And Chapter 6, “Constitutional Conflict and the American Revolution.”

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June 29, 2004
Appendix to:
Chapter 2, “Allocating Power Between the Federal and State Governments,”


Chapter 6, “Constitutional Conflict and the American Revolution.”

Influences on the Founders and Framers

Richard J. Sweeney

McDonough School of Business

Georgetown University

37th and “O” Streets, NW

Washington, DC 20057

(O) 1-202-687-3742

fax 1-202-687-7639, - 4130


Abstract: A huge literature deals with the interests and ideologies of the Revolutionary War Founders and the Constitution Framers. The Founders’ and Framers’ interests and ideologies have much in common, but there are some important differences. Both groups had complex economic interests that often differed greatly across men and time. The Founders were familiar with the British political theorists and controversialists of the seventeenth century (Locke, Harrington, Sydney) and eighteenth centuries (Bolingbroke, Trenchard and Gordon, Pope, Swift, Defoe), and also with some continental writers such as Montesquieu. The Framers also knew Scottish Enlightenment writers, particularly Hume. The Founders and Framers were highly eclectic, taking ideas from authors on both sides of many disputes. No one slavishly followed a particular system. The Founders were familiar with older writers on British law, for example, Coke, and the Framers were also familiar with Blackstone, and both were familiar with older writers on international law (Grotius, Pufendorf and Vattel). The Framers knew works by mercantilist writers and by a number of economists, particularly Adam Smith, but also another Scot, James Steuart, and Quesnay and the French physiocrats.

Appendix to:
Chapter 2, “Writing the U.S. Constitution,”


Chapter 6, “Constitutional Conflict and the American Revolution.”

Influences on the Founders and Framers

Abstract: A huge literature deals with the interests and ideologies of the Revolutionary War Founders and the Constitution Framers. The Founders’ and Framers’ interests and ideologies have much in common, but there are some important differences. Both groups had complex economic interests that often over differed greatly across men and time. The Founders were familiar with the British political theorists and controversialists of the seventeenth century (Locke, Harrington, Sydney) and eighteenth centuries (Bolingbroke, Trenchard and Gordon, Pope, Swift, Defoe), and also with some continental writers such as Montesquieu. The Framers also knew Scottish Enlightenment writers, particularly Hume. The Founders and Framers were highly eclectic, taking ideas from authors on both sides of many disputes. No one slavishly followed a particular system. The Founders were familiar with older writers on British law, for example, Coke, and the Framers were also familiar with Blackstone, and both were familiar with older writers on international law (Grotius, Pufendorf and Vattel). The Framers knew works by mercantilist writers and by a number of economists, particularly Adam Smith, but also another Scot, James Steuart, and Quesnay and the French physiocrats.

Appendix to:

Chapter 2, “Writing the U.S. Constitution,”


Chapter 6, “Constitutional Conflict and the American Revolution.”

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist …. It is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or ill.

John Maynard Keynes

The General Theory of Employment, Interest

and Money [1936]
These ideas have as much to tell us about the origins of the Revolution as does the accumulation of grievances, because they served not so much to “rationalize” the grievances but something like the reverse: they gave meaning to the grievances when they appeared, and shaped the sense of how they ought to be responded to.
Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick

The Age of Federalism. [1993]

Influences on the Founders and Framers

The Founders and Framers were eminently practical men who did not glory in supposed freedom from intellectual influences, but sought out works of the best thinkers they could find, argued about their thoughts, and tried to learn the best from each to help them build a country.

A huge literature deals with the motives and ideologies that the Founders brought to the American Revolution and that the Framers brought to the Constitutional Convention. The Founders’ and Framers’ motives and ideologies have a substantial amount in common. There are important differences, however. If nothing else, the Founders worked in the Revolutionary and pre-Revolutionary periods that together covered say 1763 to 1781; the Framers in 1787 had this experience, plus the experience of living from 1781 to 1787 under the U.S.’s first try at a constitution, the Articles of Confederation. This appendix gives a brief discussion of the influences on the Founders and Framers, with some discussion of differences between the two groups.

Economic Interests. Start with the influence of the Founders’ and Framers’ economic interests. Most of the Founders and Framers were lawyers, farmers, planters, merchants or shippers when they were active in enterprise. Only a few were educated in England, and the majority did not go to college (the lawyers almost all had read for the bar in a practicing lawyer’s office)1. Most were men of property—sometimes only small farms, sometimes hundreds of thousands of acres. A number were rich for their time and place, but none were near as rich as the European rich of their day. A few built large fortunes, but most faced periods of grave financial danger, and some lost everything. Few were rich enough to afford to focus solely on politics. Some were land rich and cash poor, were always in debt, and had to borrow money for living expenses to participate in politics.

John Hancock was born rich and got richer. His fellow Massachusetts revolutionary, Sam Adams, inherited a small business and did not do well. John Adams was a lawyer and small farmer. He went to Harvard, the first in his immediate family to go to college. Benjamin Franklin was born the tenth son of a soap- and candle-maker, was apprenticed to a printer, became a successful printer, made a good deal of money, thereafter devoted himself to science, philosophy and politics, and became the best known American thinker of the eighteenth century, famous both in America and Europe. His fellow Pennsylvania revolutionary, James Wilson, was born to a poor family in Scotland, studied at Glasgow and Edinburgh in the midst of the Scottish Enlightenment, came to the U.S. at age twenty-four, practiced law and became famous and modestly well off. Robert Morris came to the U.S. from Britain at age thirteen to join his father, a tobacco exporter, and started work at age sixteen. He went into commerce and especially finance in Philadelphia, made a large fortune, was vital to financing the Revolution, helped write the Constitution and get it ratified, eventually went to debtor’s prison (1798-1801) and died broke (1806). Alexander Hamilton was born in the West Indies; his father deserted his family and then his mother died, leaving Hamilton on his own. HHHe went to King’s College in New York, served in the army in the Revolution, including four years on Washington’s staff, became a famous lawyer, and played an important role in the Constitution’s ratification. He was the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, and was deeply in debt when he was shot to death in a duel. George Washington was born into Virginia gentry, but by no means the richest part, had little schooling, worked as a surveyor, fought on the frontier against the Indians and the French, married a rich widow, built up his wealth, and died owning 500,000 acres of western land and leaving an estate of $500,000, a huge amount for the time. He was sometimes short of cash; for example, he had to borrow £10,000 to finance his move to New York in 1789 to take up the presidency. Thomas Jefferson was born into a rich, prominent family, was related to most of the best families in Virginia and most of the prominent men in Revolutionary Virginia2. He attended The College of William and Mary, then read law, wrote extensively, worked seriously in architecture, and was famous in America and Europe for his wide-ranging knowledge. He was ambassador to France, the first secretary of state, and the third president. He worried about money, tried to improve his fortune, frequently made bad business deals, and died owing more than $100,000.

The economic-determinism school of analyzing the Constitution, starting with Charles A. Beard (1913) and others, and attempted to bring an increase in analytical rigor over previous work (see Beard’s useful but too-harsh discussion of Banfield and others in his Chapter I). This school was dominant for fifty years, and was influential also in analyzing the Revolution. The school was attacked in at least two directions. Beard’s division of economic interests into capitalist and agriculturalist, with these interests explaining the writing and ratification of the Constitution, was shown to be simplistic and to have little explanatory power. Beard divided people by their economic interests into one of two groups. On the one hand, as agriculturists, he classed small farmers, who tended to be debtors, held little or no national or state debt, and were in favor of paper money schemes. On the other hand, capitalists were rich planters, manufacturers, shippers, merchants, holders of national and state debt, and opponents of paper money. McDonald (1958 and 1965), Brown (1956)3 and others showed that the economic interests of the Framers, and of the individual states that ratified the Constitution, were substantially more complicated than Beard’s simple dichotomy suggests. Further, they found that these interests changed greatly for some states and some Framers, sometimes within a few years. Main (1965) found “a pattern of social mobility so fluid as to render meaningless any interpretation of the period resting on class conflict” (Morgan 1992, p. 191). McDonald argues that the Framers’ economic interests had important influence on their behavior, but not in the naïve way that Beard envisioned. All of the Framers knew of examples where people used political power or connections in their home states to further their economic interests, and most of them had done (or tried to do) the same. Their political opponents were often of the same background and economic class, and often had similar interests in western lands and the national and state debts left from the Revolutionary War.

Further, interests or passions in addition to their economic interests drove the Founders and Framers. In particular, following Adair (1967), scholars have paid attention to the Framers’ psychological motivations, especially the desire for Fame, seen as secular immortality. Many see the Framers’ desire for Fame as similar to the desires expressed by ancient authors through many important early modern authors (from, for example, Cicero to Sir Francis Bacon).

All of the Framers and virtually all of the Founders considered protection of property one of the fundamental duties of government, and included in property the right to try to accumulate property. In this, they were representative of the large majority of white, male Americans of their day; imputing to this period notions of class struggle, socialism and communism from the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries is gross anachronism. As discussed below, the authors available to the Founders and Framers virtually all viewed property rights as the foundation of liberty; it was not that the Founders and Framers chose these views among a range, but that these views were all that systematic thinkers presented. For example, the Levelers in seventeenth-century England, tarred as radicals, had no interest in property redistribution (and proposed male suffrage, but not for servants, criminals or paupers); the small, contemporary group of Diggers proposed radical redistribution, but left hardly a mark in print or later thought. The authors the Founders and Framers knew virtually all thought property ownership helped a man to be independent, and many doubted a man with no property could really form and, in particular, exercise an independent opinion. They were deeply dismayed by the electoral fraud and vote buying in England in the 1700s. For these reasons among others, most Founders and Framers were willing to allow the states to impose property requirements on voters. For many of them, for example, both Adams and Jefferson, the ideal was a state composed mainly of small landowners, with few landless men and few large landowners, and no great landowners.

The term capitalist was just coming in to use, and was used often in a derogatory sense. The term capitalism was not in use for decades. A few of the Founders, and a few more of the Framers were engaged in large-scale commerce, and even fewer in finance and banking. Many were engaged in buying and selling land, particularly western land, in hopes of profit. To the extent the Constitution was designed to facilitate the Framers’ economic interests, these interests were not viewed in terms of manufacturing and finance of the type that was soon to become common in the Industrial Revolution in America. Further, the Framers left most economic and social regulatory power to the states with virtually no restrictions on the states save those in state constitutions (including their bills of rights), and the states were deeply involved in the economy.

The Framers knew that they would have to get the Constitution ratified to go into effect. They specified that each state should hold a special ratifying convention to debate and vote on the Constitution, with the Constitution going into effect when nine states had ratified it. Thus, they recognized they were under great pressure to design a Constitution that appealed to the interests of people in each state—and they did. As they wrote the Constitution, they sometimes tried to help their particular interests as well, but they were limited by the need to “sell” a constitution to a wide range of voters in thirteen very different states. Most of the Framers had experience in politics and in its compromises, and worked to get an acceptable, if imperfect, document.

Ideological Influences. For interesting surveys of ideological influences on the Founders and the Framers, see Bailyn (1967, expanded edition 1992), Maier (1972), McDonald (1982, Chps. I-IV; 1985, Chps. 1-4; 2000, Prologue, Chp. 1) and Miller (1992, Chps. 1-4). For a survey of seventeenth century English political thought, especially republican thought, see Fink (1945); for a survey of English Opposition writers of the late seventeenth century through mid-eighteenth century, see Kramnick (1968). Morgan (1989) surveys notions of popular sovereignty, and their influences, in England and America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

While some authors focussed on economic or psychological influences on the Founders and Framers in the wake of Beard and his school, other scholars turned to the ideological foundations of the Revolution and also the Constitution (for example, Mansfield 1965, Pocock 1965, and Bailyn 1965, 1967 and expanded edition 1992, Maier 1972)4. These ideological influences can be traced back in the first place to the history and constitutional conflicts in England in the sixteenth and the early- to mid-eighteenth centuries. Scholars have identified a large range of authors with whose ideas the Founders and Framers were familiar.

The key is that a given Framer or Founder might take some ideas from one author, but not all his ideas, and take other ideas from other authors. A different Framer would have a different selection of ideas, though likely from a partially overlapping set of authors. Many of the influential authors whom the Founders and Framers knew disagreed sharply with each other. There is no one author that everyone followed in detail, and in their picking and choosing, the ideas a Framer might select were often not be entirely consistent with each other, let alone consistent with the ideas of other Framers.

In particular, no one of the Founders or Framers ever put forth a more or less complete, well-articulated model of how a republic should be designed. Rather, they had ideas on many government topics, but tended to take the issues one at a time or at best address subsets of issues—until suddenly the Framers had to construct an entire federal government in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention.5 Related, the authors whom the Framers read did not for the most part offer complete systems, and this facilitated their American readers in picking and choosing among ideas. To be sure, some such as Plato with his Republic offered a more or less complete system, as did Hobbes with his Leviathan (published 1651), Harrington with his Oceana (published 1656) and Hume in some of his discussions (see “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth,” first published in 1752)6. Nevertheless, even those deeply influenced by some of Hume’s thought, for example, on the constitution of a commonwealth, did not adopt other parts of his system7.

Many of the Framers (for example, Hamilton, Madison and Governeur Morris) were familiar with, and some were deeply read in, ancient Greek and Roman history and political thought, as well as medieval and early-modern European history. Among the ancients were Plato (The Republic, The Laws), Polybius, Cicero and Plutarch (Lives). The Founders had access to Machiavelli’s (1469-1527) works; later authors whom the Founders knew referred to his works frequently and favorably, particularly his Discourses on Livy (for example, Harrington, 1611-1677, in his Oceana, published 1656), though many deprecated Machiavelli’s Prince. Many authors referred not only to ancient republics, but also the Republic of Venice, which they saw as an enduring republic, with mixed government and such perfect balance that it had survived 1000 years in liberty (Fink 1945, Chp. 2). Most influential, however, was British history, British law, and British political thinking. American leaders were knowledgeable about the English Civil War (1640-1660), the Commonwealth that followed the monarchy (1649-1660), the Restoration of the monarchy (1660), the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the crisis of the Protestant Succession, and the political and historical literature around these seventeenth and early- to mid-eighteenth-century upheavals. They were knowledgeable about the Whig governments from 1721 to 1756, particularly under Walpole 1721 to 1742; about the Opposition to these Whig governments; and about the evolution of British law over this period.

The 1600s were a turbulent, traumatic period in English history. James Stuart succeeded the childless Elizabeth I in 1603 as James I, the first Stuart king. His son Charles I called a parliament in 1640, but eventually he and the Parliament fell out, civil war resulted, a Rump of the Parliament executed Charles in 1649, the Parliamentary general Oliver Cromwell dismissed the Rump in 1652, and became Lord Protector in 1653. Cromwell died in 1658, and in 1660 Parliament invited Charles II, son of Charles I, to return as king. From 1640 to 1660, so-called Commonwealthmen wrote extensively, discussing issues ranging from the rights of the people, especially regarding religion, under a limited monarchy, to justifications and plans for a republic with no monarch (Milton, Harrington). Charles II had no legitimate children, though fourteen acknowledged illegitimate children. His heir appeared to be his brother James, but James was a Catholic, and unacceptable to many Protestants in England. His daughters, Mary and Anne had been raised Protestant, however, and each was married to a Protestant, Mary to Prince William of Orange in The Netherlands, Anne to a Danish prince. Attempts to pass Exclusionary acts to bar James or any Catholic from the throne failed, and James II peacefully succeeded his brother in 1685. Eventually, civil war broke out once again, and in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, Parliament deposed James II and in 1689 invited William of Orange and Mary to be king and queen of England. In the settlement of 1688-1689 between William and Parliament, a great deal of power was explicitly lodged in the House of Commons. Included in the settlement was the English Bill of Rights (1689), which was substantially weaker than the later U.S. Bill of Rights (1791). The English Bill of Rights stipulated that no one could be king who was Catholic or married to a Catholic. The conflict around the Glorious Revolution occasioned much writing, ranging from defenses of the absolute, divine right of kings (Sir Robert Filmer, written c. 1630, publ. 1680), to Whig defenses of the Whig Settlement (Locke, written c. 1680, publ. 1690), to republican objections to monarchy and excessive Parliamentary power (Algernon Sidney, written c. 1680, publ. 1698). William and Mary died childless, and Mary’s sister Anne became queen in 1702. She also died childless, and the succession passed to a protestant—George, the Elector of Hanover, who was a grandson of Elizabeth Stuart, a sister to Charles II (and daughter of James I). George succeeded Anne Stuart as George I, the first of the Hanoverians. His son was George II, and a great-grandson was George III.

Under William and Mary, and then Anne and George I, the system continued of monarchs governing through ministers who were much strengthened as compared to the early Stuarts. William shifted between Whig and Tory ministers on the basis of who could most effectively push his programs at a given time.8 There were ten parliamentary elections between 1695 and 1715, with Whig and Tory majorities coming and going. At the end of her reign, Anne fired the Tory, Viscount Bolingbroke, who was (in effect) first minister; Bolingbroke fled to France and George I turned to Whig ministers. In 1721, the Whig Robert Walpole became first minister, and held great power until his fall in 1742. Walpole expanded and regularized royal patronage—and outright bribery—to exert control over the House of Commons, or as some viewed it, to avoid domination of the king and his ministers by the Commons’ power. Opponents objected to the power the ministers wielded and to the blatant, acknowledged corruption on which this power rested. Groups of Tories, for example, around Viscount Bolingbroke (Swift, Pope and many others), as well as opposition Whigs, for example, Trenchard and Gordon, and religious dissidents, wrote extensively criticizing Parliament, the ministerial system and corruption. American colonists were familiar with this history, the great constitutional controversies that arose in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the literature they inspired.

Political Theory and Commentary. All the Framers were deeply familiar with Locke (1690) and his compact, consent and natural-rights theories of government, and with his views on the benefits of a “mixed government” or a “mixed monarchy.” They were also familiar with other literature associated with the Whiggish Glorious Revolution of 1688, for example, Filmer’s Patriarca, a defense of absolute monarchy (publ. 1680, written c. 1630). In turn, Locke and other writers at the time of the Glorious Revolution and it aftermath were familiar with writers who during the Commonwealth wrote on republican principles or theory, for example, James Harrington,9 the poet and controversialist John Milton, and Algernon Sidney. They were also familiar with Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan 1651), who assigned much more power to the state and king than these others. These writers viewed property rights as the foundation of liberty. Similarly, the Levelers in seventeenth-century England did not propose radical redistribution of property (though the contemporaneous Diggers did); indeed, in the Levelers view (Morgan 1989, pp. 72-73), Parliament should be excluded from power to “levell mens Estates, destroy Property, or make all things Common.” They did, however, discuss at length the notion of the sovereignty of the people.10 To be sure, Harrington in Oceana stressed the need for periodic redistribution of land to prevent some owners from growing too powerful by accumulating great holdings. He argued, however, that an Agrarian law that ruled out primogeniture and required more or less equal distribution among heirs would be sufficient (Fink 1945, Chp. 3).

The Framers thus had access to these older writers of the seventeenth century and before, both directly and indirectly through later writers. Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence has many conscious parallels with Locke’s thought, perhaps as an effective way of communicating with the many American and British readers familiar with Locke. This apparent dominance of Locke in the Declaration may well overstate his influence, because the Founders were well aware of many other writers whose ideas they adopted in part.11

A good part of the written work that the Founders and Framers knew arose out of conflicts between later Whig governments in Britain, particularly from 1721 to 1761, and their opponents. Bolingbroke (1678-1751) and his Tory circle (Kramnick 1968), and also the “Real Whigs” outside of the Whigish government, were prominent opponents of the Whig governments under Robert Walpole and his successors.12 Many of the Framers were familiar with Bolingbroke’s theories, and took some ideas from him. This is so, even though they also took ideas from Locke, and Bolingbroke disagreed with Locke on many issues, in particular, the compact theory of the origin of government; the influential David Hume disagreed with both.13 Among Bolingbroke’s circle were the satirist Jonathon Swift (1667-1745) and poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744), who both wrote extensively on political issues in the first four decades of the 1700s, for example, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Pope’s Essay on Man (1733-1734). (Gulliver’s Travels is a thinly veiled satire and condemnation of the Walpole ministry. In contrast, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) is a thinly veiled apologia for the Whigs and for the new system of money, banking and finance that had grown up since the Glorious Revolution.) Both John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were deeply read in Pope.14 Some works by the “Real Whigs” were also well known to the Framers, particularly John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s Cato’s Letters (1720-1723), which were published in newspapers in Britain and America and collected in books, which later in books sold well in America for generations.15 Many of the Framers cited Montesquieu as a great authority; most of the reformist political thinkers in Europe and American held him in high regard. Montesquieu was closer in view to Bolingbroke than to Locke; Montesquieu and Bolingbroke knew each other well, and for his Spirit of the Laws (1748), Montesquieu took many of his ideas of how the British constitution actually worked from Bolingbroke. The Framers were particularly struck by Montesquieu’s stress on the need for a separation of powers. The Framers also knew the authors of the Scottish Enlightenment (among the Framers, James Wilson had studied under Scottish Enlightenment figures in Scotland, and James Madison had studied them in some depth at Princeton). Many of them were familiar with the political writings of David Hume, cited as an authority by the Framers, but controversial because of his religious doubts, his rejection of natural law, and his “Tory” history of England.16 The Founders seemed to be much less influenced than the Framers by Hume and the other Scottish Enlightenment writers.

On the one hand, Bolingbroke and his Tory circle, as well as the opposition Real Whigs, deplored the corruption that Walpole and his government used to control the House of Commons. This fit in well with the views of those Framers who stressed “clean government” and feared the effects of corruption on government. (Hamilton accepted Hume’s view that corruption was the only weapon the British executive branch had with which to prevent domination by the House of Commons, and thus corruption was necessary in some cases.) Bolingbroke’s emphasis on the need for virtue in government also fit in well, for example, with some moralistic New Englanders such as John Adams. Other Framers were impressed by Bolingbroke’s emphasis on the importance of small and middle size landowners-farmers (the gentry, the squires, or the yeomen) as the bedrock of society. Bolingbroke thought these country people who owned property were the source of virtue and integrity in Britain. In contrast were the moneymen (bankers, financiers and speculators) who arose after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and were associated in Opposition minds with the Bank of England (founded 1694) and the funding of the national debt. Country life, based on agriculture and landownership, struck many in America, particularly the South, as the true basis for the new republic. Further, many of these Americans, for example, Madison17 and Jefferson, were suspicious of banks and national debt, and drew counterarguments from the Opposition of the first half of the eighteenth century. Again, the Real Whigs and Bolingbroke and his circle, perhaps because they were in opposition for decades, were in favor of frequent meetings of Parliament and frequent new elections for Parliament (this demand had become popular as far back as Charles II’s reign). This preference for frequent elections and frequent meetings fit in well with experience and practice in many of the colonies and later the states; for example, New England towns traditionally held annual meetings.

On the other hand, Bolingbroke thought the British system was so corrupt that the only hope was a return to first principles under a hero, the Patriot King (1749). The Patriot King would rule without parties, selecting the best men, knowing what was good for the country, doing what was best for the country, and thereby winning the country’s approval. The Patriot King’s great power and charismatic leadership were far from what most of the Framers thought suitable, and would clearly have been deeply unpopular with the average American during and after the American Revolution. Suspicion of parties or “faction” fit in well, however, with American views.

From English Opposition sources, starting in the early eighteenth century up to the Revolution, the Founders knew well the corruption in England under Kings George I, II and III. Many of the Founders believed that this corruption was a major reason that Parliament treated the colonies so badly. Further, they knew that elections to Parliament were often rigged in various ways, particularly through bribery or intimidation by the great men over those smaller men who had the franchise. Many authors insisted that corruption was the proximate cause of the many cases the Founders knew from history of the “enslavement” of peoples under tyrannies. They had seen grave losses of freedom in England, they thought, and had seen the rise of absolute government in Denmark, Sweden and Poland; and the tyranny in Russia and Turkey were commonplaces to them.

The British “Mixed Government.” Locke, Bolingbroke, Montesquieu and virtually all the continental European reformers of the eighteenth century studied the British “mixed government” or “mixed monarchy” and praised it as the best of systems, a combination of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy that took the virtues from each system and avoided their vices. The virtues were respectively Energy, Wisdom and Goodness, and the vices were Tyranny, Oligarchy and Mobocracy. This view went back to ancient times, at least to the Greek historian Polybius, who spent many years at Rome living among the powerful; he described the Roman Republic as a mixed system and attributed the Republic’s greatness to this system.18 Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers discussed mixed government as a system of checks and balances that took the best from each order—the monarchy, the aristocracy and the commons—and prevented any one group from dominating the others and deteriorating into vice and thence to tyranny. Such deterioration, it was argued, caused the end of that government and the start of a new cycle that would also end with degeneration. Those who advocated mixed government often pointed out that the monarchical role need not be played by a king, but could be filled, for example, by the Roman Republic’s two consuls, elected for only a year, or some other non-royal system of magistrates, as at Sparta or Venice (Machiavelli 1636). Because the monarchical role was limited in mixed government, those who supported royal absolutism tended to be deeply opposed to the concept of mixed government.

Many who wrote on mixed government stressed that the balance between the different groups offset the defects of each and thus offered the potential for the government to survive indefinitely (Machiavelli, Harrington, Milton—see Fink 1945, Chps. 3 and 4 and passim). They had all around them examples of governments that had failed, and they emphasized how important they considered continuity in government. At the Constitutional Convention, many Framers spoke of the danger of the U.S. collapsing, and that their goal should be to write a Constitution that could survive.

British and other authors meant importantly different things when they talked of mixed government. Bolingbroke thought the mixed government of Queen Elizabeth’s reign (d. 1603) was the best. Locke preferred the Whig government of the Glorious Revolution (1688) era. Others argued that the corrupt system of the 1700s is in fact the only period where the mixed system really worked in Britain as it should. At the same time, the mixed government in Britain was far from having the strict separation of powers that Montesquieu wanted and many Framers approved. Checks and balances, as provided by a mixed government, are not the same thing as the separation of powers, and the two concepts are often in conflict in the U.S. Constitution.

Mixed-government theorists in the seventeenth century, and later, did not believe the best arrangement was equality among the orders, but balance, which was achieved with one order predominant (for example, Harrington and Milton). These writers often suggested dominance of the aristocracy, and some suggested dominance by the popular order, but virtually never monarchical dominance—another reason for the monarchical party to oppose them (Fink 1945, Chps. 3 and 4). Locke (1690) thought of the popular order as dominant, but as inactive except at times of government change, leaving governing mainly to the aristocracy. Milton, among others, put forward the notion that the aristocracy should be taken to mean the “natural aristocracy” based on knowledge, training, skill and particularly character, rather than the aristocracy based on descent or title as in England (Fink 1945, Chp. 4). Jefferson also talked in terms of a “natural aristocracy,”19 and John Adams agreed.

Sovereignty. Starting in the late 1500s and early 1600s, a new, stronger more abstract notion of sovereignty arose. Bailyn (1967, pp. 198-199, italics added) writes that,

The idea of sovereignty current in the English-speaking world of the 1760s was scarcely more than a century old. It had first emerged during the English Civil War, in the 1640’s, and had been established as a canon of Whig political thought in the Revolution of 1688…. [T]here must reside somewhere in every political unit a single, undivided, final power, higher in legal authority than any other power, subject to no law, a law unto itself. Derived in part from the political theory of classical antiquity, in part from Roman law, and in part from medieval thought, this idea came to England most directly in the sixteenth-century writings, especially those of Jean Bodin [English edition, 1606], that sought to justify and fortify monarchical supremacy.

Parliament adopted this view after the Glorious Revolution, with the explicit assertion that Parliament held the sovereign power. Blackstone (1765-1769) wrote that this notion of sovereignty was at the heart of English law. To many in England and America, this view of sovereignty seemed self-evident. In the period from 1763 up to the Revolution of 1776, American writers first accepted this view, and then came to see that they had to modify it. They groped their way towards a federal notion of shared sovereignty, of “a sovereignty within sovereignty,” imperium in imperio, a notion that English writers virtually all dismissed out of hand as a logical contradiction. (Bailyn 1967, Chp. V, Section 3; McDonald 1985, pp. 276-282; McDonald 2000, Prologue).20

The Law. Many of the Framers were trained in the law, and many of the others, being men of affairs, had some knowledge of the law. Blackstone’s Commentaries were well known and deeply influential;21 virtually all American lawyers after the Revolutionary War studied Blackstone when they read law22 in preparation for the bar. (Blackstone published his Commentaries in London in 1765-1769; they were published in America in 177223.) Many of the Founders referred to Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), and his Institutes (first Institute, 1626), as an authority, and to other seventeenth century English legal writers (Bailyn 1967, pp. 30-31), and had studied them while reading law in the period before Blackstone published.24 A fair number of the Framers educated after Blackstone published became familiar through him with ideas of earlier British legal commentators and theorists, and also read these earlier authors’ works.

From the Revolution on, American lawyers were engaged in adapting the common law to American conditions of the individual colonies and then states. A number of Founders and Framers played important roles in this adaptation. In 1777, Jefferson, Edmund Pendleton and George Wythe were appointed to a three-person committee to revise Virginia laws; “That famous revision of Virginia’s statutes provided for the abolition of primogeniture, the promotion of education, and the guarantee of religious freedom.” (Smith 1996, p. 78) In commercial and contract law, the Framers James Wilson and Alexander Hamilton (McDonald 1982, pp. 311-314) helped adapt, revise and simplify common law. (St. George Tucker’s (1803) edition of Blackstone, with comments attempting to reinterpret British common law in Blackstone to fit American circumstances, was influential.)

On international law, a number of the Framers knew Grotius (1625), Pufendorf (1703), Vattel (1758) and others (McDonald 1985, pp. 52-57)25, and these authors’ ideas were also incorporated in other works with which the Framers were familiar.26

Political Economy. The Founders and Framers had access to many mercantilist writers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One frequently mentioned is Mandeville and his Fable of the Bees, which argued that private vice led to public virtue.27 The Framers knew Adam Smith and his Wealth of Nations (1776), with his “invisible hand,” and they and their peers widely referred to the book. The Founders of course had no access to the Wealth of Nations until after 1776, when they were already deeply involved in the Revolutionary War. Smith was not the only influential economist, however. Hamilton in particular seems to have been influenced by another Scottish economist, Sir James Steuart (1767), who was more favorable to government intervention in the economy than was Smith. In particular, Steuart thought that especially when the economy is starting to manufacture, it “needs” protection, as Hamilton thought (mainly in the form of subsidies rather than tariffs). The Framers also knew the French Physiocrat School; for example, Jefferson, Adams and Marshall met with physiocrats at various times in Paris. François Quesnay (1694-1774) was the leading physiocrat; they worked out their ideas from the 1750s to the 1770s. The physiocrats’ great intellectual contribution was to analyze the “circular flow” of income in an economy, their Tableau Économique (1766). Their key belief was that only agriculture was productive, in the sense of producing more than the value of the inputs used in production. All other economic activities were sterile, using as much as they produced. This absurd economics appealed to many Americans who already viewed agriculture and yeoman farmers (landowning farmers) as the backbone of the republic, for example, Thomas Jefferson.28 This is an example of how the Founders and Framers could take up authors for support of a political position they already held. As an example of how the Founders and Framers were able to pick and choose among various authors’ ideas, Quesnay argued that only an absolute monarch, anathema to the Founders and Framers, could run France. The physiocratic view of the primacy of agriculture remained long in the air in the U.S. In his “Report on Manufactures” (December, 1991), Hamilton felt compelled to discuss at length and offer

an answer to the question whether manufacturing added to “the produce and revenue” of society or whether it merely diverted useful effort from agriculture. (Bookhiser 1999, p. 93.)

Table 1. Time Line of Historical Events and Publications, 1600-1780

1603 1625 1640 1649 1654 1658 1660

Elizabeth I d. James I d. English Charles I Cromwell Cromwell d. Restoration

James I - Charles I - Civil War executed Lord Protector Charles II

--Commonwealth (b. 1599)

1606 1620 1632 1652 1663

First Virginia Plymouth Maryland Expulsion of North Carolina

Charter Colony Charter Rump Parliament Rhode Island,

Machiavelli 1621 1625 1653 1656 1669

(1469-1527) Francis Bacon Grotius Parliament of Harrington South Carolina

Discourses on impeached. (1583-1645) Saints Oceana publ. (Locke’s

Livy (Eng. Trans. Essays Critical Rights of charter)

  1. and Moral (1605), War and 1651

Novum Organum Peace Hobbes

(1620) Leviathan


Edward Coke




John Milton (1608-1674), Commonwealth poetry and prose

The Reason of Church Government (1641) Aeropagitica (1644)
To the Lord General Cromwell (1652)

Levelers: Popular Sovereignty,

(near) manhood suffrage

Diggers: millenarial


1685 1688 1689 1702 1714 1721 1742 1760 1776

d. Charles II James II William and d. William d. Anne Walpole Walpole d. George II American

James II - flees to Mary - Anne - George I, resigns George III - Revolution

France of Hanover --Declaration of

1689 1694 1708 1745 1776

English Bill Mary d. Jacobean Jacobean Adam Smith

1680 of Rights Rising Rising Wealth of

Filmer Patriarca (succession Nations

publ. (written c. 1630) determined)
<--------------------------> <-------------------------> <------------> <----------------------->

1679-1681 Nine Years War War of the Spanish War of the Seven Years War

Exclusion (1689-1698); Succession (1701-1713); Spanish (1756-1763);

Controversy King Williams War Queen Anne’s War Succession French and Indian War

(succession of in America in America (1740-48) ; in America

James) King George’s War

in America

Whig and Tory Parties coalesce

1690 1721 1749 1667

Locke Trenchard and Gordon Bolingbroke Sir James Steuart

Two Treatises Cato’s Letters (1621-1623) (1678-1751) Principles publ. (written c. 1680) Patriot King

1698 1719 1733-1734 1765-1769

Algernon Sidney Daniel Defoe Alexander Pope Blackstone

(1622, executed 1683) (1660-1731) (1688-1744) Commentaries

Discourses on Robinson Crusoe Essay on Man

Government publ. 1776

(written c. 1680) Edward Gibbon

1726 Decline and Fall

Jonathan Swift of the Roman Empire

    1. 1758

Gulliver’s Travels Vattel
  1   2

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