Atlantic Dimensions 4

Within a year, the responses began to appear. The critical docu¬ment proved to be John Stevens’s Observations on Government, a bel¬ligerent attack on what he called the “rubbage” of Adams’s Defence, its “absurdities and inconsistencies” dredged up “from the store¬houses and magazines of antiquity,” its bicameralism a “single rem-edy for all disorders” concocted out of the delusion that America had, or ever could have, any “orders, ranks, or nobility.” Madison had sent a copy of Stevens’s blistering polemic, which had its own version of the separation of powers, to Mazzei, from whom it passed to Condorcet and Du Pont. All three immediately saw the pam¬phlet’s potential for supporting their attack on bicameralism, hence institutionalized aristocracy, despite the fact that Stevens objected not to Adams’s bicameralism as such but to his assumption that aris¬tocracies were inevitable, that future societies, like those in the past, would always generate dangerous, privileged elites whose destructive influence would have to be isolated and confined. For Condorcet and Mazzei, who had no way of separating out the functional from the social role of legislative organs, this was precisely the point. They immediately translated Stevens’s 56-page pamphlet into French, adding 224 pages of their own, in which they explained at length the importance of this American challenge to Adams for what they saw as the main problem of enlightened reform in France.
The two had already entered the battle in Mazzei’s four-volume Recherches historiques of 1788, which included, besides an entire section devoted to an attack on Mably as a crypto-aristocrat, the text of Condorcet’s “Quatre Lettres d’un bourgeois de New-Haven.” Mably, Mazzei wrote, not only shamelessly favored the constitutional rights of the rich over those of ordinary people, but in his praise of Massa¬chusetts’s bicameral constitution for peacefully preparing the way for the inevitable emergence of an aristocratic state (as opposed to Pennsylvania’s unicameralism, which Mably believed would surely lead to convulsions, oligarchy, and tyranny)—in all of this, Maz¬zei wrote, Mably was technically misinformed and conceptually deluded. Condorcet concurred, and demonstrated at length in the fourth of his “Lettres” the dangers of a divided legislature and the ways in which a single assembly representing the whole nation could be stabilized and perpetuated by frequent elections, referendums, declarations of human rights, and voter initiatives. Though he would limit the franchise to property holders, Condorcet advocated the abolition of all hereditary distinctions, making all offices elective, and prohibiting government regulations of all kinds. Americans, he concluded, are not sophisticated people, but their “naive expression” of the few maxims on which they based their peace and happiness express the common sense of all mankind, which is in its nature opposed to “those complex machines … where so many counter¬weights are supposed to produce a balance.”
In the course of this decade-long flurry of publications, Price’s scattered attack on the whole establishment of his time had come to rest on the single issue of aristocracy and its role in the constitutional structure of enlightened states. In America, given the structure of colonial society, aristocracy had been a peripheral- though to some, like Jefferson, a significant—issue, but it was a fundamental social problem in European life and became a structural problem in Euro¬pean constitutionalism. Involving as it did the inescapable, glaring issue of privilege and social oppression, it lay at the heart of the struggles in public life and dominated the debates on the forms of public institutions.
In all of this, for Turgot and Condorcet as for Mably, the American experience was peculiarly instructive.
Instructive—and exemplary. Provincial America, removed from the layered complexities of European life and the intricate racial structuring of Latin American society and having experimented with modes of enlightened constitutionalism, provided living examples: of what might be done, of the dangers that might be avoided, of alter¬natives that might be explored. American constitutionalism was not a theory to be debated or a model to be imitated but a reserve of experience—exemplary, of good or ill—a reserve that could be drawn on when needed, intermittently, selectively, with emphases that were shaped differendy by the distinctive problems of different societies in different modes and at different stages of transformation in the age of the Atlantic revolutions.
Thus for the English radicals of the 1790s—Cartwright, Cobbett, Hardy, Paine, Cooper, Hardey, Horne Tooke, Yorke, Spence— American constitutionalism, however “limited, cerebral, and middle class” it may have been, was drawn upon, was the inspiration for, and became the natural bridge to the populist, plebeian radicalism that lay behind the making of the English working class. Exaggerating the radicalism of American constitutional ideals and principles, they adopted into their own program the idea of written constitutions antecedent to all government and empowered by constituent assem¬blies; the notion that the people and not institutions were sovereign; that government in all its parts should be representative of the peo¬ple; and that adult male suffrage should be universal.

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