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Wood: The creation of the American republic

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Wood. 1969. The creation of the American republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Main Idea: Wood gives a historical account of the development of key ideas/concepts and their effect on government during the American Revolution and beyond. Springing from a concept of single sovereignty used to justify independence from colonial rule, ideas of sovereignty were affected by democratic despotism and problems of representation. This led to the development of "popular sovereignty" whereby the separation of powers and judicial review became institutionalized and the foundations for a national government were laid.

The Sovereignty of the People

Development of the idea of sovereignty

  1. American Revolution and the concept of "single" sovereignty: in spite of earlier debate on divided sovereignty, early thinkers during/before the revolution settled on the concept of single sovereignty for a state, using it to justify independence
  2. Revolutionary War to 1780s: debate between state sovereignty and centralization. Proponents argued that because there could be only one sovereignty (single sovereignty) and it lay in the state, centralization was impossible. But result was will of people, based on ideas of civil liberty, to be better represented (vs current underrepresentation in state legislature) that led to centralization and redefinition of concept of sovereignty.
  3. Concept of "sovereignty of people" in 1780s: discontent with representatives, especially state legislatures, led to the rise of the idea of direct legislative power by people over an entire nation. This leads to a change in the concept of representation  that the legislative bodies (esp Senate) are bound by the will/instruction of the people and are no longer independent agents. Because of this, elections become the only criterion of representation.

Vices of the System

Post-revolutionary problems leading to an overall change in government

  1. Vices in the 1780s: Factionalism (parties that "advance their own interest"), materialism/capitalism, lack of equality, democratic despotism. Led to worries that America was unfit to be a republic
    • Democratic despotism: Experience with the tyranny of law/majority (democratic despotism) brought about the idea that legislature is valid only insofar that it does not harm the property/interests of citizens. This in turn led to revision of legislature-dominated governments.
    • Institutional change advocated in place of education/religion as remedy for vices

Republican Remedies

Changes in thinking in the 1780s that led to the present form of government

  1. Debate on 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution and the Republicans: Republicans advocated separation of powers, bicameralism (to check legislature), and an independently elected governor/executive. The concepts of representation and popular sovereignty underwent change -- due to discrepancy between the electorate and legislators, a directly elected executive was the only true representative and method of popular rule. Also political liberty, checks on despotism, equal govt
  2. Revision of separation of powers: New argument that the concentration of power in legislature equals tyranny  so separation of powers with an elected executive is the most democratic system.
  3. Judicial review: Brought about to check legislature. Idea behind it is change in concept of representation (legislators are agents of the electorate rather than the embodiment of popular will) and the judiciary is used to check their power in order to uphold popular sovereignty. Judicial review highlights the constitution as an important basis of government.
    • National government is brought about by changing concepts in the face of problems in state governments.

Research on similar subjects


Wood, Gordon (author)American PoliticsSovereigntyJudicial ReviewInstitutions

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