A Tradition of Extra-Legislative Action

Samuel Adams. By: John Singleton Copley.

As touched on in Unalterable Constitutions, Americans began resorting to conventions for amending their state constitutions, and this was only one example of Americans looking to advance their causes outside of the bounds of government. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 310. This was not a novel approach, however, and it was not the only approach that Americans were increasingly taking to advance their interests.

Conventions were a part of English history, going back to at least medieval times, which were “used to refer to all sorts of assemblies . . . convened for deliberation on important matters, whether ecclesiastical, political, or social.” Id. For Americans, conventions were becoming a permanent, always available, and integral institution as the Revolution came to fruition. See id. at 319.

In addition to conventions, Americans had “a long tradition of extra-legislative action by the people, action that more often than not had taken the form of mob violence and crowd disturbance.” Id. In the decades prior to declaring independence, the colonists took to the streets, typically using “violence and intimidation to redress diverse grievances unsatisfied by weak and unresponsive governments, leading to “the North Carolina disturbances in 1769-70, . . . the Paxton uprisings in Pennsylvania in 1763-64, [and] . . . the numerous mobs that erupted in the cities during the 1760s.” Id. at 320.”

John Adams detested “private mobs,” but he was willing to justify “Popular Commotions . . . in Opposition to attacks upon the Constitution,” so long as it only happened “when Fundamentals are invaded.” John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 7, 1774, Butterfield, ed., Family Correspondence, I, 131; see also Arthur M. Schlesinger, “Political Mobs and the American Revolution, 1765-1776,” American Philosophical Society, Proceedings, 99 (1955), 244.

Part of the justification for these public demonstrations was that the government was perceived as ineffectual. As Samuel Adams said in 1784, “popular Committees and County Conventions are not only useless but dangerous.” Samuel Adams to John Adams, Apr. 16, 1784, Adams to Noah Webster, Apr. 30, 1784, Cushing, ed., Writings of Samuel Adams, IV, 296, 305-06. He continued, explaining that  when committees and conventions were used to displace the royal legislatures, they served “an excellent Purpose,” but “as we now have constitutional and regular Governments and all our Men in Authority depend upon the annual and free Elections of the People, we are safe without them . . . . Bodies of Men, under any Denomination whatever, who convene themselves for the Purpose of deliberating whatever, who convene themselves for the Purpose of deliberating upon and adopting Measures which are cognizable by Legislatures only will, if continued, bring Legislatures to Contempt and Dissolution.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 327 quoting Samuel Adams to John Adams, Apr. 16, 1784, Adams to Noah Webster, Apr. 30, 1784, Cushing, ed., Writings of Samuel Adams, IV, 296, 305-06.

In many ways, not much has changed since those early days of the Republic. While conventions and committees are not so frequent as perhaps the Revolutionary years and years of the Early Republic, the extra-legislative taking to the streets is as popular as ever.

The fact that these demonstrations occurred before the Revolution and after the Revolution illustrates that even the best government cannot address all the needs and problems of the population. Taking to the streets, and having that right protected in the Constitution, has consistently been one of the most effective methods of being heard in American society. It allows a direct interaction amongst the American people, with no middleman, no delay, and no filter.

In this way, the representative nature of American democracy perhaps is just one piece of having a government that is responsive to the people’s passions, wishes, and beliefs. The Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, recognized this and ensured that it would be protected in the Constitution.


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