A Radical Political Experiment

Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. By: Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives.

Pennsylvania was the home of the “most radical ideas about politics and constitutional authority voiced in the Revolution.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 226. This resulted in a “comprehensive examination of assumptions about government that elsewhere were generally taken for granted” and it resulted in one of the greatest experiments in politics up to that time. Id.

Pennsylvania’s Constitution was based on the old Anglo-Saxon principles of government. It established a government that had only one legislative body, believing that the old Anglo-Saxon simplicity of constructing government was best. See id. at 230. Pennsylvanians joined Thomas Paine in repudiating the idea of mixed government. Id. Further, Pennsylvanians felt that the single legislative house had one single body of people to represent, as there was “no rank above that of freeman.” Id quoting Phila. Pa. Packet, Oct. 22, Apr. 22, July 1, 1776; Phila. Pa. Journal, Mar. 13, 1776. Pennsylvanians believed that a single-house legislature would make “the interest of the legislator and the common interest perfectly coincident.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 231 quoting Four Letters, 20; Phila. Pa. Packet, July 1, 1776; Phila. Pa. Gazette, June 11, 1777.

Rotation of office was also highly valued. Pennsylvanians believed that “[a]nnual elections, strengthened by some kind of periodical exclusion, seems the best guard against the encroachments of power.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 231 quoting Four Letters, 23; Phila. Pa. Journal, Sept. 27, 1775; Phila. Pa. Packet, May 20, 1776; see also Pa. Cons. (1776), Sec. 8, 13, 14, 35.

Perhaps most radically, Pennsylvanians set up a Provincial Jury, which was to be elected every seven years to “inquire if any inroads have been made in the Constitution, and to have power to remove them.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 232 quoting Four Letters, 24; see also Demophilus, Genuine Principles, 38. Perhaps most unworkable, however, was the provision in Section 15 of the Constitution that every bill that the General Assembly passed would be “printed for the consideration of the people at large before it could become law in the next legislative session.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 232.

Critics of the Constitution came forward and stated that it was an unworkable, colossal system that was wholly inefficient and idealized. See id. Many Pennsylvanians likely felt conflicted by the democratic protections that were captured in the Constitution but unnerved by the execution.

However, perhaps the framers of the Pennsylvania Constitution had another idea: create a widespread discussion about political theory and proper form of government throughout not just Pennsylvania but all of the states. To an extent, that is what happened. Pennsylvania became an example of where ideals conflicted with reality, leaving many to question what balance should be struck.

As is so often the case in studying the post-Revolution, pre-Constitution years, the states were Laboratories of Democracy, each coming up with new ideas that would ultimately change the course of America. That was one of the biggest benefits of American society in the early years of the Republic. States could each try what they felt was best, and by the time the federal government effectively came into being with the Constitution, many ideas and principles had been tried and tested for years.

The fact that the Pennsylvanians tried something new, something radical should be remembered. Only through that experimentation were other Americans able to discern what system best suited them.

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