Published Date

September 10, 1884

From First Meeting of the American Historical Association (1884)

At four o’clock in the afternoon the Association met for its last session, which was open to the public, President White in the chair. Letters were read by the Secretary from Bishop C. F. Robertson, of Missouri, and from the Secretaries of various historical societies, commending the organization of the American Historical Association and promising cordial support. Professor Moses Coit Tyler delivered an address on “The Influence of Thomas Paine on the Popular Resolution for Independence.”

The student of the American Revolution has to confront a notable problem presented by the transition which American public opinion made during the last six months of 1775 and the first six months of 1776, from abhorrence and disavowal of the idea of independence, to its complete adoption and promulgation. Prior to April 19, 1775, no public body and no public man had spoken of independence except to protest against it. On May 26th, the very Congress which then resolved that the colonies “be immediately put into a state of defence,” also voted “an humble and dutiful petition to his Majesty,” and declared themselves as “ardently wishing for a restoration of harmony.” The Americans who fought at Bunker Hill on the 17th of June fought not for independence, but for the overthrow of an unjust ministerial policy. Washington’s commission as Commander-in-chief, on the 19th of June, contained no intimation that he was to fight for independence; while his military associates in Virginia, who sent him a letter on the 20th of July, prayed that all his “counsels and operations” might be directed by Providence “to a happy and lasting union between us and Great Britain.” As late as the 19th of October, when Dr. Jeremy Belknap visited the patriot camp, he prayed publicly for the king, and seemed surprised to find that this was no longer agreeable to many in the army. On the 25th of December the Legislature of New Hampshire declared that “aiming at independence” was a thing “which we totally disavow.” And yet in little more than six months from that disavowal the public mind had been quite carried over to the resolution for independence.

How is this rapid transition to be accounted for? Of course many influences were at work to produce it;—greatest of all, the alienating policy of the king and ministry, and the harsh proceedings of their troops. But among all the influences toward independence, operating between January and July, 1776, the student cannot fail to recognize that of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, “Common-Sense.” The object of this paper is to trace that influence as indicated, not in later assertions or denials, but in the correspondence and newspapers of the time.

Paine had arrived in this country in December, 1774, an obscure and impoverished English adventurer, thirty-seven years old, and chiefly anxious “to procure a subsistence at least.” In just one year this stranger had so well mastered the American problem that he was able to take the lead in its discussion by writing “Common-Sense.” This was first published anonymously early in January, 1776. The pamphlet was happily named. It undertook simply to apply common-sense to a technical, complex, but most urgent and feverish problem of constitutional law. In fact, on any other ground than that of common-sense, the author was incompetent to deal with the problem at all; since, of law, of political science, and even of English and American history, he was ludicrously ignorant. But for the effective treatment of any question whatsoever under the light of the broad and rugged intellectual instincts of mankind,—men’s natural sense of truth, of congruity, of fair-play,—perhaps no men then in America, excepting Franklin, was a match for this ill-taught, heady, and slashing English castaway.

Mr. Tyler then proceeded to give an analysis of the pamphlet, together with citations from it, to show the tact, humor, plausibility, and force with which it met the common objections to independence, and appealed to the self-respect and ambition of the American people for a national career of their own. Having thus indicated how exactly the pamphlet was adapted to the intellectual need of the hour, the speaker gave in detail and in chronological order numerous extracts from letters and newspapers between January and June, 1776, as evidence of the enormous immediate influence of the pamphlet; culminating in the statement of William Gordon, on June 7th, to the effect that of all the “publications which … have promoted the spirit of independency,” none had done “so much as the pamphlet under the signature of ‘Common-Sense.'” This statement of Gordon’s, made on the very day on which Lee’s resolutions for independence were introduced into Congress, completes the chain of contemporary testimony as to the influence of Thomas Paine on the popular resolution for independence.

Professor Austin Scott of Rutgers College then read a paper on “Constitutional Growth in the United States,” a summary of lectures originally delivered before students in Baltimore. The following is a brief abstract:

The force which gives the unity of continuous development to the political life of the American people has an origin deeper than the causes which divide American history into distinct periods, deeper than the consciousness of any one generation, and deeper than the hopes and fears and actions of parties. This formative principle may be termed the Federative Principle. Carrying the etymology of the word “federative” back of the Latin foedus, with the limited meaning of league or compact, to the Sanskrit “bandh,” in which lies the single thought of union, and adding the causative ending “ative,” we have the union-forming principle, that which produces a constant uniting. The Federative Principle implies the existence of opposing tendencies active within a superior agency, which is capable of regulating their mutual aggression and of securing their harmony. Over the two historical forces, Nationalism and Localism, the Federative Principle asserts its supremacy, and in the Constitution of the United States gives them simultaneouscorrelated, and adequate expression.

The principle takes its rise in the beginning of that process of differentiation by which English national self-government became in America at once national and local. In every stage of the growth of self-government in America, Nationalism and Separatism were to a greater or less degree conditioned each upon the other. For example, an American national feeling had its germ in the common feeling of responsibility for local self-government in which the several colonies shared. Further, the early attempts at union were measures of defence for the separate colonies. Again, the self-consciousness which the French war of 1760 developed throughout the colonies as a whole, found its points of concentration in the local centres. So, too, the resistance in 1765 against the Stamp Act, and later against the Tea Tax. The national spirit which declared independence was nurtured in the local schools of self-government, and the Declaration itself was a protest against nationalism as the exclusive idea in the State.

The Articles of Confederation were an imperfect expression of the Federative Principle. The relations of its two factors were not yet so adjusted as to allow of their free reciprocal action, but both were recognized, and in such a way that each secured the other from ultimate destruction. The separate States are confessedly not equal to the task of governing a continent, yet the spirit of localism in this confederation dominates the sources of the national life, and allows of no system of national law adequate to the acknowledged jurisdiction of Congress. But the fourth of the articles, by providing “for the people of the different States in this Union” the fullest inter-citizenship, begins the formation of indefeasible relations between the national spirit and individuals, and thus promotes national growth.

Under the operation of the Articles of Confederation, both Nationalism and Localism by different processes increase each its original determinative strength, and the danger arises that either alone may force a union of but partial means and incapable of the highest ends. The Federative Principle by its own creative energy chooses the time and method of its complete self-assertion, and in the Federal Convention brings both its factors to the work of “forming the more perfect union.” The interest of each is now made to include the highest welfare of the other, and in the Constitution of the United States both Nationalism and Localism find simultaneous, correlated, and adequate expression. Though their methods are in constant warfare, their aim is one, the good of the individual, who in his dual relation is an epitome of the controlling principle.

The growth of the Federative Principle has brought with it a new “refinement in social policy, the greatest to which any age has ever given birth” (Brougham),—the power of the judiciary, under certain conditions, to pronounce upon the constitutionality of the laws, “a security to the justice of the State against its power,” (Burke). Now the Federative Principle, as the mediator between the two forces, is pre-minently a principle of justice, and this function of the court becomes its servant. The decision is now National, now in favor of the State, and thus through interpretation the Constitution is developed, and the two forces have as free play in the judicial as in the more strictly political action.

There are seven periods in the action of this principle since it first found free scope by the adoption of the Constitution: (1) 1789 to 1801, the period of self-assertion of the national idea and of reaction. (2) 1801 to 1817, the period when parties show themselves subordinate to the Federative Principle. (3) 1817 to 1829, “the era of good feeling,” a transition period in which political adjustments of Nationalism and Localism are tentative rather than decisive. Constitutional development during this period is mainly found in the decisions of the Supreme Court, which view the Constitution as a law of laws emanating directly from the people, not as a compact (4) 1829 to 1841, the new generation. Through the extension of suffrage and answering to the demands of both Nationalism and Localism comes the power of the masses. (5) 1841 to 1849. The first exercise of this power with a definite purpose is to adjust the new economic and industrial forces to the political forces, and, by acquiring Texas and the Pacific coast, to extend the republic to the borders of the continent. (6) 1849 to 1861. In the sixth period culminated a growth of Sectionalism, opposed to the guiding principle of the Constitution and a hindrance to the free activities of its two elements. Slavery up to 1820 connects itself with the State element; from that time its tendency is to become National. The Kansas-Nebraska bill and the Dred Scott decision nationalize slavery; but slavery could not be true to either idea exclusively, for it was from the first a sectional element unknown to the Federative Principle. (7) 1861 to 1884. The assertion of the right of a State to secede from the Union was an attempt to wrest Localism from its true purpose and from its historical and constitutional relations. To restore in all the land its proper sway as well as that of Nationalism the sectional rebellion was fought down. In this work national powers were pushed to an extreme not warranted by the Constitution (decisions of the Supreme Court on Civil Rights Act, Election Acts of 1870, and “Force Bill”). The recent Legal-Tender decision confirms Nationalism in its use of large powers. “It clothes Congress with imperial power” (Secretary McCulloch). But in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments there is “no purpose to destroy the main features of the general system” (decision in Slaughter-house cases).

A complete harmony of the two elements of the Federative Principle can never be realized; but the tendency is ever toward harmony, thus placing before our hopes an ideal state. In constructing his ideal republic, Plato rejects discordant powers and forces which would bring false harmonies, and leaves but two essential elements—these two harmonies I ask you to leave; the strain of necessity and the strain of freedom, the strain of courage and the strain of temperance—in our state, national will and local self-rule—the one Federative Principle.

After the conclusion of Dr. Scott’s paper, the American Historical Association adjourned sine die.

Next section: Resolutions of First Executive Council