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  Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
Political Science
IV. The Growth of the American Constitution
By Professor W. B. Munro
IF history is to perform properly its function as an agency of instruction, it must be careful to record human events fairly and with accuracy, otherwise the lessons which it asks posterity to draw from the past are sure to be misleading. Now the most reliable sources of information concerning all that has happened in the public life of past generations are of course the contemporary records, the writings of those who had a hand in the events themselves and the public documents which set new historical landmarks. The makers of history are the men most competent to write about it; they are the ones best qualified to interpret their own experience.  1
  These writings are the piers upon which the historian builds his long bridge of narrative, and the historical structure can be no stronger than its foundations. American history is well supplied with them, for it spans a period of only three centuries—three modern centuries in which men have written much concerning the outstanding events of their own day. Due allowance must of course be made for human shortcomings even in the records left to us by the wisest and most open-minded of writers. But the fact remains that contemporary materials afford the only sure basis on which to build our knowledge of what has gone before. The history of America, accordingly, may be best studied in the chronicles of early explorers, in the narratives of those who first made their homes on this side of the Atlantic, in the colonial charters and later State laws, in the messages and decrees of presidents, the treaties with foreign nations, the decisions of courts, the correspondence of public men, or, to put it broadly, in the great mass of official and unofficial writings which constitute the public literature of the New World.  2

  The English settlements in America, during the century and a half of their existence as colonies, encountered many difficult problems. In the earlier years of this period there were troubles with the Indians; in the later years there were almost incessant bickerings with the French colonists to the north. But in due time the redskins were humbled and France was expelled from her American territory. Then there were religious troubles which at times rent the English colonies in twain. Some of these settlements, it is true, had been founded as a protest against ecclesiastical bigotry at home; but that did not make them tolerant of heresy within their own borders. Those who failed to make outward compliance with the established religious practices were in some cases harried out of the land, and a rigid enforcement of this policy in Massachusetts led to the founding of Rhode Island and Connecticut as separate colonies.
  Another difficult problem was that of providing a satisfactory frame of civil government. Every colony had its own series of experiments embodied in charters, 1 fundamental laws 2 and bodies of liberties. 3 At this historical distance these quaint documents make instructive reading, for they portray with great fidelity the earliest political ideals of the American people. Despite the rigor with which these codes attempted to regulate the daily walk and conversation of citizens, one can nevertheless trace in every line a firm loyalty to the principle that governments should be of laws and not of men. The faith in constitutional guarantees of civil liberty goes back to the very origins of American government.  4

  But the most difficult of all colonial problems was that of determining proper political relations with the motherland. While the colonies were weak and exposed to external dangers these relations gave rise to no acute controversies; but after 1760, when America’s economic interests had grown greatly in importance, and when the treacherous arm of France had been removed from the northern frontiers—then it was that serious estrangements began. Matters which might have been easily adjusted under earlier conditions became sources of open friction and ill-feeling; the breach widened and active resistance to the authority of the home government ensued.
  It is to be borne in mind, however, that the causes of the American Revolution were neither superficial nor few. The Declaration of Independence catalogues the colonial grievances as the colonists saw them, and their name is legion. 4  6
  The thirteen revolted colonies could not very well manage their struggle for independence as a joint enterprise without some form of central government, and a congress of delegates, sitting at Philadelphia, was established to meet this necessity. With no legal basis during the early years of its existence, this congress eventually framed and secured the adoption of the Articles of Confederation which served as a working constitution for the body of States during the next decade. 5 These articles gave very little power to the central government and while they served a useful purpose in their time, facilitating the settlement of matters at the close of the war, it was realized everywhere that they could not afford a permanently satisfactory basis of union.  7

  Two outstanding defects in the Articles of Confederation were the failure to give the central government an assured annual revenue and the lack of any provision for securing uniformity in the regulation of commerce. The urgent necessity of strengthening the articles on these points inspired the calling of a constitutional convention at Philadelphia in the spring of 1787. Most of the leaders of public opinion were members of this convention, among them Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin. It was deemed impracticable to secure the desired ends by merely amending the Articles of Confederation; so an entirely new constitution was prepared. The task occupied the entire summer of 1787, and when the document was finished it went to the thirteen States for their approval. 6 In some of them the issue of adoption was doubtful, for many provisions in the new constitution were bitterly attacked. But its friends were as active in its defense; Hamilton and Madison wielded their pens to good purpose in a publicity campaign, and in the course of time all thirteen States gave the document their indorsement. These letters of Hamilton and Madison in advocacy of the new constitution, subsequently published as “The Federalist,” form a notable treatise on the principles of federal government. 7 The new central government began its career forthwith; and in his first inaugural Washington called upon the representatives of the people “to lay the foundations of national policy” in a way that would “command the respect of the world.” 8

  Three outstanding features marked the trend of American political history during the first thirty years after the nation became welded into a federal unit. The first of these was the steady extension of those powers which the Constitution had intrusted to the new central government. A dozen years after the establishment of the United States Supreme Court the post of Chief Justice was given to John Marshall and was occupied by him with firmness and dignity until 1835. Marshall was a believer in an efficient central government; he was sure that this was what the framers of the Constitution had meant to establish; and for thirty-four years he devoted his great powers to the work of assaying from the nation’s organic law all the jurisdiction it could yield to the authorities of the union. It was under his leadership that the court took the epoch-marking step of declaring that the Constitution gave to the Federal Government not only express but implied powers, and that where the Constitution gave a power to Congress it intrusted to that body a choice of the means to be used in carrying its authority into practical operation. “Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the Constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, are constitutional.” 9 When Marshall put aside his robes of office in 1835, the Constitution had been securely anchored in its station as the supreme law of the land and the Washington government, chiefly through his masterly legal skill, had been brought to a dominating place in the national life.
  These three decades covered, in the second place, an era of territorial expansion, the successive steps of which have been traced in another lecture. 10  10
  In the third place the relations between the United States and European powers were placed on a better footing during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The withdrawal of France and Spain from contiguous territory removed a source of possible danger. The war with England (1812–1815) cleared the international atmosphere of some noxious features, and in the era of better feeling which followed its conclusion came the virtual neutralization of the Great Lakes—a stroke of great and statesmanlike prudence. 11 Within a few years came the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine with its unfaltering enunciation of American diplomatic policy in relation to the lands of the New Hemisphere. 12 In the twenty years intervening between 1803 and 1823 the Republic has cleared her boundaries to the south, removed a possible menace from her boundaries to the north, and frankly made known the fundamentals of her future policy as respects all surrounding lands.  11
Note 1. First Charter of Virginia, Harvard Classics, xliii, 49–58. [back]
Note 2. The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639). [back]
Note 3. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641), etc., H. C., xliii, 60ff. [back]
Note 4. H. C., xliii, 150–155. [back]
Note 5. H. C., xliii, 158–168. [back]
Note 6. H. C., xliii, 180–198. [back]
Note 7. H. C., xliii, 199–207. [back]
Note 8. H. C., xliii, 227. [back]
Note 9. Opinion of Chief Justice John Marshall in the case of McCulloch vs. the State of Maryland, H. C., xliii, 208–224. [back]
Note 10. See Professor F. J. Turner in the lecture on “The Territorial Development of the United States,” History, V. [back]
Note 11. Arrangement as to the Naval Force to be Respectively Maintained on the American Lakes, H. C., xliii, 265–267. [back]
Note 12. The Monroe Doctrine, H. C., xliii, 277–279. [back]


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