War and Constitution-Making in Revolutionary Massachusetts, 1754-1788

Hrdlicka, James, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Onuf, Peter, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, University of Virginia

Throughout the Revolutionary era, Americans embraced the capacity of constitutional government at all levels to mobilize power to achieve desired ends. This study explores how and why the inhabitants of one province-turned-state looked to the institutions, practices, and authority of constitutional government to address the myriad challenges they faced between the French and Indian War and the ratification of the United States Constitution. In these years, people in Massachusetts viewed constitutions as more than sets of theoretical propositions designed to limit the power of those who ruled, and they appreciated them not only because they provided opportunities to declare inviolable rights. Constitutions also comprised practical plans of government through which the populace could effectively mobilize power during times of greatest strain. War and its burdens thus formed the essential backdrop as inhabitants considered what made for legitimate and effective government. In no other context did government demand so much of them; at no other times were they presented with as many opportunities to consider the nature of their attachments to the state and to each other. This study properly situates the narrative of constitutional development by first examining the process by which authorities worked with the populace to mobilize men and resources for war and the specific contexts of governance in which that process occurred. This approach foregrounds the concrete problems historical subjects were trying to address and then attempts to understand their actions and ideas.

For Massachusetts inhabitants, the experience of wartime mobilization and governance varied dramatically. The most important factor lay in the transformations to the larger polity under whose umbrella Massachusetts’ government operated. Between the start of the French and Indian War and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Massachusetts existed as part of a powerful global empire, a confederation of states, and finally a federal union. Massachusetts inhabitants felt the effects of these shifting geopolitical circumstances in the course of their daily lives. While a province of the British Empire, the greatest fiscal-military state in the world, Massachusetts could wage war, as it did from 1754-63, without severely impinging on the prosperity or stability of local communities. During the Revolution, by contrast, the burdens of mobilization fell far more heavily on towns and individuals. As the state’s Revolutionary government required ever-greater sacrifices from the populace, inhabitants created and adopted a new state constitution whose enhanced popular sanction for the exercise of authority, they hoped, would help Massachusetts overcome the challenges of war and its aftermath. Yet the disintegration of the British Empire had left Massachusetts in a geopolitical “state of nature” relative to the other former colonies. Of these states, Massachusetts appeared perhaps best-equipped to thrive in the Confederation it had helped establish. Even Massachusetts’ “excellent” constitution proved ineffective in the context of the Confederation’s dysfunction, however. In 1775, Massachusetts had accepted war to preserve its corporate rights within the empire; by the 1780s, a majority in Massachusetts concluded that collective “self-preservation” now demanded a stronger continental union, an American empire of sorts, that performed many of the same functions as its British predecessor—albeit in ways amenable to a mobilized people’s raised expectations. Constitutional governments endowed with popular legitimacy offered an alternative means to mobilize power in a world of imposing monarchical states.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Massachusetts, Revolution, Constitution
Issued Date: