Building the State (1781-1797)

The Beginning of Self-Government: The States

The notion that representatives should exercise independent judgment rather than carry out the explicit will of their constituents sprung from an ancient distrust of the common masses and a distrust of party politics as the politics of selfish factions out for their own good at the expense of the nation. Many thought that the public should elect officials based upon their reputation and merit rather than upon differing policy preferences. This idea prevailed in many areas, especially the north, and would continue to do so for years, despite the constant efforts of its opponents to increase responsiveness of the government to public desires. The tradition of equal division of legislative seats between towns and counties regardless of population was based purely on historical habit, and presented a serious ideological challenge to the framers of state governments and, later, the national government.

The major changes made in the writing of state Constitutions were the direct result of the colonial experience. Having haggled with British authorities over the constitutionality of many Acts and actions, it was crucial to the new governments that constitutions clearly enumerated and limited the powers of government, as well as including bills of rights, which enumerated the rights of the people upon which the government could not infringe. The creation of written state constitutions, which contained these elements, meant that governments were no longer the sole judges of the constitutionality of their actions. The constitution was written in black and white for all observers to read and see clearly what the government was within its bounds to do.

The assault on the executive branch sprang from the experience of the colonists under the arbitrary, and often cruel, rule of the royal governors. The American colonists feared the despotism of executive officeholders, and sought, through the state constitutions, to limit their power. Revolutionary leaders advocated strengthening legislatures at the expense of state governors. The balance between executive and legislative power was a principle concern of the republican thinkers as they set about designing the state governments.

At first, elites had to cope with state governments dominated by popularly elected officials. However, eventually these elites united in efforts to reassert political control and privilege. In Massachussets, a 1780 convention passed a constitution with stricter property requirements for voting and holding office, senate districts defined by property value, and a stronger governor. Many states followed Massachusetts' lead by increasing property requirements for senators. This conservative backlash swept the nation and prompted resistance to many of the initiatives of the new governments.

The Society of Cincinnati was a fraternal order of Continental Army officers, which instated a system of hereditary membership. Despite the fact that many political luminaries, such as George Washington, were members, republicans often clashed with the society, fearing that it would eventually become a hereditary aristocracy akin to the British nobility. The efforts of the republicans to end the ties between church and state met with some resistance as well, most prominently in New England where the strength of antidisestablishmentarianism kept the Congregational Church collecting tithes well into the nineteenth century in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.