A Complicated Relationship

The Peale Family, 1771-1773. By: Charles Willson Peale.

In the 1760s and 1770s, Americans had a complicated relationship with the English constitution. The English constitution was both a model for government, in some respects, and the strongest wedge being driven between the colonists and the English.

As time went on, the English constitution would help to create the widening gulf between those who advocated for revolution and those who did not, “with the divergent positions and perceptions both shifting and hardening.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 44.

Whigs strongly believed that the English constitution “was the very source of those liberties and rights they were being compelled to defend.” Id. citing Raynal, Sentiments of a Foreigner, 21; Rossiter, Seedtime of the Republic, 349.

By the mid-1770s, it became clear that the British “were so corrupted that they were unable to reform and renew their constitution and to stop the relentless course of their rulers.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 45. Then, and only then, did the Whigs “determine to break from the mother country and seek a revitalization of the principles of the English constitution in the New World.” Id. citing Wm. and Mary Qtly., 3d Ser., 20 (1963), 373-95.

Even with the split from Britain becoming necessary and desirable, the Americans still did not denounce the English constitution or its principles in the Declaration of Independence. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 45.

The complicated relationship that the early Americans had with the English, and all of the accompanying English principles and political theories, reflects a couple of things about early America. While Americans were emphatic that they wanted a different system of government, better tailored to their interests, they also had relatively minor differences from those they complained of. This idea, that the Revolution had actual little cause, is further detailed in Empire of Reason.

While this complicated relationship is worthy of contemplation, it should not be surprising. As with any government, certain pieces will be desirable, others will be intolerable. Americans, as a collective, were dissatisfied with the implementation of the English constitution. It was a constitution that was well-intentioned but poorly implemented, particularly in America.

When the Whigs and other Americans came to that realization, revolution became the logical next step, further complicating a complicated relationship.

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