The Rights of Man HTML version
IV. Of Constitutions
That men mean distinct and separate things when they speak of constitutions and of
governments, is evident; or why are those terms distinctly and separately used? A
constitution is not the act of a government, but of a people constituting a government; and
government without a constitution, is power without a right.
All power exercised over a nation, must have some beginning. It must either be delegated
or assumed. There are no other sources. All delegated power is trust, and all assumed
power is usurpation. Time does not alter the nature and quality of either.
In viewing this subject, the case and circumstances of America present themselves as in
the beginning of a world; and our enquiry into the origin of government is shortened, by
referring to the facts that have arisen in our own day. We have no occasion to roam for
information into the obscure field of antiquity, nor hazard ourselves upon conjecture. We
are brought at once to the point of seeing government begin, as if we had lived in the
beginning of time. The real volume, not of history, but of facts, is directly before us,
unmutilated by contrivance, or the errors of tradition.
I will here concisely state the commencement of the American constitutions; by which
the difference between constitutions and governments will sufficiently appear.
It may not appear improper to remind the reader that the United States of America consist
of thirteen separate states, each of which established a government for itself, after the
declaration of independence, done the 4th of July, 1776. Each state acted independently
of the rest, in forming its governments; but the same general principle pervades the
whole. When the several state governments were formed, they proceeded to form the
federal government, that acts over the whole in all matters which concern the interest of
the whole, or which relate to the intercourse of the several states with each other, or with
foreign nations. I will begin with giving an instance from one of the state governments
(that of Pennsylvania) and then proceed to the federal government.
The state of Pennsylvania, though nearly of the same extent of territory as England, was
then divided into only twelve counties. Each of those counties had elected a committee at
the commencement of the dispute with the English government; and as the city of
Philadelphia, which also had its committee, was the most central for intelligence, it
became the center of communication to the several country committees. When it became
necessary to proceed to the formation of a government, the committee of Philadelphia
proposed a conference of all the committees, to be held in that city, and which met the
latter end of July, 1776.
Though these committees had been duly elected by the people, they were not elected
expressly for the purpose, nor invested with the authority of forming a constitution; and
as they could not, consistently with the American idea of rights, assume such a power,
they could only confer upon the matter, and put it into a train of operation. The conferees,
therefore, did no more than state the case, and recommend to the several counties to elect