Preserving the Health of the Constitution

General George Washington at Trenton. By: John Trumbull.

Corruption was rife in England in the decades leading up to the American Revolution, and Americans were keenly aware of that fact. For many individuals, the English Constitution was viewed as a hollow document, as the crown had taken the power away from all other sources. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 34-35. Americans knew that this corruption “always begins amongst the Rich and the Great” and would spread to the common people, leaving them “enfeebled and their souls depraved.” Id. at 35 quoting Pinkney’s Wmsbg. Va. Gazette, June 15, 1775; Phila. Pa. Packet, May 29, 1775, Aug. 8, 1774; Purdie and Dixon’s Wmsbg. Va. Gazette, Sept. 5, 1771.

Americans, and particularly the Whigs, were well aware that “the Crown had been able to evade the restrictions to the revolutionary settlement of 1688 and had found means to corrupt the other branches of the legislature, upsetting the delicately maintained balance of the constitution from within.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 33 (internal quotations omitted). Americans could see that the “ancient form is preserved” of government, “but the spirit of the constitution is evaporated.” Boston New England Chronicle, Sept. 5, 1776.

It was well remembered that Niccolo Machiavelli and Algernon Sidney wrote that “all human Constitutions are subject to Corruption and must perish, unless they are timely renewed by reducing them to their first Principles.” Dickinson, Letters from a Farmer, Ford, ed., Writings of Dickinson, 386. Americans knew that restoring a constitution to perfection was impossible. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 34. It was also well known that “the strongest constitutions are most liable to certain diseases.” Id.

The key to preventing and cleaning up corruption was the people. The people’s virtue would ultimately lead to eradication of corruption such that a constitution’s principles would continue to guide the rights and liberties of the people.

Americans would remember the extent of the corruption of the English Constitution when framing the state constitutions and eventually the Constitution of the United States. The Founding Fathers knew, when framing the Constitution, that America was just as liable to fall into the same traps as the English in allowing the Constitution to become a hollowed out document that was well-intentioned but obsolete.

Many of the early Americans’ and Founding Fathers’ actions were informed by their comparison to England. Americans knew the problems and issues that arose in England more than any other country, undoubtedly by virtue of being an English colony, and much of the framing of the American government was reacting to those English problems and issues.

The prevention of corruption and the protection of constitutional rights has been one of the biggest successes of American government. While being far from perfect, the United States has continually fought for preservation of those values for over two centuries. That preservation is a significant factor in perpetuating the wellbeing of America.

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