“The Persistent Radicalism of 1776”: Colloquium with Prof. Ken Owen
We are all too familiar with one set of revolutionary thinkers who convened in 1776 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. However, at the center of University of Illinois-Springfield Prof. Ken Owen’s semester-concluding talk at the Kinder Institute, and also at the center of his recent Oxford University Press monograph, was a second, far less heralded set of Independence Hall radicals: the utopian visionaries who also gathered there in 1776 to draft the first Pennsylvania constitution.
The work of this latter group was short-lived, as their constitution was revised in 1790 to more closely resemble its federal counterpart. And perhaps for this reason, Prof. Owen posited, it has gotten little attention—and sometimes mild derision—from historians. He went on to argue, though, that this dismissal is short-sighted, unduly ignoring the degree to which the spirit of idealism driving the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution significantly influenced the philosophy of the United States’ framing document.
As Prof. Owen described, Pennsylvania’s first constitution was unquestionably the most radical experiment of its time, a distinction that was due at least in part to the state’s reluctance to declare independence from Great Britain. Specifically, colonial Pennsylvanians’ experience with official channels not governing in the name of the people had two related effects: the development of extralegal, voluntary organizations opposed to the state’s loyalist factions and sentiments and, from this, the intensification of conversations regarding the principled construction of a government that could serve communal interests. The 1776 constitution would materialize from these conversations, and its innovations distinguished it from contemporary state constitutions, particularly in terms of the extent to which they ensured that power would, in fact, be derived from the people. For example, its unicameral legislature, combined with the state’s uniquely expansive extension of the franchise, guaranteed that, as much as possible, elected officials would resemble the communities they represented. Even more radically, drafts of the state’s Declaration of Rights went so far as to attempt to impose legal obstacles to excessive property accumulation in order to introduce a tradition of economic equality.
In practice, and per the framers’ design, the innovations of the 1776 constitution would successfully encourage increased public participation in and contribution to the affairs of government. During the Revolutionary era, for example, the various committees that coalesced around the question of price-fixing, and the series of impassioned, often contentious statehouse yard speeches that addressed this topic, revealed citizens’ deep commitment to the state’s conception of the aims of government. It was not the most orderly vision of democracy, Prof. Owen noted, but it did mark both a public attempt to resolve political tension via inclusive debate and a governing apparatus that could be flexible in responding to the popular will. And this was about more than the singular issue of price-fixing, Prof. Owen argued; bound up in the speeches, pamphleteering, and debates were radical ideas about where political legitimacy is derived from and how claims to such legitimacy are articulated.
These kinds of ideas about legitimacy, Prof. Owen went on to show, were subsequently woven into the fabric of the state’s early political history. During the Whiskey Rebellion, not only did the ad-hoc representative structures in place in Western Pennsylvania help the region’s townships and counties negotiate with state and federal agents to prevent the escalation of violence; in defying the governor’s call to raise militias, and in raising liberty poles instead, citizens of these counties and townships likewise demonstrated the role of extra-governmental activists in shaping the course of state politics. Similarly, in a particularly heated 1799 gubernatorial race, candidates on both sides were deliberate and sophisticated in using committee structures and public meetings to tether the legitimacy of their campaigns to the voice of a consenting public. And while the state’s first constitution was at this point technically a relic, its utopian roots were nonetheless evident in these meetings, rebellions, and township representatives, all of which collectively represented how, in Pennsylvania, the actions of the public did often double as an expression of popular control over governmental affairs.
Kenneth Owen holds a B.A., M.St., and D.Phil from University of Oxford (Queen’s College), and he currently serves as Assistant Professor of History at University of Illinois-Springfield, where he arrived after teaching stints at Ohio University and University of Sussex. His research focuses on the history of political organization and mobilization during the American Revolution and Early Republic, with particular emphasis on extra-governmental forms of political activism. He is a contributor to The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, as well as a co-host of its affiliated podcast, and his book Political Community in Revolutionary Pennsylvania, 1774-1800, will be published by Oxford University Press in October 2018.