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Constitutions and Identities

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 40, Number 3, September 2012
pp. 381-386 | 10.1353/rah.2012.0067

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Jack Greene’s Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution is a masterly survey of the debate in the colonies and the metropolis on the English, later British, constitution; the “constitutions” of the individual colonies; and what he deems to be the emerging concept of an imperial constitution covering the British Empire as a whole. Insisting, as he does, on the crucial importance of this constitutional debate in shaping the colonists’ minds—as well as those of the British with regard to colonies and especially the North American settlements—he identifies this debate and its diverging evolution since the Glorious Revolution as the primordial cause leading up to the American Revolution. Stressing the “constitutional origins” along with the impact of concepts of law and rights, Greene again sets himself sharply apart from the Bailyn school with its insistence on the “ideological origins” of the American Revolution. From 1763 on, at the center of the debate between colonies and metropolis were not differing and increasingly conflicting concepts of John Locke and liberalism (or, for that matter, James Harrington and republicanism) but fundamental issues about what the law was, what constitutional rights the colonists had, which power to legislate they possessed, and whether there were any constitutional limits to the power of the imperial government over the colonies.

Greene’s persuasive argument evolves over four chapters, handsomely termed “Empire Negotiated, 1689–1763,” “Empire Confronted, 1764–1766,” “Empire Reconsidered, 1767–1773,” and “Empire Shattered, 1774–1776.” Also included are a preface, a prologue, and a short epilogue. This structure stresses the refusal of the colonists to accept that power confers right, and that the legal and constitutional interpretations of the metropolis and the imperial government had per se more legal authority and standing than their own construction of the British constitution and the rights it conferred to them. In this situation, they were not only slow to grasp, but even recalcitrant to accept, the evolving British concept of parliamentary supremacy. Their enthusiasm for Blackstone, whose Commentaries sold “nearly as many” copies in America as in England (as Burke told Parliament in March 1775), should not make us forget that, generally, their reception of his ideas, highly selective as it was, did not go further than they profitably could make use of. Greene sums up this argument in the concluding statement:

Throughout those controversies, colonial spokesmen demonstrated extraordinary learning in legal and constitutional matters, conducting their case like a common-law litigation in the court of Anglophone public opinion. Displaying a tough law-mindedness, they had no doubt that the law, as they knew it from their metropolitan heritage and their own experience, could be marshaled in their favor and, for that reason, never hesitated to make law the foundation for their view of the constitutional organization of the empire

[p. 186].

Anyone familiar with Jack Greene’s writings over the past half century will not be surprised while reading his Constitutional Origins, least of all those who have read his Peripheries and Center: Constitutional Development in the Extended Polities of the British Empire and the United States, 1607–1788 (1986). For all practical purposes, the Constitutional Origins is a word-for-word reprint of the first two books (of three) of Peripheries and Center, with only a few sentences rearranged or added, such as the one cited above. Even a telling mistake, such as the misquote of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England as—wrongly—Commentaries on the Law of England (Peripheries and Center , p. 101) has been duly repeated on page 98 of Constitutional Origins. No research from the past quarter-century, since the publication of Peripheries and Center , not excepting his own, has been introduced in Constitutional Origins, not even in the footnotes.

This deliberate lack of updating his scholarship is all the more puzzling as Jack Greene uses his preface for a historiographical overview—not only of his own research but of research on the constitutional history leading up to the American Revolution in general—setting himself nicely apart from John Phillip Reid and others. He is definitely right to do so, but complaining about a widespread lack of interest in constitutional history among historians generally, about which he...



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