Why would an Australian lawyer and historian write a book explaining how the English and American Revolutions produced the American Constitution? The short answer is to do something no other current author has done; to explain what Geoffrey Robertson QC has described as the unexplained connection between the early English Republicans of the seventeenth century and their common law concepts and the foundation of the US Constitution.
In this book, James D.R. Philips pulls together the threads and themes of two great revolutions together to reveal the close connections between the democratic sentiments, instincts and demands of the Englishmen of the mid- to late-seventeenth century and their American cousins in the late-eighteenth century.
This book is not a heavy tome of history that recounts the gathering of armies, great battles and the trickery and treason that is emblematic of the period. The book instead has a simple objective. It places English political history from the Magna Carta to the seventeenth century indelibly into the foundations of American democracy. That part is not so new, but it is achieved through a new and important lens. Philips reveals how the radical constitutional events of seventeenth-century England, while not precisely symmetrical to, nonetheless correspond closely with events that transpired in America more than a century later. Philips illustrates, perhaps more than some Americans might like, that the English gave the Americans most of their big ideas for their written Constitution. Yet Philips celebrates, indeed revels in, the innovative features and genius of the written American Constitution – warts and all.
It may be gleaned that Philips is not a devotee of the ‘great man’ theory of history. The great men – the many monarchs, political theorists, Cromwell, Walpole, Franklin, Jefferson, Pitt (the elder), Washington and Madison – make brief appearances in the book. Relegated to cameo roles, they are actors in a time where the unstoppable structural forces such as the printing press, the Reformation and vigorous economic expansion wreaked havoc with the stagnant and oppressive monarchical institutions of the Middle Ages. The result was the birth of democratic capitalism, launched first in the world’s most successful constitutional monarchy and later in the world’s first and most successful republic built on the sovereignty of the people.
The first half of the book is principally concerned with the gradual, arduous and always acrimonious surrendering of the English monarch’s absolute power to imprison, take or tax arbitrarily. Philips explores how the handing over of power to institutions paved the way for a new English society built on representative and responsible government. It reminds us that it was dangerous and often bloody upheaval which ultimately produced a society underpinned by liberty instead of tyranny.
In the second half of the book Philips explains how fervently the early Americans first held to their inheritance of English liberty, but that English amnesia and oppression quickly paved the way for rebellion. The constraints of the colonial charters and the requirement for economic independence led to bold innovations in the early failed confederacy. However the institutional experimentation and failures that occurred in that period provided the necessary platform for a national and federal Constitution which separated and constrained executive, parliamentary and judicial power like no other.
While the book is not remotely lawyerly, it is may be that it is a lawyer’s eye which sets it apart. The book benefits not only for its constitutional focus but the author’s admiration for original text. For example, of the Declaration of Independence Philips says: ‘To read it is to be in awe; at the audacity of its purpose; at the idealism of its vision; and at the beauty of its prose’. In a significant contribution, Philips makes the observation that the charges laid by the Americans against George III in the 1776 Declaration mirrored the treason charges laid against Charles I at the founding of the English republic in 1649. It is evidence that the Americans were not only acquainted with the constitutional history of England, but that they employed English political rhetoric and constitutional devices to forge their own.
In parts of the book Philips almost assumes the role of a teacher by charting forward to where he is going, before rounding back to explain how events unfolded. This approach underlies that Two Revolutions and the Constitution is emphatically geared towards helping the reader really come to grips with not only what happened, but also how the happenings underpin the constitutional frameworks for our two lodestar democracies.
A book about the birth of democracy in England and the United States is a book about us. Paul Keating once lamented the ‘weasel words in [Australia’s] country’s horse-and-buggy utilitarian Constitution’. He was wrong, and a riposte must wait for another day. However it is true that in the days of horses and buggies our founders took what they considered was best and necessary from Westminster and Washington to create our ‘Washminster’ Constitution. So for Australian readers this book is a gem, because a comparison of the text and structure of the American and Australian Constitutions reveals more similarities than differences. That is not surprising given that America’s Constitution and political culture were very much in our founders’ minds when deciding how to frame our Constitution. Yet to this day the influence of Washington on our ‘Washminster’ is – for political and cultural reasons – hugely underplayed. A big opening for Philips’s next instalment right there.
More than two centuries after the making of the American Constitution, this book offers new insights into what drove the American framers to create the written Constitution that they did. At a time where rapid and seemingly unstoppable cultural changes in the West are creating new and unprecedented challenges to our institutions and the norms that hold them together, this book helps us to better understand our past, and to remind us of the improbable circumstances that produced our liberal institutions. A book like this helps us to keep what is precious in an uncertain future.
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Louise Clegg is a barrister.
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