Homework answer. I asked

October 17, 2003


Homework answer.

I asked Was the U.S. Constitution a continuation or a repudiation of Revolutionary Ideals?

This is an old chestnut in American history and, like many of the homework questions I give, there is no obvious answer. What I look for is that the students take a position and support it with historical evidence. So, rather than answering the question itself, I will lay out some of the main positions and the evidence for each. This is going to be quick and superficial; the alternative would be for me to write a short book.

It is pretty clear that the Constitution was something of a reaction to the revolution, and especially to the way that the contagion of liberty was leading more and more people to desire revolutionary rights. The question is whether the changes in the constitution limited the excesses of the Revolution in order to preserve the core values of the revolution, or whether the constitution so limited revolutionary ideals as to change the very nature of the social experiment. The answer will depend on what you define as the core values of the American Revolution.

If revolutionary ideals were those laid out in the Declaration or the VA Declaration: inalienable rights; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; government by consent of the governed - then the Constitution was a way of ensuring that these ideals would be carried out.

If revolutionary ideals were those laid out by Tom Paine in Common Sense and by the rabble rousers: government immediately responsible to the governed; an end to hierarchies and elites; society as a commonwealth based on virtue and simplicity - then the Constitution was a repudiation.

We did not read Paine this semester, and so most of the kids decided that the Constitution was a continuation of the revolution because it created a stable structure so that a republic would survive. So long as we have republican self government, we do not need to worry about the detailed workings or ideals of that republic.

I will post next week's homework question on Monday.

Posted by Red Ted at October 17, 2003 11:32 AM | TrackBack