Laboratories of Democracy

Governor’s Palace. Williamsburg, Virginia.

In the months leading up to the Declaration of Independence, the states began the process of adopting their own constitutions. These constitutions, being drafted in 1776, approximately 13 years before the United States Constitution would be ratified, had to confront many of the same issues as the United States Constitution, with various approaches being taken.

In all of the governments, except for Pennsylvania, Vermont, and New York, the constitutions provided that the executive would be elected by the state legislatures. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 139. This approach drew significant criticism. Many felt that it was far too dangerous to vest one person with so much power, for fear that it would lead to oppression. Id. One individual, William Tennent of South Carolina, viewed it as a benefit instead as it would prompt the executive to consult the legislature “on every important measure.” Id. citing Newton B. Jones, ed., “Writings of the Reverend William Tennent, 1740-1777,” South Carolina Historical Magazine, 61 (1960), 192.

Interestingly, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia “limited the number of years the magistrate could successively hold office.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 140. The sentiments of the American Whigs was prevalent: “A long continuance in the first executive departments of power or trust is dangerous to liberty . . . a rotation, therefore, in those departments is one of the best securities of permanent freedom.” Id. citing Md. Decl. of Rts. (1776), XXXI.

Some felt that a limit of three years of holding office was even far too long for a governor. Charles Lee, a prominent American Whig, believed that Virginia’s Constitution was defective as it allowed the governor the “opportunity of acquiring a very dangerous influence” and enabled “a man who is fond of office and has his eye upon re-election . . . [to seek] favour and popularity at the expense of his duty.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 140 quoting Charles Lee to Patrick Henry, July 29, 1776, Lee Papers, II, 178.

These limitations were not enough for most Americans to feel comfortable with, knowing that oppression and tyranny could emerge even from the most free of societies, as witnessed in England. A majority of the newly adopted state constitutions also had the power of impeachment of government officials, which was at that time merely an “ancient English procedure” that “had not been used since the early years of the eighteenth century.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, 141.

While there were wrinkles in using the impeachment power, such as who could be impeached and where impeachment should occur (within which court), the precedent was set: There would be extraordinary protections against oppression and tyranny. Id.

These early developments in the state constitutions would set the stage for the United States Constitution and the framing of American policies. But more than anything, these developments best illustrated a phrase that would not come into existence until 150 years later. These state constitutions best reflected the states’ unique roles as being “laboratories of democracy,” a term that United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis coined in the 1932 case New State Ice Co. v. LiebmannNew State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262 (1932). The states, in deliberating and deciding on the best structure of their executive were not doing much of the legwork that the Founders would collectively accomplish a decade later when framing the United States Constitution.

The states, as laboratories of democracy, were able to try out various theories of government, and the best systems would become obvious and become widespread throughout the United States. In this instance, the rights and obligations of the executive office in each state was vetted and ultimately fleshed out in each state’s constitution.

There is never a guarantee of adopting the best policies and governmental structure that completely ensure liberty, equality, and justice. To have 50 laboratories of democracy constantly creating legislation, interpreting laws, and executing laws, is the closest any nation, as a collective, can come to ensuring true liberty, equality, and justice.


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