Atlantic Dimensions

It is difficult to convey the energy and imagination that went into the constitutional creations of the Revolutionary generation— the freshness of the Revolutionary leaders’ minds, their capac¬ity to re-imagine the political world. Yet these were not intellec¬tuals devoted to ideas as such; they were not scholars engaged in the systematic study of political and constitutional thought, or philosophers debating the details of formal discourses. They were intelligent, well-educated provincials—merchants, planters, lawyers, and politicians—coping with the manifest problems of public author¬ity that faced them, referring back for guidance to their own expe¬rience and the traditions they knew, rejecting some ideas and institutions and modifying others to suit their needs, and propelled into new ways of thinking and new forms of public organization not by the desire for innovation but by logical necessity, by the attraction of the possibilities they could see, and by the sheer momentum of their efforts. The result, in these provincial states and in the American nation, was a new configuration of public authority and a new set of constitutional procedures which in a short period of years resonated throughout the Atlantic world.
It is now conventional among historians who consider what has been called the age of the democratic revolutions to say that after a brief flurry in the first two years of the French Revolution the con¬stitutional ideas and institutions of the American Revolution had little influence on the development of European or Latin American constitutionalism— that the struggles there were on issues largely defined by the ideas and experience of the French Revolution, and that in any case conditions of public life elsewhere in the Atlantic world were so different from those in the United States that any attempt to transplant American institutions was doomed to failure.
And there is no doubt that the basic conditions of public life in North America were unique. There, there had been neither a deeply instituted monarchy, nor legally constituted social orders, nor an effectively established state church to contend with. Nor had there been a deeply entrenched bureaucratic state apparatus, as distinct from government. The national government, in the Revolutionary decade, had been built from the bottom up, with local bodies parsi¬moniously endowing higher echelons with exiguous powers, so that not only was the structure as a whole fragile but its ultimate author¬ity was no more than a bundle of concessions subject to withdrawal. The main evidence that there was a national government was, for the merchants and port officials, the presence of customs collectors (who were usually dependents of the merchants) and, for all others, the workings of the post office.
Yet, despite this, the interest in American constitutionalism was intense throughout the Atlantic world in the revolutionary years; and in the generations that followed it remained deeply embedded in the awareness of political leaders, publicists, and intellectuals. Flow much so appears at times in strange and startling ways.
In the early editions of the Abbe Raynal’s wildly popular Histoire philosophique et politique … des Europeens dans les deux Indes, provincial North America, its people, institutions, and lifeways, had been demeaned in the manner of Buffon, but in his revision of 1780, Ray- nal celebrated the new nation in rhapsodies. Fie now confessed that he palpitated with joy, “eyes floating in delicious tears,” in contem¬plating that “heroic country” and its public laws, that “retreat of tol¬eration, of manners, of laws, of virtue, and of freedom.” Talley¬rand, who so gready admired the Federalist papers, was no one to dis¬solve into tearful ecstasies, but even he was moved to superlatives in contemplating the American scene. The three greatest men of his epoch, he was quoted as saying, were Napoleon, Pitt, and Alexander Hamilton, and of the three he gave first place to Hamilton. One wonders how the son of the Norwegian constitutionalist Falsen (who copied parts of the Massachusetts constitution directly into the Nor¬wegian constitution) fared with his given names: George Benjamin— or what the Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany, bombarded by advice on state affairs by his father, the Emperor Francis, and his mother, Maria Theresa, made of the copy of the Virginia constitution pre¬sented to him by Filippo Mazzei.
Brazilian intellectuals, discontented and contemplating reform, secretly sought out Jefferson in France for confidential advice, and, as overseas students at the University of Coimbra, devoured accounts of the American Revolution and of its constitutional innovations. Their strange colleague, the martyr of Brazil’s aborted rebellion of 1789 in the inland province of Minas Gerais, Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier, kept in his pocket a copy of the French translations of the American state constitutions, though knowing no French he had to ask others to translate it for him. The Prussian Kantian Friedrich von Gentz was so impressed by what he discovered of American constitutionalism that he dedicated himself to exploring it at length in a comparative study of the American and French Revolutions—a treatise that John Quincy Adams enthusiastically translated into English for American consumption. The Venezuelans, in 1811, under the influence of Fran¬cisco Miranda, an enthusiast of the American Revolution, made plans to issue their own declaration of independence on the precise anniversary of Jefferson’s, but missed by twenty-four hours.

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