The Constitution and its Roots
A case for the connection of America's colonial and
revolutionary religious and political experiences to the basic
principles of the Constitution can be readily made. One point in favor
of this conclusion is the fact that most Americans at that time had
little beside their experiences on which to base their political
ideas. This is due to the lack of advanced schooling among common
Americans at that time. Other points also concur with the main idea
and make the theory of the connection plausible.
Much evidence to support this claim can be found in the
wording of the Constitution itself. Even the Preamble has an important
idea that arose from the Revolutionary period. The first line of the
Preamble states, We the People of the United States... ." This implies
that the new government that was being formed derived its sovereignty
from the people, which would serve to prevent it from becoming corrupt
and disinterested in the people, as the framers believed Britain's
government had become. If the Bill of Rights is considered, more
supporting ideas become evident. The First Amendment's guarantee of
religious freedom could have been influenced by the colonial tradition
of relative religious freedom. This tradition was clear even in the
early colonies, like Plymouth, which was formed by Puritan dissenters
from England seeking religious freedom. Roger Williams, the proprietor
of Rhode Island, probably made an even larger contribution to this
tradition by advocating and allowing complete religious freedom.
William Penn also contributed to this idea in Pennsylvania, where the
Quakers were tolerant of other denominations.
In addition to the tradition of religious tolerance in the
colonies, there was a tradition of self-government and popular
involvement in government. Nearly every colony had a government with
elected representatives in a legislature, which usually made laws
largely without interference from Parliament or the king. Jamestown,
the earliest of the colonies, had an assembly, the House of Burgesses,
which was elected by the property owners of the colony. Maryland
developed a system of government much like Britain's, with a
representative assembly, the House of Delegates, and the governor
sharing power. The Puritan colony in Massachusetts originally had a
government similar to a corporate board of directors with the first
eight stockholders, called freemen" holding power. Later, the
definition of freemen" grew to include all male citizens, and the
people were given a strong voice in their own government.
This tradition of religious and political autonomy continued
into the revolutionary period. In 1765, the colonists convened the
Stamp Act Congress, which formed partly because the colonists believed
that the government was interfering too greatly with the colonies'
right to self-government. Nine colonies were represented in this
assembly. The Sons of Liberty also protested what they perceived to be
excessive interference in local affairs by Parliament, terrorizing
British officials in charge of selling the hated stamps. Events like
these served to strengthen the tradition of self-government that had
become so deeply embedded in American society.
The from of government specified by the Constitution seems to
be a continuation of this tradition. First, the Constitution specifies
a federal system of government, which gives each individual state the
right to a government. Second, it specifies that each state shall be
represented in both houses of Congress. The lower house, the House of
Representative, furthermore, is to be directly elected by the people.
If the Bill of Rights is considered, the religious aspect of the
tradition becomes apparent. The First Amendment states, "Congress may
make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the
free exercise thereof... ," showing that, unlike the British
government, the new US government had no intention of naming or
supporting a state church or suppressing any religious denominations.
In conclusion, the Constitution's basic principles are
directly related to the long tradition of self-rule and religious
tolerance in colonial and revolutionary America.