By 1787, the strength and stability of the states was under scrutiny. Shays’ Rebellion had erupted, citizens had become more licentious, and state legislatures appeared to be running rampant, doing significant damage to the health of the country as a whole. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 465.
While there were perceptions that America was suffering from a malaise in the 1780s, the political theory at the time had an explanation: licentiousness.
At the time of the Revolution, republicanism was permeating political discourse and political theory. John Adams asked in 1776 that “[i]f there is a form of government, then, whose principle and foundation is virtue, will not every sober man acknowledge it better calculated to promote the general happiness than any other form?” He continued by explaining that a republican constitution “introduces knowledge among the people, and inspires them with a conscious dignity becoming freemen; a general emulation takes place, which causes good humor, sociability, good manners, and good morals to be general. That elevation of sentiment inspired by such a government, makes the common people brave and enterprising. That ambition which is inspired by it makes them sober, industrious, and frugal.” John Adams, Thoughts on Government, Adams, ed., Works of John Adams, IV, 194, 199.
Sacrificing private interest for the public good is a noble virtue. It was an idea widely revered in the years surrounding the American Revolution. But despite the pervasiveness of that idea, some believed it was leading America down a path toward destruction. Read more
The United States, as the 18th Century transitioned into the 19th Century, introduced to the world a host of ideas and beliefs that strayed from the Enlightenment period. The North American Review, in 1816, concluded that America was unlike any other country “in the points of greatness, complexity, and the number of its relations.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 721 citing North American Review, 3 (1816), 345-47.
America was also becoming the standard bearer for progress. The principles emerging in society emanated from the people themselves, “free from all sorts of artificial restraints, especially those imposed by government.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 721 citing Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York, 1992), 360.
One example of the shift away from the ideals of the Enlightenment period is Dr. Benjamin Rush’s work “in seeking the universal theory that would purge medicine of its complexities and mysteries.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 725. He believed that the Old World’s medicine could be “sufficiently simplified and republicanized” so that all members of society would be capable of treating themselves. Id. He carried the simplification to the furthest logical extent possible: that all diseases came down to fever, “caused by convulsive tension in the blood vessels,” which could only be treated by blood-letting. Id.
Obviously, this extrapolation of American thinking applied to the medical field was a colossal failure. However, it showed the extent of the permeation of American ideals into society. Even the most closely held beliefs, or the sturdiest foundations underlying society, were questioned by Americans.
This was a crucial, if unintentional, development for the United States. Rather than tailor American society and institutions to those of Europe or anywhere else for that matter, Americans tailored the society to its people.
This people-centered approach would reap rewards for the coming centuries of Americans. Institutions, norms, and the government would all bend to the will of the people. That responsiveness has ensured that the government is able to adapt to the changing times, which is just one prerequisite for any country to survive over the course of two tumultuous centuries.