The American Constitution -- A Reactionary Phase in History

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this essay provides a clear insight on how the american constitution was really not as "revolutionary" as people think it is.

Submitted: July 03, 2008

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Submitted: July 03, 2008




The American Constitution as a “reactionary” phase of the Revolutionary era is correct even though it does include some ideas that can be thought of as “revolutionary”. Reactionary means extreme conservation of ideas where as revolutionary means to progress towards newer ideas by any means. Socially, the constitution denied to voting rights to women, slaves and Native Americans. Politically, the legislatures’ in the United States lost some power with the advent of the Constitution. Economically the Constitution never mentioned moving west of the Appalachians or no state practiced mercantilism upon another state like the British had done. The Constitution never does specifically state that only wealthy white men can run the government or that women cannot vote, but the interpretation of the Constitution by different people in different ways led to the creation of different political parties. The Democratic-Republicans, the political “party” Thomas Jefferson believed that in revolutionary ideals where the masses should rule; but later in the arguments to ratify the Constitution, the conservative (reactionary) Federalists won. They believed that the “best people” should rule and also thought that a powerful central government was necessary. This shows similarity to the British Governing structure. The Constitution of the United States included both reactionary and revolutionary ideals, but the interpretation of the constitution of led to the creation of political parties.


Socially the American Constitution can be seen as being reactionary. It retained many customs that the British had already put into place including slavery which was not prohibited by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in 1865 and later all black males were given the vote in the 15th Amendment in 1870. The Native American populace were not recognized as American citizens until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 and until then they were removed further out west due to acts such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830 in order to make land for the Americans. This clearly shows that the U.S. Constitution as being reactionary. The newly independent Americans treated the Indians even more badly than the British had treated the Americans by removing them their ancestral lands and in no part of the Constitution was this condemned as being unconstitutional. The British did the same thing when they removed them by battling and then signing treaties such as the peace treaty of 1646 to end the Second Anglo-Powhata War in 1644. Women were not given the vote until 1920 in the 19th Amendment and the Poll Tax on the election of the President, Vice-President and federal senators was banned in the 24th Amendment so that people of poorer background who did not have the financial capabilities could vote. If the Constitution was meant to be a revolutionary document, then all elements of British America would have been erased. No political parties established themselves for the suffrage and equality of slaves, women or Native Americans, but Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party would erect the banner that all informed people white men regardless of their social standing due to wealth would be able to run the government. His ideals of the informed masses ruling did not become a success, while he was the friend of the poorer people he himself build a huge mansion and drank imported wines. While he wasted a country run by the masses, he himself was a wealthy aristocrat with many slaves. Jefferson to the common poor man was just another wealthy governor of the new country. He also wanted to retain the United States as an agricultural country instead of building industries and supporting businesses that the Federalists supported The British wanted to conserve trade and the Federalists believed in these ideals too and when the liberal Jefferson came to power, he retained all of Hamilton’s financial structure and only ridded the country of the excise tax. He virtually kept the Bank of the United States (based on the British Bank of England) and also the tariff intact Later as time elapsed he began to like Federalist ideas and even charted a bigger bank and also raised the tariffs. Tariffs were a way to preserve ones industry with the expense of the farmers (or importers) losing money. The British supported their own British industries by forcing the Americans to not compete with the British goods such as fur hats which hurt Americans. After the independence of the United States, the government came to support the industrialists at the expense of the farmers of the south and the west. These exchanging of ideas are major factors in creating political parties. The people who engineered the American Revolution were radical revolutionaries and when the revolution completed, the reactionaries/conservatives enacted laws to keep them from ever arranging a revolution in the Constitution. Patrick Henry, a revolutionary open denounced the Constitution and according to Thomas Bailey, if all men had to right the vote, then the Constitution could have faced defeat.


Politically the time of Salutary Neglect gave the Americans the chance to practice legislature, and later just before the Revolutionary War, the British closed several, including the New York legislature. The writers of the constitutions especially concentrated on creating a legislature that would represent the American populace and the states. The conservative Federalists wanted a well balanced legislature that did not become all powerful, and again the Democratic-Republicans wanted the opposite. This can be seen through their support for a executive branch that balanced the powers of the congress by having the power to veto a law that the president thinks of as unconstitutional or for other reasons that the president thinks would hurt the United States. Finally with the Constitution written, the conservative Federalists succeeded by creating a well balanced government where the legislature did not have absolute powers and it was modeled somewhat like the colonial colonies where they also had a governor with some important powers. The expansion of Quebec through the Quebec Act of 1774 by the British affected the colonials in a bad way. The American colonists wanted to revert back to the days where they could settle freely in any region in the western frontier. The Constitution does not specifically state if people should settle in the frontier or not, but since it states the process of statehood for newer states, it indirectly hints that people should settle there. This idea is another issue that led to the creation of political parties. The Federalists craved a large and powerful country, while the Democratic-Republicans favored a smaller and certainly a much manageable country. Here, the Federalists are practicing the ideals of the British of having a powerful and a large country or empire. The autonomy of the states is another issue that required a lot of discussion when the Constitution was being written. It started with the revocation of the Massachusetts Bay Charter when the colony lost most of its powers to the Royal Crown. The first Articles of the Confederation granted the states a lot of autonomy, but the Constitution took away some independence which can be thought of as a reactionary move that is comparable to the actions of the British. The Federalist and the Democrat-Republicans debated this and ultimately the Federalists won, thus the power of the state was not as wide as in the Articles of the Confederation period. If everyone believed in the same ideals then political parties would never be required.

Where is the gray area?

The Constitution did include one grey area where it was revolutionary. The structure of the American economy changed because immediately after independence the Americans were free to trade. The Constitution does not directly protect this. In Article IV, Section II, it states that slaves who have escaped to another state should be returned to that state as a mutual respect for each other, thus no states can officially benefit from another state without benefiting that one. This leaves no room for mercantilist or other types of behavior where one benefits at the expense of the other. When Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist wanted to raise the tariff to protect northern industries, the Democratic-Republicans retaliated by opposing it because now the southern importer had to pay more to buy locally made American goods. The right to protect northern exports can be backed by the Elastic Clause. The Federalists supported a strong navy to protect the shipping by loosely interpreting the constitution while the Democratic-Republicans opposed it by strictly interpreting the constitution. This opposition between the two parties developed each party’s identity and each gained a pool of supporters from different types of people.


The Constitution revoked the new powers of the states and set it very similarly to the British colonial era. Like the British, the unprivileged, women and non-whites were not given their right to vote. The new powers that the states gained in the Articles of the Confederation would be lost again to the Constitution. The writing process of the Constitution led to the creation of political parties and later they debated in every process of the creation of the new government. The reactionaries/conservatives and the revolutionaries/liberals debate to this date the interpretation of the Constitution and how the government should function. The conservatives won because the British and the American governments are very similar; the Americans did not create a new structure of the government.

Works Cited Thomas A. Bailey, David M. Kennedy, and Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant. 11th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

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