By the time the states of the Old Northwest were formed, there was a long constitutional tradition on which their founders could draw. Beginning in the Revolutionary era, the eastern states had discarded their colonial charters and drafted constitutions reflecting the experimentation in political thought brought by independence. Pennsylvania, with its unicameral legislature, was the most famous example of a state that was held to have taken the lessons of the American Revolution against executive power too much to heart. Whether one subscribes to the thesis that the United States Constitution marked a counter-revolution against the excesses of legislative and democratic power, the document did create a system of government—with its powerful national government and three branches—markedly different from its predecessor, the Articles of Confederation.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 mandated that territories would become states by writing constitutions and submitting them to Congress for approval. The only requirement was that the new states create governments that were republican in form. In the early national period, state founders did not need to be original. They copied the constitutions of the states they had migrated from, often Virginia and Kentucky for the lower Midwest. Since as colonists they had often resented the power the [End Page 382] Ordinance gave to the territorial governor, especially an absolute veto, the new state constitutions did circumscribe the governor's power.
Despite the rich history of constitution-making upon which the Northwestern states drew, the decades before the Civil War saw a new constitutional movement. Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois—which all achieved statehood before 1820—held new conventions and wrote new documents. Michigan, which wrote its first constitution in 1835, wrote another in 1850. Iowa wrote its first in 1846 and then held a constitutional convention in 1857. Meanwhile conventions in Wisconsin and Minnesota territories drafted documents and submitted them for approval, first to public referendums, and then to Congress for admission. Not only did residents of the Old Northwest have particular issues that had emerged during the Jacksonian period and that they believed required reworking their constitutions, but they had rethought their faith in legislative power and wished to embed Jacksonian faith in the common man by making government more responsive to the voters.
It is primarily this latter movement that Silvana R. Siddali examines in Frontier Democracy: Constitutional Conventions in the Old Northwest. While the earlier constitutional conventions did not keep journals and newspaper coverage was sparse, the late antebellum conventions are richly documented. Conventions published ponderous journals, newspapers covered the proceedings, and the delegates wrote letters describing the deliberations and their positions. Siddali has availed herself of all these sources.
Siddali argues that constitutional revision was "a profound moral struggle" (4). Delegates sought to form a "just democratic government," but they struggled with the prejudices of their time, especially on issues of race (11). Examining the delegates, their debates, and the resulting governmental documents, Siddali illuminates their understanding of the meaning of citizenship and the ethical principles that underlay the republic. Delegates drew from their understanding of what was common sense, scientific, and Christian for their formulations of good government. But where to draw the line between noble principles and practical measures, between the ideal and the attainable?
Although the early Midwestern conventions completed their business in under a month, the antebellum conventions dragged along. The delegates were farmers, merchants, and lawyers, mostly Democrats, generally young and well-to-do, but they were also universally male and white. Siddali points out that women and blacks ran parallel conventions, sent [End Page 383] petitions, and tried to influence the proceedings. Since Democrats dominated the conventions, concrete policies reflected their adherence to cutting government's size and expense as well as expanding the power of the people. They accomplished these goals by switching from annual to biennial sessions and moving to elect rather than appoint judges. They grappled with property rights, often including homestead exemptions to protect landowners from losing their family homes and sustenance. Given the economic upheavals of the antebellum period...