What did the constitution mean to early americans essays

Money and the Constitution

While some social scientists will point out that all known societies have required shared values and meaning in order to function, the crucial fact of a foundation document containing shared values is the celebration and conscious affirmation of that which is shared. There is the implication of a link with something transcendent that ties them together as a people. It is the difference between working together to build a wall to keep out enemies and creating a church in which to worship the god of the land enclosed by the wall.

Opposition to the Bill of Rights

As a document that provided the laws of the land and the rights of its people. State legislators vote on hundreds of bills a year while they are in session and decide tax laws, state spending, and other public policies to represent the people in each of their specific districts. In the United States those seeking to become citizens must demonstrate basic knowledge of U. Native American peoples lived in the area of present-day Montana for an unknown period of time before the arrival of the first Europeans in the 18 th century. Since it did not want to levy the taxes as Britain had, it requested funding through the states We reaffirm our belief in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and with an understanding and compassionate heart toward all peoples of the earth, do hereby ordain and establish this constitution for the State of Hawaii. Before their tenures in Washington, five Resident Commissioners served in the lower chamber of the territorial legislature, either in the Philippine assembly or, later, the Philippine house of representatives.

Other documents will create a people and then establish a government in only the most general terms. The Providence Agreement [32] is a good example. A group of individuals unanimously agree to form themselves into a people, and then to be bound as a people by decisions reached by a majority among them—including the form of government. The Plymouth Combination Mayflower Compact of [3] has the same Lockean format, as do other documents in the collection.

Those documents that contain the element of self-definition are particularly interesting. It is unusual for a document to create a people without also outlining the kind of people they are or wish to become, although some documents do contain further illumination of a people that already exist. This self-description of a people is the foundation element usually overlooked, yet from this element what we later call bills of rights will evolve.

Three Virginia documents [69, 70, and 72] contain this foundation element and are typical in that the values of the people are implicit in the prohibitions enumerated. Commitment to godliness, order, and cleanliness are obvious. Despite its name, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties [22] also implies commonly held values, largely through a set of explicit prohibitions. In other documents the values and self-definition of a people will be spelled out explicitly with no need for inferences on the part of the reader. The fourth foundation element, the specification of a form of government, present only embryonically in documents like the Plymouth Combination , gradually comes to occupy a larger proportion of our foundation documents.

It is the fourth foundation element grown to prominence in a foundation document, and it is still being introduced by the term used in early colonial documents of foundation.

Aeon for Friends

early Americans? Ostensibly the foundational document of a sovereign American people. Discover rare, signed and first edition books on AbeBooks, an Amazon Company. . Colonial America: Essays in Politics and Social Development. America's first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was ratified in , ( In , Madison's widow Dolley sold some of his papers.

Some colonial documents contain only this fourth element, others combine it with additional foundation elements. In either case, we can watch the development of American political institutions found later in our constitutions—institutions like popular elections, majority rule, bicameralism, separation of powers, and checks and balances. Because one or more elements may be present in a given document, if only in embryonic form, it is often arguable just how the document should be categorized with respect to these foundation elements. As a further aid to comparative analysis, it is both useful and interesting to consider the various terms used internally in the documents, a task to which we now turn.

It has been said that humans have a tendency to develop a multiplicity of terms for things that are prominent in their lives so as to distinguish subtle yet important variations. Thus, for example, Eskimos are said to have many words to identify types of snow, and in classical Athens there were many forms of community identified, each with its own descriptive term.

If we follow this same logic, it is apparent that the English-speaking people of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries considered political agreements to be of great importance because they regularly used over a dozen different terms, sometimes interchangeably, but more often to distinguish subtleties they considered noteworthy.

We will need to examine some of these linguistic alternatives for two reasons: because we require an understanding of what the issues were and because the more general words we have inherited were not used to describe the document as written. The Mayflower Compact was not so named until and was referred to by the inhabitants of the colony as the Plymouth Combination, or sometimes simply as The Combination.

The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution

To make sense out of these documents, then, we will first need to define the broad categorical terms of covenant, compact, contract, and organic act, and then recover the understanding in use at the time for charter, constitution, patent, agreement, frame, combination, ordinance, and fundamentals. A contract, on the one hand, usually implied an agreement with mutual responsibilities on a specific matter; that is, a contract implied a restricted commitment such as in a business matter and involved relatively small groups of people.

The contract could be enforced by law but did not have the status of law. A compact, on the other hand, was a mutual agreement or understanding that was more in the nature of a standing rule that, if it did not always have the status of a law, often had a similar effect. A compact implied an agreement that affected the entire community in some way, or relations between communities. Because a compact was not as precise as a contract and more like a settled rule than an agreement with specific, reciprocal responsibilities, we do not find talk of a Mayflower Contract.

A covenant could be viewed as having two distinct though related meanings. As a legal term in England, it referred to a formal agreement with legal validity made under the seal of the Crown. This denoted an agreement of a serious nature witnessed by the highest authority. The religious counterpart to this secular or civil covenant was any agreement established or secured by God.

The formal agreement made and subscribed to by members of a congregational church in order to constitute themselves as a distinct religious community had God as the witness and securer of the agreement. A religious covenant thus was essentially an oath, and if it established a political community, political obligation was secured by the oath rather than by merely resting upon the fact of consent having been given. Note that both the civil and religious meanings of covenant were related in that each was characterized by being witnessed and therefore secured by the highest relevant authority.

Presumably any compact with both God and the Crown as securer would be simultaneously a civil and religious covenant. A civil covenant would require the presence of the royal seal, while a religious covenant could be invoked merely through the internal use of an oath. Even with this restricted discussion two things become apparent. Both were based on the consent of those taking part. Both created a new community.

Both implied a relationship that was stronger, deeper, and more comprehensive than that established by a contract. A compact, however, required simply the consent of those taking part, while a covenant required sanction by the highest relevant authority as well. In this regard, compact is the more modern of the two concepts, while covenant was the more natural term to use in a religious or a medieval context where the authority hierarchy was well defined and had a clear apex.

A compact could be turned into a covenant merely by calling upon God to witness the agreement, which also turned consenting to the agreement into an oath. This last instance would be one in which legality was viewed as resting on the authority of the people, indicating an understanding of popular sovereignty. A compact was just such an agreement, one resting only on the consent of those participating.

That these people were often thrown by circumstances into situations where they had to practice this skill of community building through covenants and that the charters under which they sailed often required that they provide for self-government, or at the very least permitted such activities, must be viewed as another historical circumstance of considerable importance for American constitutionalism.

The Federalist Papers

An agreement between God and his chosen people, then, was a covenant. It was certainly equivalent in the sense that calling upon God to witness a civil union not only turned a compact into a covenant but also indicated an accord with the broader covenant in the Bible, between God and his chosen people. Consent becomes the instrument for establishing authority in the community and for expressing the sovereignty of God.

God transmits his sovereignty to the people through the broader covenant, and they in turn convey his sovereignty to the rulers on the basis of the specific covenant creating the civil community. Because this temporal authority comes through the people, however, the rulers are beholden to God through the people and thus are immediately responsible to them.

The Presidency of James Madison

This, the original basis of popular sovereignty, had been independently developed by both Protestant and Catholic thinkers during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Given these characterizations, it can be seen that a covenant is simultaneously a compact as it contains everything essential to a compact.

A compact, however, is not simultaneously a covenant because it lacks the explicit link with the higher authority even though the idea and form for a compact are derived from covenants, and the kind of community established is similar enough so that one could call a compact a near-covenant. Furthermore, there are circumstances in which an apparent compact is really a covenant in the complete sense.

They then later form a government for this society in a document that does not mention any authority other than themselves as a people. Because the first document that formed them as a people also automatically establishes them as expressing the higher authority whenever they act through their own popular sovereignty, all subsequent documents by that people could be considered covenants as well because the link with the higher authority is understood.

Nor is this implied covenant status always left for the reader of the document to infer. The Pilgrim Code of Law [20] is a good example. The letters-patent refers to the charter from the king that was then in effect. The former document is a religious covenant, and the latter is a civil covenant. This sentence in the Pilgrim Code of Law serves a double function: first, of establishing the legal basis for their having the power to write such a Code; and second, of bringing the Code under the umbrella of the earlier covenants thereby making it an implied covenant.


It is perfectly possible for a contract to be elevated to compact or covenant status. For example, the king could put his seal on a contract; perhaps charters come most easily to mind in this regard. Such a document, however, would imply quite a different kind of community from a simple covenant. Because all the details of the relationship would be spelled out, the result would be less a community in which the partners are required to go beyond the legally defined relationship to fully develop the relationship and more one in which the partners are minimally required to fulfill the obligations specifically mentioned.

Such a contractually based compact, or covenant, would not be a true covenant as understood in the Jewish tradition and would become a target for legalistic wrangling over the meaning and intent of specific words and phrases. The emphasis on the letter rather than on the spirit of the agreement would destroy community as implied by covenant or compact and result in something less—an association for specific, limited ends.

True covenants and compacts, without any contractual elements, are thus communitarian oriented, while contractual variants are inclined to be legalistic. One characteristic of contractual variants was the tendency for them to become longer and longer specifications that were more and more precise and limiting. This characteristic, however, should not be pushed too far as an identifying property of a contractual society because there is another, noncontractual, form of agreement that might resemble it superficially—an organic act. The early state constitutions adopted in could be viewed as organic acts as well as compacts as they usually summarized and codified what the colonists of each state had evolved over the previous years.

In the case of Connecticut and Rhode Island the colonial charters were formally readopted as constitutions—charters that had in these two instances been essentially written by the colonists. Massachusetts did not adopt or readopt anything in but continued to live under the charter as a continuous community.

These organic acts are long and contain precise terms for limited categories of behavior. Various provisions, for example, might regulate behavior in church, activities after dark, or dealings with Indians. While highly legalistic, they are laws after all, they are not contracts for there are generally no provisions for reciprocal obligations. They are instead compacts because they are community-wide agreements on how to behave. We now have the basic characterizations for the analytic categories of religious covenant, civil covenant, mixed religious-civil covenant, compact, contract, and organic act.

As was noted earlier, these terms were generally not used to describe colonial foundation documents, at least not by those writing them.

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It is necessary, therefore, to provide a brief characterization for each of the terms that were prominently used—agreement, combination, frame, fundamentals, ordinance, patent, charter, and constitution. The term was usually used to describe a document that we would recognize as a covenant or compact.