In 1776 the Americans had British accents

Also read the article "Parliaments and the Public Sphere" in EHNE.


In the German media in particular, England is often referred to as the "oldest democracy in the world", a misleading term, since Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) had already made a famous statement that the English only believed they were free which is actually the case only for the brief moment of the election of the members of parliament, while they are slaves for the duration of parliament. In a lesser-known footnote of the same work, however, he at least conceded that the English were "plus près de la liberté que tous les autres".1 Nevertheless, the introduction of universal (male) suffrage in France took place much earlier, namely in 1793 and permanently from 1848, than in England (1918), and while women in New Jersey as early as 1776 (to 1807) and in an increasing number of territories and States of the world were able to vote in the course of the 19th century, they did not receive full voting rights in England until 1928. Regardless of this lagging English development, the reference to the long tradition of a democratic element in the English constitution was by no means entirely out of thin air but since the 16th century the idea developed in England that the advantage of the English constitution is based on the fact that it is a mixed Aristotelian constitution in which monarchy (king), aristocracy (upper house, House of Lords) and democracy (lower house, House of Commons) harmoniously combined what their existence gives and what protects them from political degeneration.2 What was still a thoroughly political statement in the 17th century, which was marked by constitutional conflicts, solidified into dogma in the 18th century, whereupon at the end of the century John Adams (1735–1826) [] noted that the American constitutions are also mixed constitutions, although the three elements in America (President, Senate and House of Representatives) are naturally not the expression of a social hierarchy - here, rather, all people are equal - but in the offices (offices) established that they exercised.3

It therefore seems appropriate to start looking more closely at the situation on both sides of the Atlantic in the 18th century, when European Anglophilia reached its peak and the English constitution became the model for enlightened Europe. Parallel to this ideal transfer of English constitutional ideas to Europe, the dispute on both sides of the Atlantic about the extent of the practical transfer of English constitutional and legal principles to North America became increasingly heated. The eighteenth century therefore offers the opportunity to ask why this transatlantic transfer ultimately failed, despite the same basic convictions, so that the American Revolution also marked the end of the soaring European Anglophilia.

As a consequence of the American development, two different constitutional models faced each other at the beginning of the 19th century, which in turn became the starting point for two democratic models that developed completely differently over the course of the century. Only since the beginning of the 20th century, when, in view of the rise of the United States to a world power and the loss of the economic and finally the politico-military weight of Great Britain in the world, both countries found each other again politically in the face of common opponents and consciousness prevailed, the fact that their different constitutional and democratic models were based on the same values ​​and common roots, the dualism of the 19th century turned into a common ground with simultaneous acceptance of the differences in the respective characteristics of these models. In Europe, on the other hand, the breaks and developments since the end of the 18th century had long-term wiped out political Anglophilia. Whereas in the first half of the 19th century the moderate to conservative liberals had retained their admiration for the English constitution, it was the smaller group of more progressive liberals who saw the English parliamentary monarchy as a desirable political ideal by the middle of the century at the latest Their more conservative contemporaries, including remaining supporters of Edmund Burke (1729–1797), were disturbed by the democratization of the country and parts of the local democrats now saw the American constitution as an example worth emulating.4

the initial situation

The English constitutional model in the 18th century

What happened in Europe in the 18th century, especially thanks to the production by Charles de Montesquieu (1689–1755) [] established the model of a happy and liberal constitution, the English reality was only imperfectly and partly distorted. After all, Montesquieu's more defining stay in England than his Wit des lois with the famous chapter on the English constitution (Book XI, Chap. 6) appeared in 1748,5 almost twenty years ago (1729–1731), in which the constitution had further developed.

Montesquieu's conception of a constitution, the central components of which, the king and parliament, were in a balance of power politics, had little in common with the English constitutional reality in the years around 1770. thanks to the Glorious Revolution (1688/89) the position of parliament vis-à-vis the king had been significantly strengthened Bill of Rights (1689) but essential rights that James II (1633–1701) had claimed for himself, taken from the king and given or reaffirmed in the decision-making power of parliament, including the suspension and dispensation of laws, the establishment of ecclesiastical and other extraordinary courts of justice, the collection of taxes and duties, the raising and maintenance of standing armies in peacetime, and more. For the first time in a row, the king had to swear in the coronation oath to rule the country in accordance with parliamentary laws and applicable law. In addition, parliament had switched to granting the king the monies for his courtship and normal official business no longer for life, but only for a few years, which ensured parliament a considerable influence on his administration and the policies he pursued.6 1701 was with the Act of Settlement finally the independence of the judiciary was established and the judges were thus deprived of royal influence. At the same time, Parliament decided on its own authority that after the death of Queen Anne (1665–1714) [] the crown should pass to the House of Hanover. This brought a foreign dynasty into a politically deeply divided country, which for its own political survival was completely dependent on the Whigs dominated parliament, which had just extended its own term of office from three years to a maximum of seven years.

During the reign of the first two Hanoverians (Georg I. [] and George II.[]) ruled from 1714 to 1760, who were confronted with a country whose political culture and language posed a significant challenge to them de facto not like before Glorious Revolution the king with his privy councilor (Privy Council), but a committee formed by a majority in parliament, the cabinet, under the formal direction of a prime minister, whose decisions, like parliamentary laws, had to be approved by the king. Theoretically, he could have rejected the latter, but in practice this has never happened since 1707 until today.7 The result, as it turned out around 1770, was not the balance of separate powers that Montesquieu and the Anglophiles in Europe hailed, but an English constitution headed by a king whose political scope for action had become increasingly narrow, who was still (until Beginning of the 1820s) appoint a Prime Minister of his confidence, but could not last long against the continuing opposition of Parliament, while in return the Parliament had achieved a position of power that was practically unlimited. Neither the king nor the courts had legal recourse against a valid parliamentary law. Parliament alone did not need to observe it and could replace it with a new law at any time.8

It was this omnipotence of the English parliament - later the expression of parliamentary sovereignty that is still valid in theory today - that liberal Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries did not want to admit.9 Jean Louis de Lolme (1740–1806) drew a more Montesquieusch image of it in his classic about the English constitution, first published in 1771,10 while the settlers on the other side of the Atlantic fought with increasing vehemence against this English constitutional model, which was taking shape.

The English colonies in North America

The finally 13 English colonies on the American northeast coast between Canada and Florida were founded between 1607 and 1732: not through direct state intervention as in the case of the Spanish colonies further south - only the DutchNieuw Nederland (essentially corresponding to parts of what is now New York, New Jersey and Delaware) fell to England in 1664 as a result of a war between the two countries - but through private companies with economic, religious or philanthropic goals. These went with corresponding royal letters of protection (charters) to the colonization of the areas assigned to them, while Rhode Island and Connecticut were created by splitting off from Massachusetts and their independence in London in 1662/1663 charters had confirmed.

All of these colonies had their own relations with the motherland, and these were highly heterogeneous. They administered themselves largely true to the English model through a governor, a council standing by his side and mostly appointed by him (council) as well as an elected assembly (assembly), which usually set the governor's salary annually. In view of constant immigration, especially from the British Isles and the German-speaking countries, as well as the growing importation of black slaves from Africa, the importance of these colonies for the British economy increased steadily. Unsurprisingly, phases of greater political neglect of these colonies alternated with efforts to bind them more closely to the mother country and to standardize their political and legal position. In one case or another, there have been suspensions or cancellations of charters, but a tightly run colonial empire never came out of it, even if the laws passed in the colonies could be cashed in by the government in London.

At the end (1776) there were eight so-called royal colonies in which the king installed the governor, three owner colonies (Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland) owned by the Penn and Calvert (Baltimore) families, who determined who the governor was, and the both named Rhode Island and Connecticut, who chose their own governor.11

The transatlantic transfer process

The reasons for the failure of the British efforts to get the North American colonies under political control were varied. So had the Pilgrim Fathers, apostates of the English state church from exile in Holland, who together with a larger group of emigrants from London on the Mayflower had crossed the Atlantic on November 11, 1620, before they went ashore at Cape Cod in what is now Massachusetts, agreed to jointly form a "civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation" in future

[to] enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.12

This Mayflower Compact is not the much-vaunted founding document of American democracy, but the earliest and most striking expression on this side of the Atlantic of organizing oneself in a community according to rules and laws that are self-imposed and binding on everyone. This was to be done on the basis of the persistently repeated conviction until 1776 that they were free-born Englishmen who had taken their English "birthright" with them to the New World. According to their conviction, this included the right to govern themselves and to obey only such laws and to accept taxes that they had imposed on themselves or through their freely chosen representatives. They saw the English constitution as founded on these basic principles, to which they continued to feel bound.

Indeed, as we have seen, the English constitution had changed dramatically over time. Already after the Glorious Revolutionwhich had caused considerable turbulence in some North American colonies,13 the English government had insisted that their results, the so-called revolution settlement, would not apply to the colonies.14 At no point was the parliamentary majority prepared to accept that the colonies - similar to the Channel Islands - were only subordinate to the king and that parliament therefore had no legislative power over them.15 In general, the more the settlers in the colonies insisted on their traditional rights, the more London refused to clarify the definitive legal status of the colonies and their inhabitants. The political leaders in the colonies insisted all the more on the English constitution and its fundamental principles, as they understood them, which should apply to them undiminished and regardless of the political aberrations in London.16

British attempts to regulate trade within the empire by means of laws, as had happened again and again since the 17th century, were grudgingly accepted and sometimes not without protests if they could not be circumvented by smuggling. But when Parliament in 1765 with the Stamp Act switched to internal taxation, a red line had been crossed from their point of view, and after just a few months the British government, faced with massive opposition, was forced to withdraw the law. But that which was also enacted Declaratory Act (1766) poured fuel on the fire, declaring it bluntly that Parliament "had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever ".17

It was the thundering affirmation of the omnipotence of the English parliament which the leaders of the American resistance refused to acknowledge to the end, and to which they opposed their interpretation of the English constitution, backed up with arguments of natural law, which in England only interested a sympathetic liberal minority. While the government had persistently refused to transfer the main features of its constitution to America, they insisted that this transfer had actually taken place through their own migration,18 without paying due attention to the further development of this constitution that has taken place in the mother country in the meantime, relying on its liberal advocates there. Instead, these developments were condemned as degenerative phenomena falsifying the real essence of the constitution.19

The American constitutional model

This is the only way to explain why the American constitutional model that emerged from this crisis presents itself so differently, even though its authors never explicitly rejected the English constitution.20 This American model manifests itself in the constitutions given by the former colonies that have become independent from 1776, including the Federal Constitution of 1787.21 A key document is the Virginia Declaration of Rights dated June 12, 1776. It contained those ten basic principles which, according to the conviction of the spokesmen of the American resistance to the politics of London, were at least ideally based on the English constitution as they understood it and only had to be expressed more clearly in order to avoid a political degeneration comparable to England . Since then, these principles have represented the ten principles of modern constitutionalism worldwide: popular sovereignty, universal principles, human rights, representative government, separation of powers, limited government power, judicial independence, accountability, constitution as supreme law, amendment of the constitution with the participation of the people.22 With the exception of popular sovereignty, they could all be identified as constitutive features of the English constitution from William Blackstone (1723–1780), its authoritative interpreter.23

These principles were increasingly incorporated into the American constitutions, with the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 - the oldest written constitution in the world to date - and the Federal Constitution of 1787 being milestones in this development, while the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was American Model and represented a radical democratic counter-draft, which was then to serve as a godparent for the Jacobin Constitution of 1793 during the French Revolution.24 This American constitutional model was based on a written constitution that in 1776 still consisted of two separate parts, the Declaration of Rights, which included the principles on which the Constitution was based, and the plan or Frame of Governmentwho regulated the distribution of power and the organization and tasks of the various parts. Both together made up the constitution. As a result, both quickly grew together into a jointly adopted document, whereby from 1790, with the second constitution of Pennsylvania, the declaration of rights could move to the end of the constitution, giving up its original intention. Nevertheless, the essence of the American model, which the 1776 order had so clearly expressed, remained at the core: the task of a constitution was to secure the rights and freedoms of the citizens and to organize the state power in such a way that it did not could affect. Thus, the accents, in particular through popular sovereignty, human rights declaration, strict separation of powers with the judiciary, appeared for the first time as an independent third power, the constitution as the supreme law, but also the new federal order of the Union, set more consistently than in the English constitutional model, and so many in Europe saw it since the American Revolution, the American model as an expression of a liberal basic order as superior to the English.

The dualism of the 19th century

USA: Democracy as an extension of individual rights

It had not been the goal of the American constitutional model to bring democracy to the United States, and the vast majority of the Constitutional Fathers would indignantly have rejected such an assertion as an allegation.25 With all the participation of the people, the political culture of the country in the 18th century had a thoroughly elitist basic structure. But that was to change quickly under the impact of the French Revolution and its repercussions on the United States. In 1800 Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) won the presidential election against John Adams under the slogan of a return to the "Spirit of 1776".

Democracy took on a new sound - some spoke of it Jeffersonian democracy. The general climate changed, and in some states the right to vote was expanded and previous property qualifications fell or were at least diminished. After the war of 1812, these restrictions disappeared almost entirely in the new states of the West. But there were also counter-movements. In 1807, New Jersey women lost their right to vote for more than a century, and free blacks were denied the right to vote in a growing number of states.26 In the old states of the south, in which - unlike in New England - political representation is based county-Base instead of the Township occurred, the old elite usually prevented any change in political representation until the civil war in order to preserve the preponderance of the coastal regions over the hinterland, although the majority of the population had long lived there. In the case of Virginia, with secession, this led to the breakup of the state, its western one Counties defended themselves against the continued tutelage of the East Coast elite and in 1863 West Virginia was accepted into the Union as a separate state.

But the country rushing forward had changed fundamentally in the meantime. In 1828, Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) was elected for the first time a president who did not come from the east coast elite of Virginia or Massachusetts, and who, like no other American president, is equated with the breakthrough of democracy in the country, its effects on the political culture of a country Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) [] astutely analyzed and epoch-making book De la Democratie en America (Ger. About Democracy in America; two volumes 1835/1840)