Founding America: Documents from the Revolution to the Bill of Rights

As of now, I have finished the following:

1. "The Address of the Governor" by Thomas Hutchinson

This is a speech that Massachusetts governor Hutchinson gave to the legislature in 1773 explaining why the colonies were not exempt from the authority of Parliament. Hutchinson argues, mainly, two things: (1) that the Americans' desire for representation in Parliament had no legal basis in the charter of the colony of Massachusetts, and (2) that American agitation for such representation was dangerous and harmful. He pointed out that if America were to become independent, it would be vulnerable to more powerful countries such as Spain and France (which could well have been true at the time, I suppose).

2. "Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One" by Benjamin Franklin

This is a satirical piece with a very serious undertone. Franklin's overall point was that the way the American colonies were being governed by King George and Parliament was leading the colonies to want to be independent of them.

Franklin does this by a list of twenty points which paint a remarkable picture of mismanagement and unfairness. He accuses King George and Parliament of putting poor leadership over the colonies, including biased judges and cruel tax collectors. He also points out that Americans had been forced to put up with standing armies which sowed discontent through their misbehavior and arbitrary prosecutions for which the cost was paid by the defendant, among many other things.

A lot of the concerns here recur in other early American documents and even in the Constitution, like the quartering of soldiers and habeas corpus rights.

3. "A Summary View of the Rights of British America" by Thomas Jefferson

This is a masterful appeal to King George, written by Thomas Jefferson as a joint appeal by the American colonies in 1774. You could think of it as an earlier, longer version of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson is trying to get King George to see reason rather than declaring independence here, of course, but the arguments of the two documents are strikingly similar.

I would divide this essay into four main parts.

(a) First, there is a historical passage briefly summarizing the history of England and the American colonies, which lays out some injustices committed by previous kings. The two main ones he discusses are the arbitrary portioning out of American colonies to English governors who had no role in helping create them, and the destruction of free trade by Americans for the benefit of England.

Then there is a turning point in the argument where Jefferson writes, in a justly famous sentence: "Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day, but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably thro' every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate, systematical plan of reducing us to slavery."

(b) Jefferson next lists seven new laws that had been passed by Parliament recently and in rapid succession. He focuses his discussion on three laws in particular, ones which had suspended the legislature of New York, closed the port of Boston, and forced Americans to travel to Great Britain for trial if they were charged with murder. He asks the king to revoke all seven of the unfair laws he discusses.

(c) Next, with remarkable boldness, Jefferson levels a number of criticisms against King George himself. He complains that the king had repeatedly failed to confirm laws that needed to be confirmed and revoked laws that were important for the well being of the colonies, dissolved American legislatures, failed to respect Americans' land rights, and sent standing armies to enforce arbitrary measures.

(d) Jefferson wraps up with an exhortatory paragraph.

Overall, I was very impressed with this essay by Jefferson. I think I mainly liked how he intermixed political philosophy with history over the course of the argument.

All three of the above sources are (probably) widely available online. I would particularly recommend reading the third, by Jefferson.
 
1. "The Address of the Governor" by Thomas Hutchinson

This is a speech that Massachusetts governor Hutchinson gave to the legislature in 1773 explaining why the colonies were not exempt from the authority of Parliament. Hutchinson argues, mainly, two things: (1) that the Americans' desire for representation in Parliament had no legal basis in the charter of the colony [my emphasis-K] of Massachusetts, and (2) that American agitation for such representation was dangerous and harmful. He pointed out that if America were to become independent, it would be vulnerable to more powerful countries such as Spain and France (which could well have been true at the time, I suppose).

I couldn't quote chapter and verse here, but I remember this general argument -- that the colonists weren't entitled to certain rights, because their ancestors had implicitly or explicitly renounced them -- being very prominent among those who were defending the Crown and deploring the agitation of the (eventual) rebels. With Hutchinson, as you summarize him, there's a legal argument that the current constitution doesn't allow for this, which implicitly relies on a utilitarian argument about the benefits of maintaining obedience to the current system of laws.

But sometimes the Tories went beyond this, arguing in effect that the agreements made by one's ancestors had a kind of sacred force, that it would be all but blasphemous to try to get around them. And they sometimes wrote as if this authority of the past over the present was just self-evident. And those on the other side, like Jefferson and Paine, had to explicitly refute this. This is part of what Jefferson is doing when he writes that "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." That is, even if this form of government was -- originally -- properly installed, that doesn't make it sacrosanct. And Paine indignantly responds to Burke (in Burke's attack on the French Revolution) that "A greater absurdity cannot present itself to the understanding of man than what Mr. Burke offers to his readers. He tells them... that a certain body of men who existed a hundred years ago made a law, and that there does not exist in the nation, nor ever will, nor ever can, a power to alter it."

The idea that the ancestors decrees or agreements are binding on the present hasn't gone away. When Pat Robertson talked about the Haitian rebels making a literal agreement with Satan, this wasn't just noxious because of how absurd it was as history, but because it so blithely assumed that of course the people of Haiti had to suffer for hundreds of years because of this "compact."
 
I couldn't quote chapter and verse here, but I remember this general argument -- that the colonists weren't entitled to certain rights, because their ancestors had implicitly or explicitly renounced them -- being very prominent among those who were defending the Crown and deploring the agitation of the (eventual) rebels. With Hutchinson, as you summarize him, there's a legal argument that the current constitution doesn't allow for this, which implicitly relies on a utilitarian argument about the benefits of maintaining obedience to the current system of laws.

But sometimes the Tories went beyond this, arguing in effect that the agreements made by one's ancestors had a kind of sacred force, that it would be all but blasphemous to try to get around them. And they sometimes wrote as if this authority of the past over the present was just self-evident. And those on the other side, like Jefferson and Paine, had to explicitly refute this. This is part of what Jefferson is doing when he writes that "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." That is, even if this form of government was -- originally -- properly installed, that doesn't make it sacrosanct. And Paine indignantly responds to Burke (in Burke's attack on the French Revolution) that "A greater absurdity cannot present itself to the understanding of man than what Mr. Burke offers to his readers. He tells them... that a certain body of men who existed a hundred years ago made a law, and that there does not exist in the nation, nor ever will, nor ever can, a power to alter it."

The idea that the ancestors decrees or agreements are binding on the present hasn't gone away. When Pat Robertson talked about the Haitian rebels making a literal agreement with Satan, this wasn't just noxious because of how absurd it was as history, but because it so blithely assumed that of course the people of Haiti had to suffer for hundreds of years because of this "compact."
This is a really interesting and thoughtful response. Thanks!
 
This is a really interesting and thoughtful response. Thanks!
You're quite welcome!

One point which belatedly occurred to me regarding the "appeal to history" generally was that it comes up a lot in debates about Israel/Palestine, where opponents of Palestinian claims almost always insist that the past rules the present: that the fact there was never a Palestinian state in the region (only rule by various empires) means essentially that Israel is entitled to perpetual occupation of the land. Whereas those making the case for a Palestinian state rely essentially on the argument from the DOI: that the "long train of abuses" they have been subject to under the current government justifies the attempt to abolish that government and substitute one better suited to their interests.
 
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You're quite welcome!
:)

One point which belatedly occurred to me regarding the "appeal to history" generally was that it comes up a lot in debates about Israel/Palestine, where opponents of Palestinian claims almost always insist that the past rules the present: that the fact there was never a Palestinian state in the region (only rule by various empires) means essentially that Israel is entitled to perpetual occupation of the land. Whereas those making the case for a Palestinian state rely essentially on the argument from the DOI: that the "long train of abuses" they have been subject to under the current government justifies the attempt to abolish that government and substitute one better suited to their interests.
Whatever we make of the situation regarding Israel and Palestine, it's a highly emotional and politically fraught topic. Perhaps such observations would be better made in another thread so that this one does not get derailed.

I do appreciate your participation!
 
Since my last post (post #2 above) I've read through three chapters of the book: A chapter on the First Continental Congress, including its "Declaration and Resolves" and "Association;" a chapter on the Second Continental Congress, including its "Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms" and Benjamin Franklin's proposed "Plan of Confederation;" and a chapter with some John Adams correspondence.

1. "Declaration and Resolves" of the First Continental Congress

This is a very interesting document that sheds some light on how the founders thought about rights. The colonies are not yet declaring independence, but they are fed up with how they are being treated. They are stating what their complaints are and why those complaints are violations of their rights, and they are refusing to trade with Britain until things are fixed up. The document has basically four parts.

First, a series of complaints against Britain are laid out. These include a lot of complaints that also appeared in Jefferson's essay, which I summarized above (in post #2). The main ones are taxation without representation, keeping American judges dependent on the Crown, maintaining standing armies without American consent, hauling Americans off to Britain for trial, the "Intolerable Acts," and the dissolution of American assemblies.

Second, the Continental Congress declares their rights, characterizing them as due to the "immutable laws of nature," but also as protected by "the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts." What follows is a very interesting list of rights, nearly all of which were unanimously affirmed by those present. A lot of these appear later in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.

The main rights affirmed here are: "Life, liberty and property;" the various legal rights of English subjects; the right of Americans to participate in a legislative council of their own; the right to a trial by a jury of one's peers, taking place in the relevant jurisdiction; the legal privileges provided by the royal colony charters; the rights of assembly and petition; no standing armies without consent; and independent branches of government.

Third, having declared their rights, the American Congress says what they think is necessary for Britain to do to reconcile with them. This list includes the repeal of various recent acts of legislation, including the Intolerable Acts. It also demands that Britain stop taking Americans to Britain for trial, keeping standing armies in America, and so on.

Fourth and finally, the American colonies agree to formulate a non-trade agreement between themselves to back up the above with some consequences for Britain.

We'll consider the exact nature of this non-trade agreement now.

2. "Association" of the First Continental Congress

This is a slightly shorter document. To oversimplify, essentially the Continental Congress is saying that they will not trade with Great Britain or Ireland, or the East India Company, or with various other British colonies. Interestingly, they state an intent to end the importation of slaves. Any merchant who violates this non-trade agreement will be excluded from trade with the colonies forever going forward, and committees will be established to monitor all of the colonies for compliance.

(Continued below.)
 
:)


Whatever we make of the situation regarding Israel and Palestine, it's a highly emotional and politically fraught topic. Perhaps such observations would be better made in another thread so that this one does not get derailed.
Yes, you're probably right about that.

I do appreciate your participation!
Thanks. If it weren't such a chore to keep logging out and logging in, I'd do more.
 
(Continued from above.)

3. "Declaration on Causes and Necessity of Taking Arms" of the Second Continental Congress

This is an essay by Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson which aimed to explain why the American colonies were taking up arms against Britain. (The essay is written in Jefferson's elegant style.)

The opening of the essay has a philosophical paragraph which says it is absurd to think that the "Divine Author of our existence" would "hold an absolute property in, and an unbounded power over others." This is interesting because it's the first time I've seen any of these documents mention God. It also comes very close to a condemnation of the practice of slavery, without explicitly saying so.

Jefferson goes over the good initial relationship between the colonies and Britain and how the colonies had helped with the previous war. He then accuses Britain of having turned against the colonies subsequently, seeing them as easier prey than enemy countries. He recites the American complaints, which are similar to those of the First Continental Congress, and says Britain had disregarded their petition for relief. After disregarding this petition, Jefferson accuses Britain of restricting the colonies' trade and creating an auction of taxation where the colonies would have to bid against each other (I'm not too clear on how this auction would work exactly).

The "Declaration" frames the beginning of hostilities at Lexingtcon and Concord as completely the fault of Britain. He says Lexington was an "unprovoked assault," and that the British troops moved on to Concord, where they "set upon" more Americans. I would be surprised if this was a completely accurate account of how these battles started, but in any event the impression given is that the Redcoats had simply started killing Americans for no good reason.

Jefferson next describes measures Britain took after the beginning of hostilities, including refusing to allow Bostonians to leave Boston and the initiation of martial law. He also says that the governor of Canada was scheming to bring the Canadians and the Indians against the Americans. In conclusion, he makes the point that they have to choose between "an unconditional submission to the tyranny of irritated ministers" or war.

Overall, this is a very effective piece of rhetoric, as is par for the course with Jefferson.

4. "Plan of Confederation" by Benjamin Franklin

This is a proposal for a provisional constitution by Benjamin Franklin. It was proposed to the Continental Congress by Franklin a couple of weeks after the "Declaration" above was published. It was not accepted by the Congress, but it's interesting in its own right for its quirks and its frequent similarities to the actual Constitution that we eventually adopted. It proposed, for example, that the Congress rotate through the colonies at each session. There is also a forerunner to the infamous "general welfare" clause of the Constitution.

5. "Remember the Ladies"

This chapter contains three letters, one to John Adams from his wife Abigail Adams, one back from John Adams to Abigail, and a third from John Adams to a lawyer named James Sullivan. The reason the chapter is entitled "Remember the Ladies" is that Abigail asked John Adams to make room for rights to women in the new government in her letter. John Adams rebuffed her in his reply. In the letter to Sullivan, Adams made some remarks about how we had to be careful about how far we extended the principle of representation, because if we extended it too far then women could vote. And that would just obviously be crazy, wouldn't it? ;)
 
3. "Declaration on Causes and Necessity of Taking Arms" of the Second Continental Congress

[. . .] The "Declaration" frames the beginning of hostilities at Lexingtcon and Concord as completely the fault of Britain. He says Lexington was an "unprovoked assault," and that the British troops moved on to Concord, where they "set upon" more Americans. I would be surprised if this was a completely accurate account of how these battles started, but in any event the impression given is that the Redcoats had simply started killing Americans for no good reason.
The British account, as you might guess, was rather different. :) Jefferson alludes to General Thomas Gage's Declaration of Martial Law of June 12, 1775, which summarizes it this way:

"A number of armed persons... from behind walls and lurking holes, attacked a detachment of the King's troops who, not expecting so consummate an act of frenzy, unprepared for vengeance and willing to decline it, made use of their arms only in their own defense." Elsewhere in the Martial Law declaration, Gage writes of "the fatal progression of crimes against the Constitutional authority of the state" committed by the rebels, "too many to enumerate, and too atrocious to palliate."

You can find the Gage Declaration of Martial Law here. Speaking of which, Jefferson uses some rhetorical sleight of hand to characterize it in this passage:

[Jefferson:] The general [Gage], further emulating his ministerial masters, by a proclamation bearing date on the 12th day of June, after venting the grossest falsehoods and calumnies against the good people of these colonies, proceeds to "declare them all, either by name or description, to be rebels and traitors, to supersede the course of the common law, and instead thereof to publish and order the use and exercise of the law martial."

He quotes Gage "declar[ing] them all... rebels and traitors," and the grammatical antecedent of "them all" here is "the people of these colonies," so the implication is that Gage has officially declared everybody in the colonies a rebel or traitor. Gage did no such thing: the "all" here refers to all "who have taken up arms," not "all citizens of these colonies." But Jefferson apparently wants to make the readers think that the British are coming after all of them, so quiescence won't save them; the only recourse is armed resistance. Jefferson also of course omits Gage's offer of a pardon to any who lay down their arms and swear allegiance to the Crown. (An offer which, interestingly enough, had only two exceptions: Samuel Adams and John Hancock, whose crimes are such they must be made an example of.)

Another passage from Jefferson which I found interesting:

Yet, however blinded that assembly may be, by their intemperate rage for unlimited domination, so to sight justice and the opinion of mankind, we esteem ourselves bound by obligations of respect to the rest of the world [my emphasis-K], to make known the justice of our cause.

Obviously this was important to Jefferson; in the DOI it gets re-worded as "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that [we] declare the causes" for taking up arms. I wonder whether contemporary revolutionary or independence movements tend to follow Jefferson here, or whether they're more likely to say (explicitly or implicitly) "let the world think whatever it wants to; WE know we're in the right."
 
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@Komodo, I really appreciate your post, particularly the link to the Gage text. I wouldn't otherwise have looked up or read that proclamation on my own, having enough work to do with the book of American primary sources I'm working through. Did you find that just by searching Google for relevant keywords? I should probably be doing that kind of cross referencing on my own. Anyway, very interesting deception by Jefferson there.

I am not knowledgeable about contemporary rebel movements. I would guess that most of them take the Jefferson approach, though, because there would be a lot for them to lose if they let the other side monopolize the propaganda aspect of the war. If I look at contemporary conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, I can see how both sides seem to need to appeal to larger powers for aid, and this requires a favorable public opinion.

Thanks for your time, I'd find this whole project a lot less interesting and edifying without these insights by you. :)
 
@Komodo, I really appreciate your post, particularly the link to the Gage text. I wouldn't otherwise have looked up or read that proclamation on my own, having enough work to do with the book of American primary sources I'm working through. Did you find that just by searching Google for relevant keywords? I should probably be doing that kind of cross referencing on my own. Anyway, very interesting deception by Jefferson there.

I am not knowledgeable about contemporary rebel movements. I would guess that most of them take the Jefferson approach, though, because there would be a lot for them to lose if they let the other side monopolize the propaganda aspect of the war. If I look at contemporary conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, I can see how both sides seem to need to appeal to larger powers for aid, and this requires a favorable public opinion.

Thanks for your time, I'd find this whole project a lot less interesting and edifying without these insights by you. :)
Thank you very much for the kind words, which I gladly reciprocate.

Yes, I found the Gage statement by searching Gage + Martial Law + Declaration + 1775 + Text. (I've generally found that unless you include "text" you'll just get summaries like Wikipedia and others,)

What struck me about Jefferson's "respect for the opinions of mankind" in both documents was that they weren't even explicitly appeals for aid; presumably, Franklin was doing that with France. In a way they were giving "mankind," or at least the reasonable portion of mankind, a sort of theoretical veto power over the revolutionary project. "We respect the reasonable portion of mankind; therefore, we feel obligated to explain to them why we are taking up arms"; doesn't it implicitly follow that, if that explanation fails, if the Reasonable Man is not convinced by the case made in the DOI, then the cause should be abandoned?

Not that Jefferson consulted a poll of reasonable readers throughout the world, obviously. :)
 
As of now, I have finished the following:

1. "The Address of the Governor" by Thomas Hutchinson

This is a speech that Massachusetts governor Hutchinson gave to the legislature in 1773 explaining why the colonies were not exempt from the authority of Parliament. Hutchinson argues, mainly, two things: (1) that the Americans' desire for representation in Parliament had no legal basis in the charter of the colony of Massachusetts, and (2) that American agitation for such representation was dangerous and harmful. He pointed out that if America were to become independent, it would be vulnerable to more powerful countries such as Spain and France (which could well have been true at the time, I suppose).

2. "Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One" by Benjamin Franklin

This is a satirical piece with a very serious undertone. Franklin's overall point was that the way the American colonies were being governed by King George and Parliament was leading the colonies to want to be independent of them.

Franklin does this by a list of twenty points which paint a remarkable picture of mismanagement and unfairness. He accuses King George and Parliament of putting poor leadership over the colonies, including biased judges and cruel tax collectors. He also points out that Americans had been forced to put up with standing armies which sowed discontent through their misbehavior and arbitrary prosecutions for which the cost was paid by the defendant, among many other things.

A lot of the concerns here recur in other early American documents and even in the Constitution, like the quartering of soldiers and habeas corpus rights.

3. "A Summary View of the Rights of British America" by Thomas Jefferson

This is a masterful appeal to King George, written by Thomas Jefferson as a joint appeal by the American colonies in 1774. You could think of it as an earlier, longer version of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson is trying to get King George to see reason rather than declaring independence here, of course, but the arguments of the two documents are strikingly similar.

I would divide this essay into four main parts.

(a) First, there is a historical passage briefly summarizing the history of England and the American colonies, which lays out some injustices committed by previous kings. The two main ones he discusses are the arbitrary portioning out of American colonies to English governors who had no role in helping create them, and the destruction of free trade by Americans for the benefit of England.

Then there is a turning point in the argument where Jefferson writes, in a justly famous sentence: "Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day, but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably thro' every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate, systematical plan of reducing us to slavery."

(b) Jefferson next lists seven new laws that had been passed by Parliament recently and in rapid succession. He focuses his discussion on three laws in particular, ones which had suspended the legislature of New York, closed the port of Boston, and forced Americans to travel to Great Britain for trial if they were charged with murder. He asks the king to revoke all seven of the unfair laws he discusses.

(c) Next, with remarkable boldness, Jefferson levels a number of criticisms against King George himself. He complains that the king had repeatedly failed to confirm laws that needed to be confirmed and revoked laws that were important for the well being of the colonies, dissolved American legislatures, failed to respect Americans' land rights, and sent standing armies to enforce arbitrary measures.

(d) Jefferson wraps up with an exhortatory paragraph.

Overall, I was very impressed with this essay by Jefferson. I think I mainly liked how he intermixed political philosophy with history over the course of the argument.

All three of the above sources are (probably) widely available online. I would particularly recommend reading the third, by Jefferson.
Thanks for posting this. And thank you for the invitation to comment. Learning history in the words of the historical figures is superlative.

When you finish this book you might enjoy "Roger Williams and the creation of the American soul." It talks about the early formation of American ideals before the time of John Locke and it is remarkable how highly developed American ideals were at that time. The author is John M. Berry.
 
@Thistle, thanks for joining!

The book about Roger Williams sounds really good. Thanks for that. I can't guarantee in all honesty that I'll get around to reading it, but I would like to read something about the Puritans at some point and this does seem like a solid source.
 
Since my last posting, I have made significant headway into a longer chapter containing a variety of primary sources pertaining to early American constitutions. These are constitutions set up by the American colonies to protect their rights during the Revolutionary War. The colonies needed new constitutions at this time because British rule had, of course, disintegrated at this point.

This post will cover three texts: First, there is John Adams' theoretical essay "Thoughts on Government," which was intended to give advice to the colonies as they wrote these constitutions. Second, I will also cover the "Virginia Declaration of Rights," which was not legally binding but merely a theoretical statement. Finally, I'll discuss the "Virginia Constitution" as it stood at the time of its enactment on June 29, 1776.

1. "Thoughts on Government" by John Adams

Adams begins from the observation that some governments are better structured than others to protect rights and happiness. He means happiness in the utilitarian sense, although he does not refer to utilitarianism explicitly (his phrase is "happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree"). Adams says he believes that virtue is the necessary foundation for happiness, rather than fear or a sense of honor.

On this basis, Adams says that a republic is the best form of government. He does not argue for that in the essay, but appeals to the work of Locke and other republican political philosophers: "They will convince any candid mind, that there is no good government but what is Republican." But there are a variety of republican systems of government, and the remainder of the essay discusses which exact republican government is best.

Why not go with the simplest form of republican government, where a single elected assembly has all the power? Adams presents many reasons against this. It would be easy for a passion to sweep over the assembly, against which we would have no protection; the assembly could pass laws and make decisions for its members' own benefit; and the assembly could vote themselves life terms, as had happened in Holland. On top of all that potential for corruption, it would be too lacking in secrecy and speed of decision making to exercise the executive power, as well as too lacking in legal skill and knowledge for the judicial power.

Interestingly, Adams recommends not only a separation of powers, but a two stage election of government. One house of the legislative branch would be elected by the people, then that house of the legislature would vote for the other, smaller house of the legislature. The two branches of the legislature would then jointly vote for a governor to run the executive branch. (What do you think of that proposal, folks?)

Governors would also have a lot of the powers that our Constitution gives to the President today. They would command the militia and the army, and have the pardon power and the ability to appoint judges and other officers. Adams recommended an independent judiciary branch with judges serving for life, and some checks and balances.

Adams wraps up by recommending a "militia law," public education ("especially for the lower class of people"), and laws regulating consumption in order to inculcate "virtue" and so promote happiness. The "militia law" would require that people be trained in combat and that stockpiles of ammunition and weapons be created.

2. The Virginia Declaration of Rights

This is a short 16-point statement of rights, just like it says on the tin. There are few complete surprises in this text if you're familiar with the American Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights - but I suspect that could be because it influenced those documents.

In any event, some of the rights listed are:

- rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property, happiness, and safety,
- the right to reform a bad government,
- the separation of powers,
- universal suffrage for "all men, having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, and attachment to, the community" (NB: this probably means they wanted a property requirement for voting),
- rights at trial (like trial by jury), and rights against cruel and unusual punishment,
- a right against "general warrants," and
- freedom of the press and freedom of religion

The 13th point is an obvious forerunner of our Second Amendment. The formulation is interesting, and I'll quote it in full here:

"13. That a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that Standing Armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that, in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power."

The Virginia Declaration, like Adams' essay that I discussed above, makes the assertion that liberty depends on virtue (point #15). I found that interesting.

3. The Virginia Constitution

We're discussing the Virginia constitution as enacted on June 29, 1776, here, of course, not what it looks like today.

This document starts off by explaining why a constitution is needed, which involves reciting many complaints against King George. I've covered these above in connection with other documents. This constitution then sets out a government with a separation of powers between the legislative branch, executive branch, and judiciary branch.

The legislature has two houses, a House of Delegates with two representatives per county and a Senate with 24 members. The Senators rotate on a set schedule. The houses each decide on their own officers and rules of procedure, but legislation must start in the House of Delegates and proceed to the Senate to be approved or not.

The governor is elected annually, by a joint vote of both houses of the legislature. A governor cannot continue in office for more than three years, and after three years must step down for four years. The governor gets a council to advise him on policy, and the pardon power. The governor cannot adjourn the legislature or dissolve it.

As for the judiciary branch, judges are appointed by the governor or the legislature, and hold office for life, but a judge cannot be elected to the legislature.

The part about the governor being elected by the legislature is what really stands out to me about this last document. I don't think that would work too well with our current batch of Congressmen, but I don't think it's an inherent bad idea.
 
@Thistle, thanks for joining!

The book about Roger Williams sounds really good. Thanks for that. I can't guarantee in all honesty that I'll get around to reading it, but I would like to read something about the Puritans at some point and this does seem like a solid source.
I learned a lot including this interesting fact. It was Roger Williams not Thomas Jefferson who first coined the expression "separation of church and state."
 
Since my last posting, I have made significant headway into a longer chapter containing a variety of primary sources pertaining to early American constitutions. These are constitutions set up by the American colonies to protect their rights during the Revolutionary War. The colonies needed new constitutions at this time because British rule had, of course, disintegrated at this point.

This post will cover three texts: First, there is John Adams' theoretical essay "Thoughts on Government," which was intended to give advice to the colonies as they wrote these constitutions. Second, I will also cover the "Virginia Declaration of Rights," which was not legally binding but merely a theoretical statement. Finally, I'll discuss the "Virginia Constitution" as it stood at the time of its enactment on June 29, 1776.

1. "Thoughts on Government" by John Adams

Adams begins from the observation that some governments are better structured than others to protect rights and happiness. He means happiness in the utilitarian sense, although he does not refer to utilitarianism explicitly (his phrase is "happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree"). Adams says he believes that virtue is the necessary foundation for happiness, rather than fear or a sense of honor.

On this basis, Adams says that a republic is the best form of government. He does not argue for that in the essay, but appeals to the work of Locke and other republican political philosophers: "They will convince any candid mind, that there is no good government but what is Republican." But there are a variety of republican systems of government, and the remainder of the essay discusses which exact republican government is best.

Why not go with the simplest form of republican government, where a single elected assembly has all the power? Adams presents many reasons against this. It would be easy for a passion to sweep over the assembly, against which we would have no protection; the assembly could pass laws and make decisions for its members' own benefit; and the assembly could vote themselves life terms, as had happened in Holland. On top of all that potential for corruption, it would be too lacking in secrecy and speed of decision making to exercise the executive power, as well as too lacking in legal skill and knowledge for the judicial power.

Interestingly, Adams recommends not only a separation of powers, but a two stage election of government. One house of the legislative branch would be elected by the people, then that house of the legislature would vote for the other, smaller house of the legislature. The two branches of the legislature would then jointly vote for a governor to run the executive branch. (What do you think of that proposal, folks?)

Governors would also have a lot of the powers that our Constitution gives to the President today. They would command the militia and the army, and have the pardon power and the ability to appoint judges and other officers. Adams recommended an independent judiciary branch with judges serving for life, and some checks and balances.

Adams wraps up by recommending a "militia law," public education ("especially for the lower class of people"), and laws regulating consumption in order to inculcate "virtue" and so promote happiness. The "militia law" would require that people be trained in combat and that stockpiles of ammunition and weapons be created.

2. The Virginia Declaration of Rights

This is a short 16-point statement of rights, just like it says on the tin. There are few complete surprises in this text if you're familiar with the American Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights - but I suspect that could be because it influenced those documents.

In any event, some of the rights listed are:

- rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property, happiness, and safety,
- the right to reform a bad government,
- the separation of powers,
- universal suffrage for "all men, having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, and attachment to, the community" (NB: this probably means they wanted a property requirement for voting),
- rights at trial (like trial by jury), and rights against cruel and unusual punishment,
- a right against "general warrants," and
- freedom of the press and freedom of religion

The 13th point is an obvious forerunner of our Second Amendment. The formulation is interesting, and I'll quote it in full here:

"13. That a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that Standing Armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that, in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power."

The Virginia Declaration, like Adams' essay that I discussed above, makes the assertion that liberty depends on virtue (point #15). I found that interesting.

3. The Virginia Constitution

We're discussing the Virginia constitution as enacted on June 29, 1776, here, of course, not what it looks like today.

This document starts off by explaining why a constitution is needed, which involves reciting many complaints against King George. I've covered these above in connection with other documents. This constitution then sets out a government with a separation of powers between the legislative branch, executive branch, and judiciary branch.

The legislature has two houses, a House of Delegates with two representatives per county and a Senate with 24 members. The Senators rotate on a set schedule. The houses each decide on their own officers and rules of procedure, but legislation must start in the House of Delegates and proceed to the Senate to be approved or not.

The governor is elected annually, by a joint vote of both houses of the legislature. A governor cannot continue in office for more than three years, and after three years must step down for four years. The governor gets a council to advise him on policy, and the pardon power. The governor cannot adjourn the legislature or dissolve it.

As for the judiciary branch, judges are appointed by the governor or the legislature, and hold office for life, but a judge cannot be elected to the legislature.

The part about the governor being elected by the legislature is what really stands out to me about this last document. I don't think that would work too well with our current batch of Congressmen, but I don't think it's an inherent bad idea.
It's interesting there's a unique constellation of things that you could be in favor of, or think might need tweaking. I don't think it would be bad to repeal the 17th amendment, and return to a Senate which is elected by the state legislatures as opposed to direct election.

A direct election of the president seems to be a check on the entrenched power of the legislature which does not have the kind of term limitation to achieve a self cleansing cycle. It seems that if experience has taught us anything it's that Power and inertia (which what we seem to have in Congress now) is a recipe for corruption.
 
I couldn't quote chapter and verse here, but I remember this general argument -- that the colonists weren't entitled to certain rights, because their ancestors had implicitly or explicitly renounced them -- being very prominent among those who were defending the Crown and deploring the agitation of the (eventual) rebels. With Hutchinson, as you summarize him, there's a legal argument that the current constitution doesn't allow for this, which implicitly relies on a utilitarian argument about the benefits of maintaining obedience to the current system of laws.

But sometimes the Tories went beyond this, arguing in effect that the agreements made by one's ancestors had a kind of sacred force, that it would be all but blasphemous to try to get around them. And they sometimes wrote as if this authority of the past over the present was just self-evident. And those on the other side, like Jefferson and Paine, had to explicitly refute this. This is part of what Jefferson is doing when he writes that "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." That is, even if this form of government was -- originally -- properly installed, that doesn't make it sacrosanct. And Paine indignantly responds to Burke (in Burke's attack on the French Revolution) that "A greater absurdity cannot present itself to the understanding of man than what Mr. Burke offers to his readers. He tells them... that a certain body of men who existed a hundred years ago made a law, and that there does not exist in the nation, nor ever will, nor ever can, a power to alter it."

The idea that the ancestors decrees or agreements are binding on the present hasn't gone away. When Pat Robertson talked about the Haitian rebels making a literal agreement with Satan, this wasn't just noxious because of how absurd it was as history, but because it so blithely assumed that of course the people of Haiti had to suffer for hundreds of years because of this "compact."
That's an interesting example you gave about Pat Robertson. I don't remember the issue. Was he offering an argument in support of refusing Haitian refugees to immigrate to the United States? Although I do remember quite accidentally running into him and Reagan national Airport when he was actually running for president, I believe it was in 96? We ended up in such close proximity that he glad handed me as you might expect a presidential candidate to do.
 
It's interesting there's a unique constellation of things that you could be in favor of, or think might need tweaking.
It is, isn't it? I am currently working through the Pennsylvania constitution of September 28, 1776. I'm not too far into it yet, but I think there will be some interesting differences between this and the Virginia constitution. In the introduction to this chapter, the editor of the book characterized the Virginia constitution as more typical and the Pennsylvania constitution as more radical.

I don't think it would be bad to repeal the 17th amendment, and return to a Senate which is elected by the state legislatures as opposed to direct election.

A direct election of the president seems to be a check on the entrenched power of the legislature which does not have the kind of term limitation to achieve a self cleansing cycle.
I'm curious how these fit together. Why is it okay for state legislators to elect a Senator, but not for the national legislature to elect a President? It seems like you'd either want the "self cleansing cycle" in both cases, or see it as unnecessary in either of them. But I'm not a historian or anything, so I could be missing something.

It seems that if experience has taught us anything it's that Power and inertia (which what we seem to have in Congress now) is a recipe for corruption.
Yes, agreed. :)
 
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