45 Years, 45 Days: Did the Constitution Betray the American Revolution?


For the next 45 days, we'll be celebrating Reason's 45th anniversary by releasing a story a day from the archives—one for each year of the magazine's history. See the full list here.

In Reason's April 1987 issue, historians Jeffrey Rogers Hummel and William Marina debated whether or not the ratification of the United States Constitution violated the principles of the American Revolution. Here is a portion of their debate:

[Jeffrey Rogers Hummel]
The alleged "critical period" between the end of the Revolution and the Constitution's adoption was not dominated by economic depression, political turmoil, and international peril, jeopardizing the independent survival of the American experiment in liberty. Those who assembled at the Philadelphia Convention to write a new Constitution were not disinterested demigods, nor did they intend to establish a federal system of divided government powers. The Constitution did not have the support of most Americans. And finally, rather than representing the culmination of the previous Revolution, the Constitution represented a reactionary counter revolution against its central principles….

[William Marina]
For all its failures, the Constitution remains after 200 years one of the great protectors of property rights in human history. As such, it was not a betrayal of the principles of 1776 as much as an effort to reopen the debate of that period, freed of the pressure of war. It represented a compromise reflecting one version of the idea of a balanced government to protect property rights as essential to the enjoyment of more broadly defined human rights. The Constitution was a balance between monarchy and military despotism on the one hand and extreme majoritarian populism on the other.