June 2, 2023


BURKE AND ADAMS: TRADITION VS. CONSTITUTIONALISM (Gregory Spindler, 12/16/22, Starting Points)

For Burke, tradition, custom, and emotional attachment were as important as, if not more important than, reason when determining government policy.  The fact that the colonial legislatures had had autonomy in determining internal matters such as taxation for 150 years needed to be respected by Parliament.  To suddenly legislate for the colonies was courting disaster, for it ignored the traditions and customs to which the Americans had become accustomed.  Such action would surely arouse the anger and strong opposition of a people jealous of their liberties.  Burke's argument had nothing to do with the constitutionality of Parliament's action.  In fact, in his "On Taxation" speech on the floor of the Commons on April 19, 1774, Burke made it clear that Parliament had sovereignty over the colonies in all matters whatsoever.  However, by asserting that right, Parliament was undermining its relationship with the Americans.  The only way to retain the colonies was to affirm the colonists' right to make their own decisions based on more than a century of tradition.  All policy must be founded on prescription, which meant for Burke the respecting of a people's past and the strong attachments that individuals had to traditional institutions.

Unlike Burke, John Adams never developed an explicit philosophical defense of tradition. Like many American Whigs, he was concerned with the fundamental rights granted to British America by the English constitution.  Following in the footsteps of James Otis, Jr., whose 1761 speech against writs of assistance before the Massachusetts Superior Court was considered by him the real beginning of the American independence movement, Adams argued that Parliament's assertion of its right to tax the colonies was an infringement upon the Americans' liberties and thus an unconstitutional and illegitimate act.  In his Novanglus Essays, Adams drew upon legal arguments to demonstrate that Parliament had no right to impose taxes on people who were without representation.  As early as the Stamp Act crisis, and throughout the conflict with Britain, Adams maintained that the colonists' basic rights as Englishmen were being denied them and that, for this reason, separation was the only logical outcome.  For Adams, precedent and tradition were not the underlying factors in wanting independence.  It was a constitutional matter that led the Braintree attorney to take a leading role in the opposition movement.

Burke and Adams on the American Constitution

As the independence movement became stronger in the early months of 1776 following the publication of Paine's Common Sense, a sense of urgency regarding the creation of independent republican state governments swept over Congress.  No one was more involved in the matter than Adams.  In fact, he took the lead in putting together a fundamental outline of what such government should look like.  As early as November 15, 1775, in a letter to Virginia congressman Richard Henry Lee, Adams outlined the basic components of a republican government.  This outline was amplified in the spring of 1776 in his Thoughts on Government, which was to play a significant role in the drafting of constitutions in Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, and, of course, Massachusetts, whose 1780 Constitution was drafted almost entirely by Adams.  What should be noted is how closely Adams followed the British model, which, in his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, he deemed to be the greatest example of mixed government--joining together the One, the Few, and the Many--that the world had yet seen.  By separating the elite and the representatives of the people in different chambers while giving the executive an absolute veto, Adams replicated the British constitution.  The delegates to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 certainly had before them the various state constitutions, especially that of Massachusetts, as well as the first volume of Defence, which was available for purchase in the United States in April 1787.  The final draft of the Constitution, with its emphasis on separation of powers, independent judiciary, and strong executive, reflects the influence that Adams, and the British constitution, had on the delegates.

Posted by at June 2, 2023 12:24 AM