We the People of Massachusetts and the Wondrous Things Opened Minds Can Do

Too often we remember the American Revolution--- or, more narrowly, the “American founding”--- through a handful of men. We need not list their names; their justified fame has brought familiarity and, in recent years, an entire shelf of readable new biographies. It is easy to forget that American Independence and the establishment of republican governments’ underwritten constitutions was not the work of a few talented men. Under the basic principles of the time, both ending an oppressive regime and establishing a new one required the support of “the Body of the People.” As the Declaration of Independence said, “whenever any form of government becomes destructive” of the rights they were founded to secure, “it is the right of the people”---the people at large --- “to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government…in such form as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness.”

But how could “the people” be more than a rhetorical reference? How could they be active players not just in tearing down the old regime but, more difficult, in creating a new one? One group of Americans played a better-than-average role in answering those questions: the people of Massachusetts. They also left a wonderful paper trail that shows with great vividness how ordinary people--- farmers, grist mill owners and the like, not just lawyers and college graduates--- made unique contributions of enduring significance to the American Revolution and the institutions it created.

In 1772 the Boston Town Meeting appointed a Committee of Correspondence to “state the Rights of the Colonists and of this Province in particular,” “communicate the same to the several Towns in this Province and to the World… with the Infringements and Violations thereof that have been, or from time to time may be made,” and invite the towns to engage in “a free communication of their Sentiments on this Subject.” That initiative was astoundingly successful: over the next two years, over half of the 260 towns in the colony responded. For the first time, townsmen confronted issues of profound significance--- the nature of the colonists’ rights, the extent of Parliament’s authority, and to whom provincial officials were responsible--- and suggested ways by which the colonists could win redress for their grievances. Their answers affirmed both their determination to defend their rights and their continued loyalty to Britain. One town, however, was notably radical. In January 1773, the townsmen of Attleboro “utterly disalow[ed] any Right of Government over us” by Britain, with which the people of Massachusetts had “no natural or necessary Connection” except under the Massachusetts Charter of 1691.

The correspondence union, in effect, informed and mobilized the people of the colony. The result became clear in the fall of 1774, after news arrived that Parliament’s Massachusetts Government Act had vacated the province’s 1691 charter. Crowds throughout the province closed courts and forced the Crown-appointed members of the Governor’s Council --- who had previously been chosen by the elected assembly--- to resign. The new military governor, Thomas Gage, was astonished: the opposition consisted not of a handful of agitators who (as he seems to have assured the King) could easily be suppressed with a few regiments of regular soldiers, but the freemen of the province. “Civil Government is near its End,” he reported. “Conciliating, Moderation, Reasoning is over. Nothing can be done but by Forceable Means.”

The impact of the Committee of Correspondence might, however, have been greatest on the townsmen themselves. For generations they had met in town meeting to settle local issues such as what to do with wandering pigs or fallen fences. Now their minds were lifted to issues of broader significance, and opened minds can do wondrous things. As royal government collapsed, more such issues were submitted for their consideration. On May 10, 1776, for example, the provincial assembly asked the inhabitants of the towns to debate “in full Meeting warned for that Purpose” whether, if the Continental Congress decided the safety of the colonies required declaring their independence from Britain, they would “solemnly engage with their Lives and Fortunes to Support the Congress in the Measure.”

That, town of Topsfield understood, was “the greatest and most important question that ever came before this town.” One town meeting after another discussed the question and came to a decision they explained with a direct and moving eloquence. “The time was, sir,” Malden said, “when we loved the king and the people of Great Britain with an affection truly filial,” but their “sentiments” had become so “altered” that “it is now the ardent wish of our soul that America may become a free and independent state.” The town of Natick not only condemned the oppressive measures Britain had adopted, but questioned whether “any State whatsoever, at the distance of three thousand miles,” could legislate for a set of colonies that were “so numerous, so knowing, and capable of legislating.” The people most qualified to govern America were, they discovered, themselves.

The towns made their greatest contributions, however, in designing their new republican system of government. In 1778, the Massachusetts legislature attempted to draft a new state constitution, as other legislatures had done, and submitted it to the towns for their approval. Instead they rejected it. The town of Concord explained that the hands that write a constitution could also alter it, so a constitution written by the legislature gave the people no protection against legislative violations of their rights. Gradually one town after another insisted upon a procedure by which a constitution would be drafted by a special convention elected for that purpose only, then submitted to the people for enactment. A constitution created and ratified in that way would be a direct act of the sovereign people, distinct and superior to the ordinary laws of the legislature. Massachusetts bowed to popular demand in drafting and ratifying its constitution of 1780 (the oldest written constitution still in effect anywhere in the world), which was explicitly ordained and established by “We… the People of Massachusetts.”

By 1787, even the Virginian James Madison had come to understand that ratification by the people was essential to enacting a constitution. The opening words of the federal Constitution--- “We the People of the United States… do ordain and establish this Constitution….”--- were clearly inspired by the Massachusetts constitution of 1780. In effect, the people of Massachusetts---not the educated elite, but farmers and other townsmen in places like Concord, Stoughton, Attleborough, and Pittsfield--- had figured out how, in an operational way, the authority of a constitution could be firmly grounded upon the sovereignty of the people, which distinguished constitutions from the ordinary laws passed by legislatures. The American two-tiered system of law---fundamental and ordinary--- is based on that distinction.

What did “We the People of Massachusetts” think of the federal Constitution proposed by the federal Convention in September 1787? Not much, to judge from their responses. To be sure, they recognized that it went far toward remedying the embarrassing weakness of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, but they objected to the Federalists’ insistence that it be accepted as written, with no changes. As experienced judges of Constitutions (they had been asked to evaluate the Articles of Confederation as well as the state constitutions proposed in 1778 and 1780), the towns of Massachusetts considered parts of the document confusing or downright dangerous. That was why the small town of Richmond in western Massachusetts, after holding no less than four informational meetings on the Constitution, decided “That the Town think not proper to adopt the Constitution as it now stands.” Fryeburg, Maine (still part of Massachusetts), did not, however, want the Constitution “entirely rejected” since “with proper amendment” it could be “well calculated to promote the welfare of the Union.” Several towns wanted several parts of the Constitution amended, including its provisions on representation, Congressmen’s terms of office, and the ratification of treaties. The town of Townshend also insisted that “a clear declaration of the Rights of the people, or of the Powers of the Several State governments” was of “unspeakable importance.”

The demand for amendments was, in fact, so pervasive that in February 1788 the Massachusetts ratifying convention coupled its ratification of the Constitution with a list of recommended amendments to be adopted after the Constitution went into effect. Four of the next five states that subsequently ratified the Constitution followed its example. Without the Massachusetts device of coupling ratification with recommended amendments, it is unlikely the Constitution would have been ratified. Moreover, the states’ demand for amendments led directly to the first federal Congress’s approval of twelve amendments to the Constitution in September 1789. Under Article V of the Constitution, amendments required the consent of three-quarters of the state legislatures. The ten amendments the requisite number of states approved by the end of 1791 later became what we call the “Bill of Rights.”

Massachusetts was only one state in the union. People elsewhere also played critical roles in the Revolution. But the story of Massachusetts is unusually well documented and the people of the state played a critical role in the design and establishment of American constitutional government. Above all, it demonstrates the democratic component of the Revolution. “We the People” did more than passively approve the work of their elected representatives. They put their minds to the problems of their time, came up with creative solutions, and helped shape the institutional structure of the United States.