Thursday, 21 August 2014

The rocky road to the American Constitution

William Paca spent the better part of fifteen years in his Annapolis house before selling it in 1780 and moving to the Eastern Shore. During his time here he famously signed the Declaration of Independence and established his political career as a leading patriot. His time in the William Paca House was also his time in the political mainstream of the revolutionary movement. It wasn’t until the 1780s, however, when the debates around the Constitution arose that Paca and his good friend Samuel Chase broke away from the majority opinion. In what is perhaps the most intriguing part of his political career, Paca became a vocal Anti-Federalist. Let us explore the rocky road to the American Constitution and the continuation of Paca’s political life beyond Prince George Street.

It is easy now, two hundred or so years on, to see the American Constitution as the natural progression of American independence and a unifying bastion of the promotion of liberty and equality. Back in the 1780s, however, this was certainly not the case. Much like the path to independence, the ratification of the American Constitution was a long, drawn-out process immersed in quarrels and disagreement. 

Conflict was no longer aimed at an antagonistic empire overseas, seeking to impose top down control on American citizens. It became an internal struggle between individuals and groups with different ideas on what representation means and what independent America is meant to look like in practice. Rather than concord, the final product illuminates the very productivity of discord and political debate.

Depiction of the Boston Tea Party of 1773, Copy of lithograph by Sarony & Major, 1846. This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 532892.

Shortly after the 1774 Boston Port Act, which called for the complete blocking of the port, seventy-eight men gathered in Annapolis to declare that Boston was now “suffering in the common cause of America.”[1] Annapolis then joined the boycott of goods to and from Britain, with an appointed committee including Charles Carroll of Carrollton, William Paca and Samuel Chase. On August 2, 1776 all of the aforementioned attended the Constitutional Congress in Philadelphia to sign what we now refer to as the Declaration of Independence (although this name is not used in the document at all!).

View of detail of Signers of the Declaration of Independence, reproduction of the 1936 Faulner mural by Romanian Artist, Gabriel Prundeanu, under commission of Stan Faryna. Location: Bucharest, Romania. Source:, user: stan.faryna

Not without struggle, but certainly with an overwhelming majority united in pursuit of independence, the declaration was an “us” against “them” campaign, which was easier to argue, pursue and conceptualise.

Once independent, the 1770s saw a wave of individual state constitutions produced by local legislative bodies. Maryland’s own asserted that the legislative, executive and judicial powers of government ought to be forever separate and distinct from one another.[2] Maryland’s constitution was accompanied by a Bill of Rights, which was longer and more thorough than that of any other states attempting a similar document.[3]

So far so good? Not exactly.

The nature of each independent state constitution posed questions about the meaning of representation. What remained unclear was the purpose or role played by a constitution in each of these states. Was the constitution another statute confirmed by a congress of representatives? Was it a judicial statute – a law? If it was a law, and it ordered that judicial and legislative powers are separate, why was it always issued by a legislative power, therefore inherently contradicting its own principles? Was the constitution binding universally and permanently or was it, like the English common law, a document intending to evolve and be moulded by the times and people?

It was amongst these questions that Maryland underwent a “constitutional crisis”[4] illuminated by a series of discourses surrounding a paper money bill approved by Congress, but shut down by the house of senators. These public arguments were between men like William Paca and Samuel Chase, who defended the integrity of congress arguing against the constitution, and men like Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who asserted the integrity of the house of senate. It only took twelve years of independence, therefore, for Paca, Chase and Carroll to join opposing political camps. Once no longer united by a common enemy, Americans began to realise that they had very different ideas of what America should look like.

John Vanderlyn (1775–1852)James Madison,  The White House Historical Collection. Public domain.

A national constitution, the child of Madison, Jefferson (who is out of the country at that particular time) and the like, was not the natural progression from independence. For many it was unfair and controversial.

These debates were not confined to Maryland. Philadelphia and Virginia, too, experienced the fervent public debate. On 18 October 1787, in what is amongst the Teaching American History’s collection of the 50 Most Influential documents of American history, an anti-federalist under the pseudonym Brutus addressed the Citizens of the State of New York. He declared that “when the people once part with power, they can seldom or never resume it again but by force.”[5] This, for him, was what a national constitution demanded – that the people part with power.

Page of the first printing of the Federalist Papers, 1788. Authors: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Source.

In fact, on 28 November, 1787, a Maryland farmer published a letter in the Maryland Gazette demanding that the constitution be given over to the people to be discussed. This was not because of his personal principle. It was because he noticed that “in very different parts of the continent, the very same objections have been made, and the very same alterations proposed by different writers, who [he] verily believe[s], know nothing of each other.”[6]

The constitution proposed at the Philadelphia convention was national, but it was also nationally disputed. Each side claimed to be the correct interpreter of the ideological underpinnings of the constitution. Each side would call upon Classical authorities, canon law, theological writing, the English dissenters of the 17th century and the pillars of the Enlightenment (Locke, Hume, Montesquieu etc.). 

Fundamentally, however, what the constitutional debates revealed was that the two sides which formed around them relied on different ideas of ‘representation’ and ‘constitution’. America’s founding fathers of 1774 wanted independence. Less than two decades later, they realised that what they wanted were different independencies. 

Written by OUIIP intern, Mirela Ivanova

To find out more about the Constitutional Debates in Maryland, and the path to the ratification of the American constitution come along to Mirela's talk “Laws without their consent: Paca and the Constitutional Debate” on Thursday, 21st August at 99 Main Street.  The talk will be preceded by a wine reception at 5.30pm.

Bailyn, B. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992)
Haw, J., Beirne, F.F., Beirne, R.R. and Jett, R.S.  Stormy Patriot: the Life of Samuel Chase (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society,1980)
McWilliams, J.W.  Annapolis: City on the Severn ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011)
Papenfuse, E.C. ‘With what dose of Liberty? Maryland’s Role in the Movement for a Bill of Rights’ (Paper to the University of Maryland given February, 1988)
Rakove J. N. The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009)
Wood,G. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1975)
Yazawa, M.  Representative Government and the Revolution: the Maryland Constitutional Crisis of 1787 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975

[1] J.W. McWilliams, Annapolis: City on the Severn ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011) pp.87
[2] G.Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1975) pp.150
[3] E.C. Papenfuse, ‘With what dose of Liberty? Maryland’s Role in the Movement for a Bill of Rights’ (Paper to the University of Maryland given February, 1988)
[4] M. Yazawa, Representative Government and the Revolution: the Maryland Constitutional Crisis of 1787 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975) 
[5] Brutus I to the Citizens of the State of New York, 18 October 1787 (, last accessed August, 2014)
[6] Maryland Farmer to the Citizens of the State of Maryland, 28 November, 1787, ( , last accessed August, 2014)

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