Whiggism, Republicanism, and Legislative Supremacy

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    Dr. Gutzman,

    In Creation of the American Republic, Gordon Wood suggests that Americans rejected the Blackstonian Whig conception of legislative supremacy, replacing it with a belief that popular sovereignty was distributed among all branches equally.

    That does seem to be supported by Madison’s warning about legislatures absorbing all power into their vortex, and many of the other sources Wood quotes, notably James Wilson.

    I’m wondering:

    A. Do you accept the premise that the Founders dispensed with the old view of the legislature being the sole and supreme organ as the will of the people?

    B. Do you share the view of McLanahan about James Wilson, namely that he was a disingenuous nationalist who attempted to distort the nature of the constitutional compact from one which was created by the people of the several states into one created by a single American people? To what extent do you think the “one people” thesis was accepted? Is there any historical merit to it at all?

    C. Wood seems to argue that the understanding of republicanism shifted between the time of the revolution and ratification.

    Citing the debate between John Adams in his Defense of the Constitutions of America and John Taylor in his rebuttal of Adams’ book, it seems Wood is arguing that the understanding of republicanism changed from a system like the Aristotelian/Ciceronian mixed constitutionalism that was a part of the British Constitution intended to balance power between the estates of society into a system where popular sovereignty was everywhere and no branch was to be more important or representative of any particular socio economic class.

    Do you accept that premise? Do you think the meaning of republicanism changed? If so, how?

    Did they really intend to make the Senate an aristocratic house, as the Anti-Federalists said?

    If this is true, it almost seems like Hamilton, Jackson, Teddy, etc were right in saying that the executive was just as important as the legislative due to being a representative of the people.

    On the other hand, it doesn’t seem republican to me to make judges or the president on an equal footing with the legislature, since that violates separation of powers and does seem to squint towards limited monarchy.

    I’m curious what your thoughts are on these questions and whether you think Wood gets it right or is tainted by any particular historical mistakes.

    I’m grateful for any information you have, as always.

    Be well,

    John Winters


    Yes, it’s certainly true that the idea of a single sovereign national legislature was rejected at the founding. The Continental Congress acted as a kind of clearinghouse of the states’ policies/diplomatic arena, not as a sovereign legislature; the Confederation Congress had narrowly constrained powers; and the US Constitution is a federal constitution, not a sovereign body. Thus, this didn’t shift between the Revolution and ratification.

    Yes, Wilson acted after ratification in some senses as if the US Government were sovereign in the old British sense.

    Wood’s account of Adams’ thought on this score is generally accepted among historians and political scientists. I’m currently reviewing a new Adams biography for The American Conservative in which the author says Adams had no theory of federalism–which seems about right.

    Wood does miss that in Virginia, at least, Federalists said during the ratification contest that states would have the option of secession if they ratified.

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