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  • The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution
  • Peter S. Onuf
The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution. By Jack P. Greene (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2011) 198 pp. $80.00 cloth $21.99 paper

Throughout the course of a distinguished career as one of the most prolific and influential historians of English and British colonial America, Greene has struggled against prevailing understandings of the origins of the American Revolution. Whether focusing on ideological or material factors, most historians frame their inquiries in national terms, looking for the Revolution's causes in the hearts and minds or pocketbooks of its patriot protagonists. Greene, by contrast, has always discounted the national narrative, and therefore the fundamental importance of independence itself in determining the character of the postimperial federal republic.1 In Constitutional Origins Greene fashions an analytical narrative that focuses narrowly on the key question in national historiography—why the break with Britain?—within an imperial framework. Building on his own seminal work on colonial constitutionalism and drawing inspiration from more recent work in the multiple legalities of neo-European settler societies, Greene offers an elegant and persuasive analysis of Revolutionary origins that should be the point of departure for future work in the field.2

In the wake of new interest in Atlantic history and British imperial history, the way should be open for broad acceptance of Greene's argument. His capacious imperial approach enables him to avoid privileging the "tory perspective" of contemporary metropolitan commentators and of subsequent historians who have claimed (or conceded) that the forward-looking logic of Parliamentary sovereignty claims was irrefutable, even axiomatic. But the colonists' "notion of a customary imperial constitution of principled limitation, the strength of local institutions, the comparative recency of the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy, and the weakness of metropolitan authority" all combined to make that perspective eminently contestable both in law and "in the court of Anglophone public opinion" (185, 186). Theorists then and now are too easily seduced by theory, thus tending to discount "the legal force of custom in English law" (180). [End Page 471]

Given the Empire's limited coercive capacity, only a "customary imperial constitution," the product of a history of ongoing negotiations between Crown prerogative and distant settler polities, could sustain mutually beneficial transatlantic connections: "The early modern British Empire was not held together by force" (20). Parliamentary policymakers who sought to impose order on this constitutional complexity after the Seven Years' War knew that "the path" forward might be "thorny" (to quote George Grenville in March 1764), betraying "a pronounced uneasiness" about colonial responses (68). The reformers' program failed not because reformers "were restrained or timid in their use of power" but because imperial officials "were so rapidly and fully immobilized by local law" (146).

The critical question was whether the respective colonies had constitutions and, in turn, whether there was an imperial constitution that set limits to the power of the king or to that of Parliament, when it belatedly entered the fray. During the crisis years of 1764 to 1776, colonists sought to avoid the sovereignty question, instead focusing "debate on the seemingly more tractable and certainly less abstract problem of how power was or should be allocated in a polity composed of several related but nonetheless distinct corporate entities" (166). American patriots sustained "their basic trust in Parliament," the great defender of British liberties against prerogative encroachment, long after the insular legislature launched its reform project (63). Surely liberty-loving Britons would come to their senses and recognize the constitutional force of custom in prescribing "a clear allocation of authority within the broad, extended polity of the early modern British Empire" (129).

That metropolitan and provincial authorities could not negotiate their way out of their constitutional impasse—as they had done so often in the past—was an ironic tribute to England's Glorious Revolution of 1689, when Crown prerogative was finally tamed and liberty secured. The Revolution's most notable effects "were the localization of power and the growth of parliamentary institutions, not just within Britain but also in Ireland and the American colonies" (48). Under the new constitutional dispensation, local authorities on both sides of the Atlantic...


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