St. George Tuckerâ€™s View of the Constitution of the United States was the first extended, systematic commentary on the Constitution after it had been ratified by the people of the several states and amended by the Bill of Rights. Published in 1803 by a distinguished patriot and jurist, it was for much of the first half of the nineteenth century an important handbook for American law students, lawyers, judges, and statesmen. Though nearly forgotten since, Tuckerâ€™s work remains an important piece of constitutional history and a key document of Jeffersonian republicanism.
His strongest point of insistence is on the necessity for governmental power to be restrained within specifically delegated limits. Of course, it is this emphasis on the limitations, rather than the uses, of power that separated the Jeffersonian Republicans from the Federalists.
â€œBut, if the efficient force or administrative authority be, altogether, unlimited; as if it extends so far as to change the constitution, itself, the government, whatever be its form, is absolute and despotic. â€¦â€ By Tuckerâ€™s definition, the modern federal government, particularly in its judicial branch, qualifies as despotic. For Tucker, as for Calhoun, society, or the â€œbody politic,â€ takes precedence always over the government, or state. And for Tucker, unlike Lincoln, the people may resume their sovereignty at any time. The discussion is most of all, perhaps, an answer to those Federalists, like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who emphasized the evils of democracy and the need for it to be restrained. Tuckerâ€™s arguments about the failings of â€œaristocracyâ€ can be seen as a reply to the Federalist philosophers and also perhaps as a prophecy of later times. And Tuckerâ€™s long explanation of the characteristics and virtues of â€œconfederate governments,â€ such as the United States, though strange to modern ears, represents a predominant American understanding of his own time and long after.
The concise manner in which the commentator, has treated of the several forms of government, seems to require that the subject should be somewhat further considered: this has been attempted in the following pages; in the course of which the student will meet with considerable extracts from the writings of Mr. Locke, and other authors, who have copiously treated the subject; of which an epitome, only, is here offered for the use of those who may not possess the means of better information.
—From the Introduction, by Clyde Wilson
by St. George Tucker, excerpted from View of the Constitution of the United States
The fundamental regulation that determines the manner in which the public authority is to be executed, is what forms the constitution of the state. In this is seen the form by which the nation acts in quality of a body politic: how, and by whom the people ought to be governed, and what are the laws and duties of the governors.
From this definition of a constitution, given us by Vattel, we might reasonably be led to expect, that in every nation not reduced to the unconditional obedience of a despotic prince, there might be found some traces, at least, of the original compact of society entered into by the people at the first institution of the state. Yet it seems to be the opinion of the learned commentator that such an original compact had perhaps in no instance been expressed in that manner. But it is difficult not to imagine that such an original contract must have been actually entered into, and even formally expressed, in every state where government hath been established upon the principles of democracy. The various revolutions in the ancient states of Greece were often attended with the establishment of that species of government: The original constitution of Venice was a pure democracy; and the constitutions of several of the Swiss cantons partake also, in a great degree, of the same character. Can we conceive such regulations to have been established without being in some degree formally expressed? That the evidences of them have not been handed down to us is not, I apprehend, a sufficient reason for rejecting the opinion that they have had existence. If, therefore, the opinion of the learned commentator be, that there never was an instance in which government had been instituted by voluntary compact, and consent of the people of any state, it would seem that there is room to doubt the correctness of such an opinion. If, on the contrary, the opinion be referred to the primitive act of associating by individuals totally unconnected in society, before, I shall not controvert it any further.
For it is evident that the foundations of the state or body politic of any nation may have been laid for centuries before the existing constitution, or form of government of such state. In England, the foundation of the state (such as it has been from the time of the Heptarchy,) is agreed to have been laid by Alfred. And from that period till the union with Scotland, in the days of Queen Anne, the state remained unchanged: but the government during the same period was incessantly changing. Before the conquest it seems to have resembled a moderate, or limited monarchy. From that period it seems to have been, alternately, an absolute monarchy, a feudal aristocracy, an irregular oligarchy, and a government compounded, as at present, of three different estates, alternately, vieing with each other for the superiority, until it has finally settled in the crown. The foundations of the American States were laid in their respective colonial charters: with the revolution they ceased to be colonies, and became independent and sovereign republics, under a democratic form of government. When they became members of a confederacy, united for their mutual defense against a common enemy, they renounced the exercise of a part of their sovereign rights; and in adopting the present constitution of the United States, they have formed a closer, and more intimate union than before; yet still retaining the character of distinct, sovereign, independent states. In all these permutations of their constitutions or forms of government, the states or body politic of each of the members of the American confederacy, have remained the same, or nearly the same, as before the revolution.
Thus, as has been already mentioned, society may not only exist, though government be dissolved; but the state, or body politic, may remain the same, whilst the government is changeable. Whenever the form of government is fixed, the constitution of the state is said to be established; and this, as has been observed before, may be effected either by fraud, or by force; or by a temporary compromise between contending parties; or, by the general, and voluntary consent of the people. In the two first cases, the constitution is merely constructive, according to the will and pleasure of those who have usurped, and continue to exercise the supreme power. In the third case likewise, it is in general, merely constructive; each party contending for whatever power it hath not expressly yielded up to the other; or which it thinks it hath power to resume, or to secure to itself. Where the constitution is established by voluntary, and general consent, the people, and the public functionaries employed by them to administer the government, may be apprised of their several, and respective rights and duties; and the same voluntary, and general consent is equally necessary to every change in the constitution, as to its original establishment. The constitution may indeed provide a mode within itself for its amendment; but this very provision is founded in the previous consent of the people, that such a mode shall supercede the necessity of an immediate presumption of, the sovereign power, into their own hands, for the purpose of amending the constitution; but if the government has any agency in proposing, or establishing amendments, whenever that becomes corrupt, the people will probably find the necessity of a resumption of the sovereignty, in order to correct the abuses, and vices of the government.
And herein, I apprehend, consists the only distinction between limited and unlimited governments. If the constitution be founded upon the previous act of the people, the government is limited. If it have any other foundation, it is merely constructive, and the government arrogates to itself the sole right of making such a construction of it, as may suit with its own views, designs, and interests: and when this right can be successfully exercised, the government becomes absolute and despotic. In like manner, if in a limited government the public functionaries exceed the limits which the constitution prescribes to their powers, every such act is an act of usurpation in the government, and, as such, treason against the sovereignty of the people, which is thus endeavored to be subverted, and transferred to the usurpers.
Inseparably connected with this distinction between limited and unlimited governments, is the responsibility of the public functionaries, and the want of such responsibility. Every delegated authority implies a trust; responsibility follows as the shadow does its substance. But where there is no responsibility, authority is no longer a trust, but an act of usurpation. And every act of usurpation is either an act of treason, or an act of warfare.
Legitimate government, then, can be established only by the voluntary consent of the society, who by mutual compact with each other grant certain specified powers, to such agents as they may from time to time choose to administer the government thus established, and their agents are responsible to the society for the manner in which they may discharge the trust delegated to them. The instrument by which the government is thus established, and the powers, or more properly the duties, of the public functionaries and agents, are defined and limited, is the visible constitution of the state. For it has been well observed by the author of the Rights of Man, â€œthat a constitution is not a thing in name only, but in fact. It has not an ideal, but a real existence; and whenever it cannot be produced in a visible form there is none. A constitution is a thing antecedent to a government, and a government, is only the creature of a constitution. It is not the act of the government but of the people constituting the government. It is the body of elements to which you can refer, and quote article by article; and which contains the principles on which the government shall be established, the manner in which it shall be organized; the powers it shall have; the mode of elections; the duration of the legislative body, &c.â€ Hence every attempt in any government to change the constitution (otherwise than in that mode which the constitution may prescribe) is in fact a subversion of the foundations of its own authority.
The acquiescence of the people of a state under any usurped authority for any length of time, can never deprive them of the right of resuming the sovereign power into their own hands, whenever they think fit, or are able to do so, since that right is perfectly unalienable. Nor can it be supposed with any shadow of reason, that in a government established by the authority of the people, it could ever be their intention to deprive themselves of the means of correcting any defects which experience may point out or of applying a remedy to abuses which unfaithful agents may practice to their injury. The sovereign power therefore always resides ultimately, and in contemplation, in the people, whatever be the form of the government: yet the practical exercise of the sovereignty is almost universally usurped by those who administer the government, whatever may have been its original foundation.
It is the proper object of a written constitution not only to restrain the several branches of the government, viz. the legislative, executive, and judiciary departments, within their proper limits, respectively, but to prohibit the branches, united, from any attempt to invade that portion of the sovereign power which the people have not delegated to their public functionaries and agents, but have reserved, unalienably, to themselves.
A written constitution has moreover the peculiar advantage of serving as a beacon to apprise the people when their rights and liberties are invaded, or in danger.
It has been before remarked, that the constitutions of the several United States of America, rest upon the ground of general consent, and compact, between the individuals of each state respectively. To this it may be added, that in every state in the union (Connecticut and Rhode Island excepted) their constitutions have been formally expressed in a visible form, or writing, and have been established by the suffrages of the people, in that form, since the revolution.
The federal government of the United States rests likewise upon a similar foundation; the free consent and suffrages of the people of the several states, separately, and independently taken, and expressed.
It is therefore a fundamental principle in all the American States, which cannot be impugned, or shaken; that their governments have been instituted by the common consent, and for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, in whom all power is vested, and from whom it is derived: that their magistrates, are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them; and that when any government shall be found inadequate, or contrary, to the purposes of its institution, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.
Born in St. George, Bermuda, Tucker traveled to Virginia to study law at the College of William and Mary in 1772, where he was a member of the F.H.C. Society, and was approved for the bar on April 4, 1774. He then settled permanently in Williamsburg and began practice in the county courts. He served in the Virginia militia and cavalry in the American Revolutionary War. During the revolution, he was a colonel in the militia and later commanded the Chesterfield Militia, and saw action at the Battle of Guilford Court House and the Siege of Yorktown. In 1796, Tucker wrote a controversial pamphlet addressed to the General Assembly of Virginia which stated that the abolition of slavery was of “great importance for the moral character of the citizens of Virginia.” Read Tucker’s full bio at History.org