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Reform and Revolution

John Spiller shows that, in constitution-making in the USA (1787-89), France (1789-92) and Great Britain (1830-32), some men were considered more equal than others.

The USA, France and Britain, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, all witnessed the advance of democracy to some degree. Concern for the rights of the individual and a desire to challenge privilege appear to have played a part in bringing about political change in all three countries. This article asks how democratic these reforms really were. To what extent were they designed to empower the masses, to what extent to further the interests of the rich?

The USA 1787-89

During the summer of 1787, 55 delegates from 12 of the 13 states of the USA met at Philadelphia to write what would become a new constitution. The War of Independence against the ‘tyrannical’ British had been won in 1783, but over the next four years many Americans came to fear that their de facto government - a congress based on the Articles of Confederation - would be too weak in peacetime to bind people and states together.

Daniel Shays’ rebellion of veterans and farmers in 1786 over rural debt in Massachusetts confirmed the doubts of the elite, while practical concerns over defence, trade regulation, currency, the post-war economic depression and taxation, and land disputes between states (e.g. Pennsylvania and Connecticut), added further weight to the calls to revise the Articles of Confederation. At one point, the cries for stronger government even prompted the leader of Congress to look into the possibility of bringing over Prince Henry of Prussia to be the new King of the USA.

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