Upon declaring independence, American revolutionary leaders had the opportunity to create new governments in the United States, but they confronted some longstanding challenges:
The issue of creating a republic revolved around two important questions related to these challenges:
To examine how revolutionaries addressed these questions, we turn first to state governments.
In 1776, John Adams urged the 13 independent colonies — soon to be states — to write their own state constitutions. Adams did not advocate democracy, however. Rather, in Thoughts on Government, he wrote, “there is no good government but what is republican.” Fearing the potential for tyranny with only one group in power, he suggested that each state implement a republic.
Furthermore, to ensure that a single group or interest could not consolidate power, Adams insisted that each state government feature a sufficient system of checks and balances.
The state constitutions of the new United States illustrated different approaches to addressing Adams’s concerns.
One impulse was to write state constitutions that embraced democratic principles by limiting the power of the executive branch in an attempt to prevent tyranny and to reflect the will of the people.
Pennsylvanians wrote the prototype for this approach, completing their state constitution in September 1776. It began by echoing the Declaration of Independence and stating the reasons for breaking with the king. It then included “A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth or State of Pennsylvania” that guaranteed liberty to the people, including rights concerning religious toleration and freedom of speech. It also declared, “That all power being originally inherent in, and consequently derived from, the people; therefore all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants, and at all times accountable to them.”
Subsequent provisions within Pennsylvania’s constitution put these ideals into practice. Executive authority rested in the hands of a president and a council. The president was elected annually, while members of the council were elected on a rotating basis every three years.
To counter the authority of the executive and to reflect the will of the people, much of the government’s power in Pennsylvania rested within the state legislature. Members of the legislature were elected on an annual basis and, to further make sure that government accounted for the people’s interests, the legislature held open-door sessions and posted proposed legislation in public spaces to foster debate.
Under Pennsylvania’s 1776 constitution, no law could become permanent until it had been passed by two successive legislatures.
Finally, Pennsylvania had the broadest franchise — or right to vote — of any state.
The requirement to own property in order to vote was eliminated, and if a man was 21 or older, had paid taxes, and had lived in the same location for one year, he could vote. This provision opened voting to all free male citizens — white and black — of Pennsylvania. This gave Pennsylvania the widest franchise of any state.
In contrast, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, written largely by John Adams, was a model for more conservative state constitutions. It offered a greater balance between the different parts of government. Moreover, unlike Pennsylvania, it limited political participation to those who owned property.
The Massachusetts constitution created a stronger executive by having a governor who could command the state militia and had veto power over the state legislature. The constitution also created two legislative chambers — an upper house (or senate) and a lower house.
Also, in stark contrast to Pennsylvania, Massachusetts implemented requirements to hold office or vote that limited political participation to male property owners. To be governor under the new constitution, a candidate had to own an estate worth at least £1,000. To serve in the state senate, a man had to own an estate worth at least £300 and have at least £600 in total wealth. To vote, he had to be worth at least 60 pounds. To further keep democracy in check, judges were appointed, not elected.
The authors of the first state constitutions in the United States believed that King George III had become a tyrant who ignored the traditional liberties of his subjects. Such disaffection toward the king helps explain why many Americans believed that a republic would be a better alternative than monarchy for government.
While a republic offered an alternative to monarchy, it was also an alternative to democracy.
Within a democracy, majority rule could easily overpower minority rights, and many wealthy revolutionaries (who constituted a minority within the American population) feared that a hostile and envious majority could seize and redistribute their wealth.
In addition to their economic concerns, a number of leading revolutionaries opposed democracy because they believed it placed political power in the hands of individuals who had no business participating in government.
EXAMPLEJohn Adams reacted to Pennsylvania’s constitution in horror, declaring that it was “so democratical that it must produce confusion and every evil work.”
To Adams and others like him, the democratic provisions within the Pennsylvania constitution simply put too much power in the hands of men who were not prepared for self-rule, particularly members of the lower classes who did not attain the levels of education or property ownership as Adams and other revolutionary leaders had.
Adams and others argued that a proper republican form of government required its participants to feature virtuous behavior. This was a political and social philosophy that historians refer to as republicanism.
Adams and other revolutionary leaders argued that the ownership of property such as land provided one way to measure an individual’s civic virtue.
Revolutionary leaders believed that only landholders and other property owners possessed the economic independence necessary to make impartial decisions related to governance. By the same token, this logic argued that the lower classes who did not own property should have very little to do with government. Revolutionary elites assumed that the lower classes lacked sufficient education and struggled to get by in their daily lives, which made these individuals more likely to become corrupted by personal motives or interests.
According to Maryland’s constitution, written in 1776, a man had to own at least £5,000 worth of personal property to be state governor and possess an estate worth £1,000 to be a state senator. This latter qualification excluded over 90 percent of the white males in Maryland from political office.
In other words, unlike a democracy, in which the mass of non-property holders could exercise the political right to vote, John Adams and other revolutionary leaders envisioned republican governments that limited political rights and opportunities to men like themselves — the elite within American society.
Shortly after declaring independence from Great Britain in 1776, most revolutionaries pledged their greatest loyalty to their respective states. Recalling their experiences during the British imperial crisis of the 1760s and 1770s, they feared a strong national government and took some time to adopt the Articles of Confederation, which favored state sovereignty rather than a strong centralized government.
Members of the Continental Congress debated over how a national, republican form of government should look. Complicating this issue, however, was the fact that the Congress was currently engaged in a war with Great Britain over the very survival of American independence. Revolutionary leaders knew that the American states had to unite in order to fight the war against Great Britain. Thus, in lieu of creating a new federal government, the Articles stated that the states entered "into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their Liberties, and their mutual and general welfare…."
To secure the defense of the nation, the Articles formally created a national unicameral legislature (a continuation of the Continental Congress) that oversaw the American military and foreign affairs. To further ensure a united effort against Great Britain, the Articles stipulated that the union between the states was perpetual.
EXAMPLEGiven the need to coordinate military activities across eastern North America, revolutionary leaders assumed that it was necessary for the national legislature to oversee the Continental Army.
Under the Articles, the people could not vote directly for members of the national Congress. Rather, state legislatures decided who would represent the state and each state had equal representation in Congress. There was no president or executive office of any kind, and there was no national judiciary (or Supreme Court) for the United States.
The Congress did not have the power to tax citizens of the United States. This power remained with the respective states. Given the fact that many colonists rebelled against Great Britain because of issues related to taxation and representation, it makes sense that revolutionary leaders chose the states to handle taxation rather than the national government.
However, this concession soon had serious consequences for the United States. During the War for Independence, the Continental Congress sent requisitions for funds to each state to provide for the Continental Army. But the states already had an enormous financial burden on their hands because they had to pay for and supply their respective militias. Thus, during the war, the states failed to provide even half of the funding that Congress requested, which led to a national debt in the tens of millions by 1784.
EXAMPLEAt one point during the war, the Continental Congress proposed a five percent tax on all imports coming to the United States, which would have provided enough revenue to pay for the national debt. However, the proposal did not achieve unanimous support from the states when Rhode Island rejected it and the proposal was not enacted.
Establishing workable foreign and commercial policies under the Articles of Confederation also proved difficult. Moreover, Congress could not control interstate commerce, and each state could set their own import taxes on foreign goods as well as goods produced in another state.
Most historians have looked at such shortcomings and concluded that the Articles of Confederation were a weak and ineffective form of national government. However, other historians have emphasized the context in which the Articles were written, arguing that they were a practical solution for the United States while it fought for independence against Great Britain, one of the strongest empires in the Atlantic World.
The inability to tax its own citizens or to enforce treaties among the states were important weaknesses that revolutionary leaders would have to address. At the same time, however, under the Articles of Confederation, the United States won the War for Independence and the Continental Congress successfully negotiated the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which formally recognized American sovereignty. If the main purpose of government under the Articles of Confederation was to unite the states and win the War for Independence, then the Articles succeeded.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Image of Pennsylvania Constitution (1776), Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2iTFtdZ, [Broadside declaring the ratification of the Massachusetts constitution (1780)]. (2009). Retrieved January 20, 2017, from http://archives.lib.state.ma.us/handle/2452/43200, Image of Articles of Confederation, Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2jIoyPP, Derived from Openstax tutorial 7.1 http://bit.ly/2jInhIS and 7.3 http://bit.ly/2jgOGOs. Some sections edited or removed for brevity.