Willi Paul Adams.
The First American Constitutions: Republican Ideology and the Making of
the State Constitutions in the Revolutionary Era.
Rita and Robert Kimber, translators. Expanded edition. Lanham, Md.: Rowman
and Littlefield, 2001. xxi + 378 pp. Appendices, index. $80.00 (cloth),
ISBN 0-7425-2069-2 ISBN 0-7425-2068-4; $26.95 (paper), ISBN .
Gaspare J. Saladino , University of Wisconsin - Madison.
In 1973 Willi Paul Adams, now a professor of history at the
Free University of Berlin, published his doctoral dissertation on the
first American state constitutions. Three years later this dissertation
was awarded a prize by the American Historical Association for being the
best foreign-language monograph on the Era of the American Revolution
completed since 1 July 1969. With the prize money, the book was translated
into English and published in 1980 by the University of North Carolina
Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture. Almost
twenty years later, Madison House Publishers commissioned Adams to produce
an expanded edition of his book. In 2001, Rowman & Littlefield, which had
purchased Madison House, reprinted Adams's monograph under the Madison
House imprint. Adams added a second preface, two new chapters, and a
supplementary bibliography; except for the revision of his two appendices,
Adams did not alter his original text.
Adams's monograph examines the provisions of the first
state constitutions and analyzes the political ideas and the imperial,
colonial, and local experiences that formed the basis of these provisions.
The new governmental system created by these constitutions was republican,
federal, and constitutional; in this system, the rights of the people were
enforceable at law. Based on the principle of popular sovereignty, these
constitutions could not be violated. The political ideas embedded in the
constitutions were central to the creation of the Federal Constitution of
1787. Even though most Americans were republicans, much disagreement
existed about the meaning of republicanism, the structure of government,
and the extent of the people's role, thereby forcing Americans to make
compromises. Americans developed a viable constitutional system because
they struck a balance between their ideals and their pragmatism.
In his first three chapters, Adams considers "the
organizational questions" raised by the break with Great Britain. In
chapter 1, he describes how the early revolutionary movement was
spearheaded by local committees and provincial congresses, with the latter
acting as legislatures and executive committees. Although forwarding the
movement and developing a strong sense of patriotism, these temporary
bodies were too democratic, causing considerable turmoil. Nevertheless,
they laid the foundation for more permanent governments.
The First Continental Congress (1774), discussed in chapter
2, represented the formation of a government on the continental level, but
it was the Second Continental Congress, which convened in 1775, that
Americans saw as the ultimate source of authority. Simultaneously, in the
spring of 1776 this body decided for independence and invited the colonies
to draft new constitutions, thus replacing their colonial charters with
governments based upon the concept of popular sovereignty. The Declaration
of Independence embodied the new nation's political ideals and its
justification for independence.
Chapter 3 sketches each of the eleven states that framed
and adopted new constitutions between 1776 and 1780; some states drafted
more than one constitution, whereas Rhode Island and Connecticut retained
their colonial charters, revised to take account of independence. For the
most part, these new constitutions were drafted by provincial congresses
which considered themselves representative; some states convened
constitutional conventions, but these conventions did more than draft
constitutions. Only Massachusetts, when it launched its second attempt to
frame a constitution in 1779, called a convention for the sole and express
purpose of drafting a constitution. Massachusetts was also the only state
that submitted the proposed constitution to the people for ratification.
This action clarified the distinction between legislation and a
constitution and was an excellent example of the development of the
concept of "constituent power." Six of the eleven state constitutions
included bills or declarations of rights. The public debate engendered by
this constitution-making was intense and sophisticated, with dissent
playing a "dynamic" role. Chapter 4 demonstrates that in 1774 and 1775
Americans had not yet developed a systematic definition of what
constituted a republican government. The Second Continental Congress had
not asked the states to establish such a government, nor did it employ the
term in the Declaration of Independence. Not until Thomas Paine's
Common Sense, which first appeared in January 1776, did republicanism
become "a publicly recognized body of principles and institutions" (p.
103). Between 1774 and 1780, republicanism and democracy were synonymous
terms. By 1787, however, a distinction was made between the two, with
republicanism being preferred to democracy, which was deemed dangerous
since it represented popular turmoil and a leveling spirit.
In chapter 5, Adams asserts that the American Revolution
was not a doctrinaire one. Americans experimented with their ideals to see
if they passed the test of practicability. They adapted new principles to
traditional forms of government, thereby wedding their moral and political
values to their British-American experiences. In this respect Americans
followed the teachings of John Adams in preference to Thomas Paine's
emphasis on principles. These two revolutionaries, representing strikingly
different points of view, appear far more often in this book than any
Chapter 5 includes a discussion of an extraordinary
document drafted in 1779 by the inhabitants of
Massachusetts, that outlines in detail the principles of republican
government. Adams deftly uses this document to introduce chapters 6
through 8, in which he analyzes "the debate concerning the basic
principles of the American variant of republican government ...
progressing from popular sovereignty to liberty, equality, property, the
common good, representation, and the separation and balance of powers, to
the development of a federal form of government that came to be the key to
American success in nation building" (p. xvii). The principle of popular
sovereignty, the subject of Chapter 6, was an American innovation; all
other principles were included under this one. State constitutions
declared that all powers were vested in and derived from the people.
Americans formalized the right of the people to change their
constitutions, a right that made revolutions unnecessary. They also
provided for constitutional conventions and the popular ratification of
constitutions. But popular sovereignty had its limits. Declarations of
rights, which placed certain prohibitions on governments and majorities,
were intended to ensure that the people would not become tyrannical. In
Chapter 7, Adams
asserts that "liberty was the preeminent goal of political action" (p.
147). Americans fought the Revolution to achieve independence and
liberty. In erecting state governments, they joined liberty to
republican government, thereby establishing the notion of "political
liberty as the right to self-direction" (p. 153). They made certain that
their governments would protect certain rights of individuals. such as the
right to life, liberty, and property, but Americans were required to obey
their own laws. Most important, liberty meant that Americans could conquer
the continent on their own terms.
The principle of equality, the focus of Chapter 8, was
advanced without qualms by Americans, even though slavery existed in all
thirteen states and suffrage was based on property qualifications.
Moreover, many Founders believed in the rule of an educated elite.
Nonetheless, the principle of equality was employed, in particular, by the
Continental Congress to justify colonial resistance to Great Britain,
which had denied the colonies equality in the British Empire. In time, the
growing middle class turned the Founders' rhetoric against them and
demanded greater equality. However, few people saw the principle of
equality as a means of obtaining radical social and political reforms.
Chapter 9 emphasizes the importance of the idea of property as a natural
right. Americans broke with
to protect their property and liberty. The right to property was the
"great unifying factor" in the Revolution and after the war it was part of
"the canon of the highest social values" (p. 191). Some state
constitutions declared the right to be inalienable and most of them linked
suffrage and property. There was opposition to property qualifications for
voting, but it was a long time before they were all removed. A strong
belief prevailed that anyone who could not acquire enough property to vote
would not be a useful member of society.
The common good (chapter 10), a popular idea in the
colonies, was supported and promoted by virtuous people. Since the common
good was the most important function of a government, "the state
constitutions, naturally, incorporated the common good as the guiding
value for the exercise of legitimate government" (p. 220). But Americans
never reached agreement on a definition of the common good. They thought
that competing interest groups could exist if they gave up some of their
interests for the good of the whole. In this way, conflicts could be
The principle of representation--the concern of chapter
11--was another means (perhaps the best means) of resolving conflict.
Legislatures had existed since the earliest colonial days and the history
of their development was well known to the Founders. Conflicts over the
nature of representation, as old as the legislatures themselves, were
revisited by the Founders, who fashioned a number of compromises in an
effort to have legislatures represent a multiplicity of interests. The
compromises--in which principles of representation and balanced government
(checks and balances) overlapped--included two-house legislatures;
short-terms of office; annual elections; instructions for legislators;
rotation in office; declarations of rights; redistricting and censuses;
and procedures for amending constitutions.
In chapter 12, Adams shows how balanced or mixed government
merged with separation of powers into "one concept of limited government"
(p. 273). Checks and balances and the separation of powers were necessary
because the Founders held a cynical view of human nature. All state
constitutions except those of Pennsylvania and Georgia (and later the
"independent republic of Vermont") established two-house legislatures. The
Virginia and Massachusetts
constitutions specifically called for separation of powers among the three
departments of government--legislative, executive, and judicial.
Legislatures, however, were the dominant branch; judicial review of
legislation was not yet established and most legislatures elected the
Chapter 13 takes on the issue of federalism--the
relationship of the state governments to a central authority. Under the
Articles of Confederation, the balance of power between the states and the
central authority favored the states, although the issue of ultimate
sovereignty lacked clarification. Unhappy with economic conditions and
Congress' inability to raise money in the 1780s, some prominent political
leaders (later called Federalists) sought to create a strong central
government that would act to make America a great commercial empire. They
succeeded in 1787 when a new Federal Constitution provided for an enlarged
central government with three distinct branches and numerous restraints
upon the state governments, thereby shifting the balance of power to the
central government. Adams maintains that the Federal Constitution did not
represent a counterrevolution, as some scholars believe, because
centralizing tendencies began with the Continental Congress, which had
prosecuted the war for independence and managed the subsequent period of
peace. The combination of government on the state and national levels,
"the American variant of federal government, largely fulfilled" the
Federalists' "idea of a modern nation-state founded on the principles of
free republican government or, as [Alexander] Hamilton had called it,
representative democracy" (p. 289).
Adams asserts in chapter 14 (one of the two new chapters),
that the state constitutions, both negatively and positively, were
reference points for the framers of the Federal Constitution. "Without
considering the first state constitutions any reconstruction of the nation
building phase of American constitutionalism is incomplete" (p. 300).
Among other things, the state constitutions showed the way in the creation
of the U.S. Senate, the office of the President, and two-house
legislatures. The sole and express use of a constitutional convention for
framing the Constitution owed a debt to Massachusetts, whose unpleasant
experience with its plebiscite to ratify its state constitution also
taught the Founders to avoid a conditional ratification of the
Constitution. From their experience with the Articles of Confederation,
the Founders avoided the use of unanimous votes to ratify and amend the
In chapter 15 (the second new chapter),
explores the recent historiographical controversy pitting republicanism
against liberalism in the era of the Revolution, using state
constitution-making as a test case. He concludes that neither set of ideas
clearly prevailed in constitution-making, as the various state
constitutions all contain elements of democracy, republicanism, and
liberalism. For these reasons, Adams recommends that scholars seek another
guiding interpretative framework that might explain why Americans rebelled
against Great Britain and established new forms of government at state and
national levels. He suggests the historical sociologist Reinhard Bendix's
"sweeping systematic comparative survey of the changes from monarchical to
republican government" (p. 313). Bendix analyzed five long-term
developments that contributed to this shift: (1) the growth of a
sufficient population to mobilize economic resources, (2) the creation of
urban centers with political, commercial, and cultural functions, (3)
technological innovations in transportation, finance, and communication,
(4) "the Christian belief in the equality of all believers under God"
(page 313) and its impact on economic and political cooperation, and (5)
an "intellectual mobilization" that created a well educated public and
leadership. Adams believes that these conditions existed in America.
Appendix I compares the property qualifications in the
first state constitutions with those found in colonial, revolutionary, and
post-revolutionary election laws. Appendix II illustrates the principle of
rotation in office as shown by various officers in the state constitutions
from 1776 to 1780.
Now as on its first English-language appearance in 1980,
this monograph is a well-organized and well-reasoned introduction to the
making of state constitutions and to the state of the political mentality
of the Founding Generation. Adams has read widely in the secondary
literature and printed primary sources and familiarized himself with
American colonial, revolutionary, and early national history and to a
lesser extent British constitutional and imperial history. His book is
thus a fine synthesis of the literature up to 1980, the year of its first
edition. His book is most valuable for its thoughtful analysis and
definitions of such political concepts as constitutionalism,
republicanism, and federalism. Especially good are chapters 4 and 5, where
Adams grapples with the
meaning of "republic" and "democracy" in the rhetoric of the late
eighteenth century and where he demonstrates how Enlightenment ideas were
adapted to Anglo-American institutions.
has a fine discussion of the concept of "constituent power," a concept
invented by Americans who also gave it a name.
Because Adams relied so heavily on secondary literature,
however, gaps exist in his monograph because significant gaps occur in
this literature, a fact that Adams himself recognizes. In several
instances, he notes that more work has to be done on a particular state
constitution or a political concept. Because his study is so broad, Adams
was unable to delve into the intricacies of state politics or the roles of
the many players (only a few appear), so that his presentation of the
political context in which state constitutions were written lacks depth.
He weighted his inquiry in favor of the large states of
Pennsylvania, and Virginia, all of which offer abundant primary and
secondary sources. The innovating state of Massachusetts, in particular,
gets the most space. Oddly enough, even though Adams realizes the
importance of the state declarations of rights, he slights them in his
analysis and critique.
The two new chapters (14 and 15) are comparatively cursory
treatments. The reader wishes that Adams had compared the Federal
Constitution and the state constitutions in greater detail and depth.
In his discussion of the controversy pitting republicanism against
liberalism, Adams (perhaps inevitably) does not begin to cover the vast
literature, but it is unfortunate that he does not address more fully the
conclusions of many recent scholars who have seen a blending of
republicanism and liberalism in American political institutions and
Adams's supplementary bibliography is substantial and
conveniently organized by general works, state studies, and the book's
chapters. Nevertheless, it does not indicate how these newer works might
complement or contradict aspects of his study, nor does it give the reader
a clear picture where Adams's work fits into the historiography of state
constitution-making. In particular, Adams offers no opinion about the
general works on state constitution-making by Donald S. Lutz and Marc W.
Kruman, which appeared after his own book was first published, even though
their books appear in both the preface to this edition and in the
supplementary bibliography. Lutz is very good on the colonial origins of
the state constitutions, the Americanization of English Whig thought, and
origins of American constitutionalism. Kruman is strong on the state
declarations of rights and the extent of suffrage.
These criticisms aside, this book is a splendid
contribution to the study of the early American state constitutions. The
publishers ought to be commended for returning the book to print,
especially as it is bound to assist the growing number of practitioners in
the burgeoning field of state constitutional law, some of whose works are
found in Adams's supplementary bibliography.
. On the concept of popularity sovereignty, see the
chapter on James Wilson, perhaps America's most profound theorist on the
concept, in James H. Read, Power versus Liberty: Madison, Hamilton,
Wilson, and Jefferson (Charlottesville and London: University Press of
Virginia, 2000), 89-117.
. On liberty, see Read, Power versus Liberty; and
M. N. S. Sellers, The Sacred Fire of Liberty: Republicanism,
Liberalism, and the Law (New York: New York University Press, 1998).
. An earlier and longer version of this chapter appeared
in A. E. Dick Howard, ed., The United States Constitution: Roots,
Rights, and Responsibilities (Washington and London: Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1992), 3-22.
. Reinhard Bendix, Kings or People: Power and the
Mandate to Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).
. See also the brief but suggestive "Conclusion,"
in John Phillip Reid, Constitutional History of the American
Revolution: Abridged Edition (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press,
1995), in which Reid traces principles codified in provisions of state and
federal constitutions to the Americans' heritage from the unwritten
. See especially Herman Belz, Ronald Hoffman, and
Peter J. Albert, eds., To Form a More Perfect Union: The Critical Ideas
of the Constitution (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia
[for the United States Capitol Historical Society], 1992).
. Donald S. Lutz, Popular Consent and Popular
Control: Whig Political Theory in the Early States Constitutions
(Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1980); and
The Origins of American Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge and London:
Louisiana State University Press, 1980). See also Donald S. Lutz, ed.,
Colonial Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History-
(Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998).
. Marc W. Kruman, Between Authority and Liberty:
State Constitution Making in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill and
London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).
Library of Congress
Call Number: KF4541 .A8313 2001
* Constitutional history--United States--States.
* United States--Politics and government--To 1775.
* United States--Politics and government--1775-1783.
* United States--Politics and government--1783-1789.
Citation: Gaspare J. Saladino . "Review of Willi Paul Adams, The First
American Constitutions: Republican Ideology and the Making of the State
Constitutions in the Revolutionary Era," H-Law, H-Net Reviews, July, 2002.
First American Constitutions is a learned survey of political
thought and state constitution-making in the revolutionary era. Willi
Paul Adams’s approach, however, is encyclopedic…Scholars will not find
much in here that is new. Indeed, the primary achievement of this work…is
that it neatly summarizes current knowledge on a variety of subjects.”
Melvin Yazawa, review of The First American Constitutions: Republican
Ideology and the Making of the State Constitutions in the Revolutionary
Era, by Willi Paul Adams, The Journal of American History, 68
(June 1981): 118-119.