Revolutionary Thought

The Constitution of the United States (1776)

The US Constitution grants legislative powers to a representative Congress, separated into two powers, the House of Representatives and the Senate.  The House of Representatives shall be elected every two years, must reside in their respective states, and representation is proportional to each state’s population.  Senators must be elected every six years having two Senators represent each state.

Congress is granted lawmaking power with the President of the US given veto power.  The Congress is also given numerous other powers such as the power to take out debt on behalf of the US, establish naturalization rules, coin money, establish roads and post offices, copyright laws, punish crimes, declaring war, maintaining an army and navy, and possession of federal property.

The Constitution prohibits states from entering into treaties or  alliances, coin money, establish credit, and grant titles of nobility.  States may not also impose trade taxes or maintain armies without consent of Congress.

The President is granted four years to serve and the Electoral College, officials appointed by the States, is granted power to elect the President.  The President has the power to command the army and navy, make foreign treaties, appoint judges to the Supreme Court, address Congress to make recommendations, and may be impeached for crimes and misdemeanors.

The Supreme Court, appointees chosen by the President, is given judicial power over US laws, Constitutional law, and foreign treaties.

The Constitution of the United States, 1776. URL:


John Adams, Thoughts on Government (1776)


“A republic is ‘an empire of laws, and not of men,’” Adams (1776) wrote quoting the then British constitution.  Adams (1776) argued a republic was the best form of government because it had the best capability to execute the law impartially.  Rather than the public make laws, Adams argued, “wise and good”, fairly elected representatives should be in power.  These representatives should also be an illustrative sample of the public such that it is able to “think, feel, reason, and act” like the public at large.

Adams (1776) was also in favor of multiple bodies of government rather than one assembly.  He argued one assembly would be “liable to all the vices, follies, and frailties of an individual” and therefore likely to be “productive of hasty results and absurd judgments.”  Adams (1776) argued a “controlling power” (such as the executive and judicial branches) was necessary to regulate and prevent the poor governing a single assembly would yield.  A single assembly would also be undesirable because, as in the case with Holland, Adams writes, could potentially elect itself into permanent government positions, ending the public’s participation in lawmaking.

While Adams (1776) was a proponent of a representative legislative body, he argued representation was unsuitable for the executive branch because of secrecy and efficiency and judicial branches were “too numerous, too slow, and too little skilled in the laws.”  Adams (1776) also believed a single assembly in charge of all branches of government would be too self-interested to effectively govern and settle legal disputes fairly and therefore only the legislative branch should be representative.  Adams (1776) argued the representative legislative branch should be split into two assemblies with the executive branch as mediator to avoid confrontation.

Adams (1776) argued the executive branch should be a small council of officials elected by the legislative branch, with a single individual serving as president of the council.  He believed elections should be held every few years in rotation to ensure elected officials have the support of the public.  Adams (1776) also argues the judicial branch should be appointed officials skilled in the law, with lifetime appointments to ensure appointees are acting in their own conscious rather than make decisions to ensure re-election; “they should not be dependent upon any man; or body of men,” Adams (1776) writes.

Adams, John. Thoughts on Government. 1776. URL:


Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776)

“Government, even in its best state, is bust a necessary evil…[we] are exposed to the same miseries by a Government, which we might expect in a country without Government,” Paine writes (p.69).  To Paine, government is “a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world,” such that mankind lacks the morality to govern itself without laws (p.71).

Paine, Thomas. Common Sense, 1776.  URL:


James Madison, Federalist No. 10 (1787)

Madison (1787), under the pen-name Publius, criticized “popular governments” or “pure democracy” because of “factions” or interest groups that would surely arise with governments of this form.  In Madison’s belief, factions were dangerous because their interests may be in disregard for the rights of citizens or overall interests of the country. Without restricting liberty, Madison (1787) argued, the negative affect of factions may be prevented if the country is filled with citizens of varying interests as to compete and deter a monopoly of interests.

Madison (1787) argued in favor of a republic rather than a democracy.  He believed representatives would be more likely to promote the public good and factions would be prone to corruption and “betray the interests, of the people.”

Madison, James. Federalist No. 10, 1787. URL:

Federalist, No. 48 (1788)

Madison (1788a) argues democracy may lead to tyranny while a republic would ensure governing is based on public, rather than individual interests.  He believed government powers should be divided into separate assemblies that can yield power over each other to avoid supremacy by one assembly.

Madison, James. Federalist, No. 48, 1788. URL:


Federalist, No. 51 (1788)

Madison (1788b) argues the branches of government: legislative, executive, and judiciary, should be separate and independent powers and to ensure this, he advocates that each body should have as little influence on selecting officials of other bodies.  While Madison (1788b) believes the public should have input on government appointments, precautions must be taken to protect the minority from overwhelming majority interests.

Madison, James. Federalist, No. 51, 1788. URL:


Alexander Hamiliton, Federalist, No. 70 (1788)

Hamilton (1788a) argues for an individual to govern as Executive because, in his belief, a strong executive branch would make for a stronger government.  The Executive would be one individual to ensure there would be no stalemate decisions, and advises other branches of government to check the executive branch and avoid a dictatorship.

Hamilton, Alexander. Federalist, No. 70, 1788. URL:


Federalist, No. 78 (1788)

Hamiliton (1788b) argues the executive should appoint judges to the judiciary branch of government.  Hamilton warned of the dangers if the judicial branch was beholden to other branches of government, “if the power of making them was committed either to the Executive or legislature, there would be danger of an improper complaisance to the branch which possessed it,” Hamilton (1788b) writes.

Hamilton, Alexander. Federalist, No. 78, 1788. URL:


Federalist, No. 84 (1788)

Hamilton (1788c) discuss to proponents of a bill of rights why such a document is not necessary.  He argues that 1) the Constitution already includes “provisions in favor of particular privileges and rights,” and 2) that the Constitution secures “common and statute law of Great Britian.”  Hamilton (1788c) provides examples such as habeas corpus, illegality of ex post facto laws, and titles of nobility.  Hamilton (1788c) argued a bill of rights originated as a list of rights of subjects not surrendered to a king, and that a Constitution ensures citizens “surrender nothing; and as they retain every thing they have no need of particular reservations.”  In Hamilton’s (1788c) view, a bill of rights is a way to pre-emptively view rights as under threat when there is no threat of surrender said rights in the first place.

Hamilton, Alexander. Federalist, No. 84, 1788. URL:


Thomas Jefferson, To James Madison, 1787.

Jefferson (1787) agree that government should be organized into legislative, judiciary, and executive branches.  He was in favor of a publicly elected legislative branch with the branches of government in checks and balances with each other and that limited terms would prohibit lifetime appointments or foreign incluence in the electorate.  Jefferson (1787), however, disagreed with the lack of a bill of rights that would ensure habeas corpus, trial by jury, and other established rights; Jefferson questioned the assurance that Congress would not take away these rights if they were not otherwise written into law.

Jefferson (1787) was also critical of a strong federal government, or “energetic government,” calling it “oppressive” and advocated a well-informed public would create a just majority rule.


Richard Henry Lee, Letters from the Federal Farmer (1787)

Lee (1787) argued the Constitution would establish one homogeneous federal government rather than the desired separate republics under a federal government.  He criticizes Congressional powers claiming they limit the sovereignity of the states.  Lee (1787) argued the Constitution and its representative government would lead the “transfer of power from the many to the few,” (p.254).

Lee, Richard Henry, Letters from the Federal Farmer, 1787. Kramnick and Lowi, 2009, pp. 248-256.

Robert Yates, Essays of Brutus (1787-88)

Yates (1787-88) warned of Congressional power such that “there is no limitation to this power” (p.258) and argued a the Constitutional federal government encrouched on the liberties of the states such as abolishing state legislatures.  He warned Congress could abuse their power and restrict the rights of the public and therefore provisions must be made to ensure certain rights will be protected from Congressional seizure.

Yates, Robert. Essays of Brutus, 1787-88. Kramnick and Low, 2009, p.256-266.


PSC 435 Course Discussion: Who had the better arguments about the Constitution (and politics more broadly), the Federalists or the Anti-Federalists? Why?

During the Revolutionary period in early American history, two camps, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists disagreed over how a stable republican government should be organized and whether or not the States should adopt the Constitution of 1776.  After much public debate, the Constitution of 1776 was adopted along with a Bill of Rights as a compromise between the two camps.  The Federalists: John Adams, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton argued in favor of the Constitution while the Anti-Federalists: Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and Robert Yates argued against the Constitution’s power over States and its lack of a bill of rights.  In my view, I believe the Anti-Federalists had the “better” arguments in the Constitutional debate.

The Anti-Federalists provided two main arguments for why the Constitution in its current form was problematic: 1) the Constitution encroaches on the rights of the States, and 2) without a written bill of rights, Congress could seize all rights of citizens.  Lee (1787) criticized the powers granted to the federal government by the Constitution claiming they limit the sovereignty of the States such that Congress is granted power to seize the lawmaking abilities of the States and this would lead to the “transfer of power from the many to the few,” (p.254).  Yates (1787-88) warned there was no provision in the Constitution that kept Congress from abolishing state legislatures.  Jefferson (1787) agreed a strong federal, or “energetic government” would be “oppressive;” I agree that the Constitution of 1776 did not protect States from federal encroachment and it was not until the X Amendment that States were granted sovereign powers (not delegated to the federal government) within their territories.

Jefferson (1787) argued a bill of rights was necessary to ensure Congress would not take away the rights of citizens such as habeas corpus, trial by jury, and other established rights.  Yates (1787-88) agreed that “there is no limitation to this power”, (p.258) and that Congress could restrict the rights of the public and a bill of rights was necessary to prevent government seizure.  I agree a bill of rights is necessary to ensure citizens are granted unalienable rights that Congress has no power to seize and this should be written into law.  While Federalists Adams and Madison did not mention a bill of rights in their works, Hamilton (1788c) argued a bill of rights was unnecessary because 1) the Constitution includes “provisions in favor of particular privilages and rights,” and 2) the Constitution secures “common and statute law of Great Britain” such as habeas corpus, illegality of ex post facto laws, and titles of nobility.

In my view, Hamilton’s argument that a bill of rights is unnecessary because rights are not under threat and therefore do not require protect is flawed because, as Jefferson (1787) argues for example, the Constitution does not protect other rights such as freedom of the press.  Hamilton (1788c) is naive to think represenatives in Congress know better or in Adams’ (1776) words, too “wise and good” to seize public rights; it is certainly a possibility unless the law forbids it.  While a bill of rights might remind Hamilton of a contract between a king and his subjects and belittle his vision of a modern republic, representatives, like the public, must also be governed.  A bill of rights in my view, in the words of Thomas Paine, (1776), is “a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world.”


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