic Dimensions 3

Thus awareness of provincial America, its successful revolution and constitutional creations, had quickly become part of the conscious¬ness of officialdom and the clerisy in both cosmopolitan Europe and its colonial dependencies. But with what consequence? The general effect of the American Revolution throughout the Atlantic world is well known: its creation of the sense that a new era was beginning, its amplification and embodiment of the ideas of liberty and equality, its legitimation of criticism of existing powers. But what specific dif¬ference did the American constitutional reforms, the American con¬stitutional presence, make? How can one assess the specific role that American constitutionalism played in the seismic transformation of power relations that took place throughout the Atlantic world in the age of revolution?
An indication appears in the famous chain of polemics that began with the publication in 1776 of Richard Price’s pamphlet Observations on the Mature of Civil Liberty … and the Justice and Policy of the War with America and that continued in a series of linked publications by Franklin, Turgot, John Adams, the Abbe Mably, Condorcet, Mazzei, and the American pamphleteer John Stevens, before subsiding, after twelve years, just before the outbreak of the French Revolution.
What is most striking, and suggestive, in this series of exchanges is the progressive narrowing of the issues at stake and the ultimate focus of concern. Price’s Observations, which went through twenty- three printings in the English-speaking world, France, and the Netherlands, was not only a systematic defense of the American cause but a wide-swinging, broadside challenge to Britain’s political establishment. Price’s first target was the House of Commons, whose corruptions he would totally purge. That led to proposals to reform the entire system of parliamentary representation, to establish the sovereignty of the people, to a denial of any nation’s right to assert authority over any other, and to the idea of a Congress of Europe whose decisions would be enforced by a European army. For this comprehensive challenge to the status quo Price was attacked by a host of writers, some as respectable as the Archbishop of York, some as disreputable as the hired hack Dr. Shebbeare. Franklin, like every dissident, rejoiced, and passed on a copy of the pamphlet to Turgot, Louis XVFs chief minister, physiocrat, and financial reformer.
Turgot’s reply to Price, written two years later but published only in 1784, began the process of narrowing the debate to a single issue. For while he too ranged across the whole field of reform, the nature of lib¬erty, and sound public policy, he took the occasion to expose what he believed were the basic flaws in the American state constitutions. They were, he wrote, simply slavish imitations of England’s constitu¬tion in their bicameralism and separation of powers; and the nation itself was, like the Netherlands, no more than an “aggregate of parts,” every state having taxing powers over the goods of all others and its own system of commercial regulation. Such a nation, resting on “the false basis of very ancient and very vulgar policy,” was no consoli¬dated body “one and homogeneous,” as a nation should be. The future would be grim, he warned, if these errors, and especially the checks and balances in the state constitutions, were not corrected.
By the time Turgot’s letter was published, the issue of distributive versus unified constitutional powers had become a core issue. The elderly philosopher Mably, in four public letters addressed to his friend John Adams, declared himself in favor of Adams’s constitu¬tion of Massachusetts because, he believed, its bicameralism constrained the force of democracy (ignoring the fact that the document also provided for the popular election of all state officials and a wide electoral franchise). For this, in France, he was denounced as an ide¬ological aristocrat, though in fact he feared aristocracies of either birth or wealth and sought ways to limit their force.
By then, with the central issue increasingly focused on aristocra¬cies and the dangers they posed, John Adams was at work on his massive defense of the bicameralism of the now famous, to some notorious, constitution he had written for his native state. In his prodigious, three-volume Defence of the Constitutions of… the United States—that formidable encyclopedia of constitutionalism past and present- -Adams threw the weight of the whole record of constitu¬tionalism in Western civilization into the defense of bicameralism. For him this was no technical problem of constitutional architecture; it involved nothing less than the nature of political man and the inescapable propensity of all societies to develop differential and invidious levels of wealth, intellect, and power. Equality could not be mandated. The problem was how to keep the upper echelons— aristocrats, plutocrats, nobles—from overwhelming and contaminat¬ing the entire body politic. That could be achieved, he wrote, only by sealing them off in their own organ of government, with powers defined and limited. Bicameralism, far from being a denial of popu¬lar liberties by perpetuating aristocracies, was the ultimate protector of freedom by confining society’s most ambitious and dangerous forces to bounded fields of action.”

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