The Constitution’s Superiority

Page 1 of the Constitution of the United States.

By the time of the Revolution, the states had begun to take steps toward sustaining themselves after independence from Britain was effectuated. One of those steps was the drafting of constitutions. Constitutions, while understood generally in Britain and elsewhere, had a unique meaning for Americans.

By 1776, neither the Tories nor the Whigs understood the true meaning of what a constitution entailed. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 260. Americans had developed their own “notion of a constitution very different from what eighteenth-century Englishmen were used to.” Id. Americans began to see a constitution as a “written superior law set above the entire government against which all other law is to be measured.” Id.

Englishmen had conceived of constitutions, but by the 1700s, Parliament had become so omnipotent that a written document “creating and limiting the government” seemed absolutely “obsolete.” Id.

As Thomas Paine explained in Rights of Man, the American Revolution had led to a constitution becoming “a political bible” for Americans. Id. at 259 quoting Paine, Rights of Man, Foner, ed., Writings of Paine, I, 378. Paine also predicted in 1776 that in America, law would “become king.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 259 quoting Paine, Common Sense, Foner, ed., Writings of Paine, I, 29.

Nonetheless, while the states were drafting their constitutions, there was a suspicion amongst the drafters and Americans generally that a supreme power should be vested in the state governments. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 268. This suspicion would shape the contours of each state’s constitution. Id. 

While not all states agreed about the way to deal with the supreme power being vested in their respective governments, every state agreed that “constitutions should be contained in some written Charter.” Id. citing Demophilus, Genuine Principles, 4; Four Letters, 15.

These developments helped the states, and eventually the federal government, to move forward with the system that is familiar to Americans now. The constitutions being supreme to all other laws highlighted the importance of the drafting of those constitutions, as the trajectory of each state’s legal system, political environment, and nature of government depended on each constitution.

The disagreement amongst states was actually a beneficial development, one that would surely make the federal Constitution a more finely drafted document. As is so often the case in American history, this is yet another example of the benefit of having states act as Laboratories of Democracy.

The constitutions being written and having supremacy over all other laws in the states led to the creation of a system that placed a high value on the rule of law. Subsequent generations of Americans have come to be instilled in that value. It has served to create a omnipresent sense of justice throughout the country. The adoption of old political theories combined with new ideas of how to improve government led to a novel, yet remarkably effective, system of government. That system continues mostly unchanged and remains effective over two centuries later.


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