Did the Revolutionary War lead the two sides to re-evaluate their pre-war positions?
Updated: Mar 12
In these blogposts, I discuss questions and issues that students have raised in my classrooms during the previous semester. They are good springboards to classroom discussions/debates about the Revolution, American history, and history itself.
The imperial government’s centralizing reforms in the 1760s and ‘70s triggered the colonists’ resistance movement, which aimed to preserve the empire’s decentralized structure. The loss of the American colonies did not lead the British to re-evaluate or reverse course – after the war, Britain continued its pre-war project of centralizing the empire. The British Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (the “Second British Empire”) was an empire governed from the center, rather than the kind of decentralized salutary-neglect empire it had been before the Revolutionary era. (The Declaratory Act of 1766 explained that despite the repeal of the Stamp Act, Parliament had supreme legislative power on and within the colonies. That law remained in effect throughout the British Empire in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.)
As for the Americans, they soon found themselves in yet another political contest over centralized power and local self-government. They went to war to preserve the Empire’s salutary-neglect system of government – to protect the jurisdiction, authority, and liberties of colonial governments and courts. They enshrined this governing philosophy through a states’ rights constitution – the Articles of Confederation. But the war itself generated frustrations (in some American leaders) about the country’s emasculated central government. These frustrations festered and intensified after the war, producing a reform movement in the 1780s to strengthen the central government (the Newburgh Conspiracy, the Annapolis Convention, and the Federalist movement).
Just like the colonists rejected central governance under the Albany Plan in 1754, and under Parliament in the 1760s and 1770s, they resisted it in the 1780s. Even Federalists balked at the centralizing reforms proposed by Madison and Hamilton at the Constitutional Convention. The consistent stumbling block was the fact that a common government would allow large states to dominate small states. A delegate of one of the smallest states (Delaware) to the Constitutional Convention articulated this fear when speaking against a national vote for president: “I do not trust you, gentlemen; if you have the power, the abuse of it could not be checked, and you will use it to our destruction.”
So even among that self-selecting group in Philadelphia that supported more centralized governance, there was deep fear that local populations would find themselves ruled by outsiders. These clashes inside the Federal Convention produced the CT compromise (creating a mixed Congress that partly represents the citizens, which large states supported, and partly represents the states, which small states advocated); they produced the electoral-college compromise (a mixed electoral system for presidential elections that partly represents the citizens and partly represents the states); and they produced the three-fifths compromise (which likewise addressed fears of the more sparsely-populated Southern states).
And then when this compromise-laden constitution went out to the states for ratification, the opposition to it was still so strong that Federalists had to compromise yet again, agreeing to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution to allay Americans’ fears about local self-government in the states.