One of the many myths that schoolchildren are taught in the name of American exceptionalism is the idea that the Americans finally embraced a republican form of government at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. This, we are told, was revolutionary.
The usual narrative goes something like this: In ancient times, the world saw the rise of republics in Italy and Greece. The Roman Republic was notable for its virtue and its status as a government of the people. But the Roman Republic, like the small Greek republics, was but short lived and was destroyed by the temptations of empire and despotism.
But then came the so-called American experiment. This new, noble experiment sprang up when America’s great men met at Philadelphia in 1787 to hand down to Americans a new republic—something revolutionary and innovative in the face of a world ruled by crowned heads.
This story is often accompanied by a well-worn anecdote about Benjamin Franklin. It usually goes like this:
Philadelphia, 1787. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention are just leaving Independence Hall, having decided on the general structure for the new United States. A crowd had gathered on the steps of Independence Hall, eager to hear the news. A sturdy old woman (sometimes referred to as “an anxious lady”), wearing a shawl, approached Benjamin Franklin and asked him, “well, Doctor, what do we have, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied sagely, “a republic, if you can keep it.”
Most of my readers will surely have heard this little anecdote many times. The subtext here is that the United States had invented something altogether new with the constitution of 1787. The story suggests that in the late 1780s, Americans were not yet sure if they had the fortitude for a republic or if they would return to being a monarchy. Fortunately, the sagacious Founding Fathers decided “we” would be republicans after all.
As propaganda, this story has been remarkably effective. For many Americans—at least for those who received some sort of education—the propaganda seems quite plausible. After all, weren’t the French and the English ruled by despotic kings in the late eighteenth century? Wasn’t George Washington offered a position as king of America? Apparently, whether or not the United States would be a republic remained an open question.
It’s a nice tale, but it is fundamentally wrong in light of the political realities of the 1780s. This is obvious when we consider two facts: the first is that by the time the 1787 convention took place, the lands of the former British colonies were already a thoroughly republican place. All of the US states, plus the neighboring Republic of Vermont, had already adopted republican constitutions. The Philadelphia convention had nothing to do with it.
The second problem for the myth is that in 1787 the United States overall already had a republican constitution. The so-called Articles of Confederation had been adopted in 1776, and thus there was nothing revolutionary or innovative about adopting a second republican constitution in 1787.
In other words, all Americans in 1787 already lived in a constitutional republic at both the state level and the federal level. So, no, the Founding Fathers most certainly did not invent or create a new “experiment” of republicanism in any way. They new thing that they were trying to do was carry out a counterrevolution and superimpose a large and expensive national state apparatus over the American republics that already existed. This new government would impose taxes at higher rates than the old monarchy ever had. Unfortunately, the counterrevolutionaries succeeded.
But why invent a myth in which the new constitution was somehow responsible for making the United States a republic? At least part of the motivation here surely stems from the fact that the myth minimizes the states’ role in creating the republic. By ignoring the fact that the states laid the groundwork for republican government, the myth can instead push the narrative that the Federalists and their strong new central government “gave” America a republican system of government. This top-down creation myth erases the bottom-up reality. Moreover, the myth helps to obscure the fact that the United States was originally intended to be a voluntary confederation of republics, and not simply “a republic.”
Yet the myth endures.
The States Were Already Republican before the New Constitution
The reality of America’s earlier republican origins is, ironically enough, related by Federalist John Adams. While he was American ambassador in London in the 1780s, Adams began work on his tome A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. This was completed before the Philadelphia convention, and it was not written to defend the new 1787 constitution at all. Rather, Adams wrote the book to defend America’s state constitutions from claims—largely made by A.R.J. Turgot—that the state constitutions weren’t sufficiently republican. Adams contended the state constitutions were indeed republican, and he addressed these charges with extended discussions of what qualified a polity as a republic. Adams did this by drawing upon a number of examples of past and then-present republics that shared many of the same characteristics of the American republics.
Adams’s view was rather commonsensical. For decades, many American colonies functioned under constitutions that were nearly republican, with only a minor role for the monarch. They were, to use a phrase employed by Adams, “monarchical republics.” As the American war to secede from Britain wore on, however, the Americans in the former colonies adopted new constitutions that were explicitly and obviously republican. Some were radically so. Pennsylvania’s new 1776 constitution, for example, abolished property requirements. Any adult male taxpayer was eligible to both vote and hold office.
Adams thought Pennsylvania’s reforms were much too democratic, but the fact that its constitution was republican was obvious, in any case. The same year, Virginia adopted a republican constitution which employed the idea of a “bill of rights.” The last of this new wave of republican constitutions came in 1778 in Massachusetts. That constitution was largely written by Adams himself and is reputedly the oldest written constitution, still in effect today. Like Virginia’s constitution, Massachusetts’s constitution contained a bill of rights, including an influential provision protecting private gun ownership.
These constitutions proved to be models for those who wrote the new proposed constitution in 1787. It was most certainly not the other way around, and the states certainly didn’t rely on the Federalists to set the stage for an American republic. It was the state constitutions, after all, that put in writing many of the basic structures that later showed up in the 1787 constitution. These include bills of rights, bicameral legislatures, and provisions for the separation of powers. These were all in place more than a decade before the ratification of the new constitution at Philadelphia. Yet we are to believe that the delegates’ thinking was somehow revolutionary.
America Was Already a Republic under the Articles of Confederation
It’s an incoherent narrative, to say the least. Yet the myth is still employed to extol the alleged greatness of the federal government. Last week at the conservative site American Greatness, for example, political scientist Elizabeth Eastman—after repeating the old “a republic, if you can keep it” nugget—claimed, “The new U.S. Constitution laid the foundation for a republic, a form of government that had never been present in America at a national level.”
This is wrong on both counts. As Adams himself made abundantly clear, it was the state constitutions that laid this foundation, not the federal convention. There is no reason at all to believe that had the Americans not ditched the 1776 constitution for the 1787 one, they would have rewritten their republican constitutions and installed monarchs.
And how does Eastman arrive at the conclusion that a republic had never existed in the US “at a national level”? She never explains this but appears to take the rather odd position that a confederation cannot be a republic. Both James Madison and Adams contradict Eastman on this. In essay no. 20 of the Federalist Papers, Madison refers to the confederation known as the “Dutch Republic” as simply “a republic.” Adams uses similar terminology in his Defense of the Constitutions, referring to the Dutch confederation as “the Republic of the United Provinces of the Low Countries” (emphasis added).
Indeed, in The Federalist, Madison referred to the Dutch state as both a confederation and a republic. He was correct in doing so. Most confederations are republics, and like the Articles of Confederation, the Dutch Republic’s constitution provided for an extremely decentralized political structure based largely on a consensus model.
The American confederation created in 1776 was clearly a republic, but that wasn’t what made America republican either. Had that confederation been abolished altogether and replaced with nothing, Americans would have continued to live under republican governments.
The same is true today, of course. Each and every US state is a republic in its own right, with its own republican constitution. Each and every state even has the characteristics we associate with “good” republics: separation of powers, a bill of rights, an executive subject to impeachment, an independent judiciary, and regular elections. This was true before supporters of the new constitution started pretending that they invented the whole framework. Were this enormous federal government to be abolished, the state governments would continue being republics. There’s no reason to assume otherwise.