The Revolutionary Portfolio: Constitution-Making and the Wider World in the American Revolution
65 Pages Posted: 5 Nov 2014
Date Written: November 4, 2014
This article argues that American constitution-making in the founding era was an international process. At the outset of the Revolution, the Continental Congress and the revolutionary assemblies collaborated to construct a portfolio of foundational documents that American diplomats carried across the Atlantic to seek European support. In the spring and summer of 1776, Congress drafted three of the documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Model Treaty. At exactly the same time, Congress recommended that the states draft a fourth type of document: state constitutions. Two dimensions of internationalism operated in the making of this portfolio. One was classically diplomatic: The documents were designed to persuade foreign states and their subjects to acknowledge American independence. The other was cultural and intellectual: The concepts and language with which the revolutionaries drafted their portfolio were part of a common transatlantic political culture, and the resulting documents were premised on the Enlightenment goal of redesigning government within and among nations to foster commerce and reduce the propensity for war. The portfolio thereby contributed to what can be called the "Constitutional Enlightenment." This second dimension was related to the first, in that legible government would help induce Europeans to see the American states as true states. The transatlantic elements of the portfolio provided European audiences with a stylized description of governance on the ground and an aspirational program for the new governments in progress. However, this intellectual dimension was also autonomous from diplomacy because it permitted Europeans to detach the revolutionary portfolio from the human events transpiring in North America and make it the object of transnational discussion about the optimal forms of institutional design, a discussion that could in turn be brought to bear on politics in Europe. The portfolio therefore helped transform the classical study of politics into the modern and potentially revolutionary project of comparative constitutionalism.
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