Atlantic Dimensions 5

But beyond that, and more important, for them America’s reform of public institutions was dynamic; its inner propulsion led not simply to liberalizing the institutions of public authority but to confronting social concerns and alleviating social oppression. Just as all the lead¬ing radicals agreed with John Cartwright that America had become England’s best instructor “in the … recovering from that state of corruption of which the constitution is sick at heart,” so they agreed with Paine that social benefits flowed directly from political liberty. America, Paine wrote, proved that republicanism and popular sover¬eignty promoted the general welfare; in such regimes the poor are not oppressed and the rich are not privileged. So too Thomas Cooper saw in America proof that republicanism in its nature promoted agrarian justice. And again and again the London Corresponding Society “pointed to America to show that constitutional reform would ease the people’s suffering as well as guarantee their liberties.”
These passionate English reformers—frustrated and harassed by the establishment, some tried for treason—found within America’s constitutionalism a deeper purpose that inspired the march toward radical social goals.
The French, in the same critical years of the 1790s, needed no external stimulus to social reform. But their policy struggles centered on precisely the issues of American constitutionalism that the philo- sophes and liberal politicians had been debating since 1776. On the two major issues in the critical debates during the first months of the National Assembly, American examples were drawn upon, selec¬tively—praised by some, denounced by others.
That France would adopt a Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizen was never in question, but its relation to the American state bills of rights which inspired it, and to Virginia’s Declaration of Rights in particular, is significant. The structure of Virginia’s Dec¬laration (whose author, Condorcet wrote, deserves “the eternal gratitude of mankind”) and that of the French Assembly, and the sequence of provisions in the two documents, are remarkably similar. But out of the necessity to repudiate deeply entrenched and legal¬ized privileges, the French Declaration is more specific and insistent in defining human rights, the supremacy of law, and the nature of citizenship. Out of respect for the currents of religious skepticism and anticlericalism, it is more deistic and less doctrinally Christian. And out of deference to the tradition of French criminal law, it is more general in its provisions for procedural due process.
Once the Declaration was accepted the Assembly turned to the basic structure of a national constitution, and throughout the ensu¬ing struggle the American experience was never far from the surface of the antagonists’ minds. The initial proposal, by Jean-Joseph Mounier, for the separation and balance of powers among king, a Senate of royally appointed lifetime members, and representatives, was recognized by all as Anglo-American, if not purely English, in its essence. Perhaps, Mounier explained, America in 1776 had been a constitutional tabula rasa, but France in 1789 certainly was not; and though he, like his main opponent, the Abbe Sieyes, would eliminate aristocratic privileges, the monarchy, he insisted, still existed and somehow had to be accounted for. Again and again in arguing the case for bicameralism and the distribution and balance of powers, he and such supporters as Mirabeau, La Rochefoucauld, and Rabaut Saint-Etienne cited America’s national and state constitutions, drew on the authority of Jefferson, and echoed the views of Adams.
Sieyes, in arguing successfully for a unicameral legislature and a limited, suspensive veto, reviewed the differences, point by point, between the existential, pre-existing republicanism of the American people and monarchical, aristocratic France. He and the other uni¬cameralists, besides arguing the logic of their case and its congru¬ence with the actualities of French society, noted the absence of a veto in Virginia’s constitution, drew on Stevens’s rebuttal of Adams, which they assumed was an attack on bicameralism, and the com¬ments of Stevens’s French collaborators, and argued again and again that France was not America where an upper house and executive veto did not threaten to perpetuate monarchy and aristocratic rule. Massachusetts and the American nation may have a strong executive, Sieyes insisted, but a governor or president, unlike the king, could be voted out of office, and there was no danger that an upper house might be dominated by a noblesse struggling to survive or some other special “order” or “estate.”
By 1794, as the French Revolution proceeded through its subse¬quent turmoils, the relevance of American constitutionalism faded in importance. But it had been crucial in the early, defining months— as, in distinctive ways, it was elsewhere throughout the Atlantic world.

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