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Formation of the Union By Albert Bushnell Hart Characters: 3262

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


[Sidenote: American experience.]

Another popular delusion with regard to the Constitution is that it was created out of nothing; or, as Mr. Gladstone puts it, that "It is the greatest work ever struck off at any one time by the mind and purpose of man." The radical view on the other side is expressed by Sir Henry Maine, who informs us that the "Constitution of the United States is a modified version of the British Constitution … which was in existence between 1760 and 1787." The real source of the Constitution is the experience of Americans. They had established and developed admirable little commonwealths in the colonies; since the beginning of the Revolution they had had experience of State governments organized on a different basis from the colonial; and, finally, they had carried on two successive national governments, with which they had been profoundly discontented. The general outline of the new Constitution seems to be English; it was really colonial. The President's powers of military command, of appointment, and of veto were similar to those of the colonial governor. National courts were created on the model of colonial courts. A legislature of two houses was accepted because such legislatures had been common in colonial times. In the English Parliamentary system as it existed before 1760 the Americans had had no share; the later English system of Parliamentary responsibility was not yet developed, and had never been established in colonial governments; and they expressly excluded it from their new Constitution.

[Sidenote: State experience.]

They were little more affected by the experi

ence of other European nations. Just before they assembled, Madison drew up an elaborate abstract of ancient, medi?val, and existing federal governments, of which he sent a copy to Washington. It is impossible to trace a single clause of the Constitution to any suggestion in this paper. The chief source of the details of the Constitution was the State constitutions and laws then in force. Thus the clause conferring a suspensive veto on the President is an almost literal transcript from the Massachusetts constitution. In fact, the principal experiment in the Constitution was the establishment of an electoral college; and of all parts of the system this has worked least as the framers expected. The Constitution represents, therefore, the accumulated experience of the time; its success is due to the wisdom of the members in selecting out of the mass of colonial and State institutions those which were enduring,

[Sidenote: Novelties.]

The real boldness of the Constitution is the novelty of the federal system which it set up. For the first time in history an elaborate written constitution was applied to a federation; and the details were so skilfully arranged that the instrument framed for thirteen little agricultural communities works well for forty-four large and populous States. A second novelty was a system of federal courts skilfully brought into harmony with the State judiciary. Even here we see an effect of the twelve years experience of imperfect federation. The convention knew how to select institutions that would stand together; it also knew how to reject what would have weakened the structure.

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