Edmund S. Morgan’s “The Birth of the Republic”
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Edmund S. Morgan’s “The Birth of the Republic” is an excellent overview of the major points of the history of America throughout the revolutionary period.
To briefly summarize the book; Morgan first begins by examining the relationship between the American colonies and the English Parliament. He focuses mainly on the unfair taxation that was forced upon the colonies by the English and other infringements of liberties committed by Parliament. The colonies “admitted Parliament’s right to use duties, from which an incidental revenue might arise… but denied the right to levy duties for the purpose of revenue”(36). Morgan develops on the increasingly unpleasant relations between the two (backing up his claims, such as the one quoted above, with reference to some influential writers from that time such as Dulany and Dickinson), and ties it directly with the declaration of independence.
Morgan refrains from discussing military issues in depth and sticks to mainly the political aspects of the revolution and how ideas and principles developed. He only devotes a few pages to the war, but that is it.
Morgan describes the problems (along with the achievements and benefits) of the Articles of Confederation very effectively. He discusses how the problems were recognized and how the framers set out to discuss and revise the articles, eventually leading up to the creation of a completely new federal Constitution which formed the basis of a new national government.
Along the way, Morgan brings up important issues during those times such as slavery and property quite frequently, and manages to adequately rationalize the motives of the framers relative to the former and the latter.
Morgan ends his telling of the American tale with the ratification of the Constitution and leaves the reader with some words that provoke thought.
Morgan’s thesis throughout the book is clear: that the Framers operated on principle as they were building the framework of the new nation, and that their determination (and that of the colonists, of course) turned into the pursuit of the equality of all men.
From the start, as Morgan discusses the problems between the English Parliament and the American colonies, he begins to work towards proving his thesis with his constant barrage of the underlying meanings with every legislative transaction discussed. He gives the reader a wonderful sense of what the ideas and motives were from both sides. This seems to be the part of his book that is most intensely argued and described; hence it is the part of the book which most strongly supports his thesis. He conditions the reader to begin to understand that the eventual creation of the government of America was the direct cause of the people’s wanting of liberty, and that a sort of idealistic attitude was behind that want.
The word “principle” is the key word of Morgan’s thesis. As previously mentioned, the foundation of the government that America wanted, before even a single word was written towards achieving it on any kind of official document, was the idea of “how things should be”. Parliament had the “belief that the Americans were aiming at total independence from the mother country… and that Parliament must act firmly now or lose the colonies forever. This conviction motivated them in the coming years, and by acting upon it they eventually made it come true”(41). From this quote it is evident that as Parliament kept passing legislation which limited the liberties of the Americans, it ironically limited its own power over the colonies. And Parliament acting upon its foolish belief that they must only act stricter with the colonies is what finally pushed the colonists over the edge into a waterfall of new ideas which sprouted American unity and nationalism: at this point Parliament had lost the colonies for good and the principles upon which their own future American government will lie on had begun to develop.
“When the time came to cut loose from the mother country and set up government for themselves, they were ready to build upon a common core of political beliefs”(102).
The Framers of the Constitution were given the job of incorporating this common core of principles into the government, and ensuring their safety for the sake of the American people. After independence was achieved, some speculated that society would have to be rebuilt from the ground up. However, the framers realized this was untrue: “The important thing was not to reform society but to keep government subordinate to it”(88). What followed was a seemingly endless amount of debate to reach compromises on a document that would fulfill the void left after independence. The ratification of the Articles of Confederation was the result. It is important to note that the Articles of Confederation although in the long-run was a government failure, had actually achieved a great deal of things. It was the rough-draft which gave America a test run, and by the end of the test the framers knew what had to be done.
It is true that many of the people who had a part in the actual creation of the Constitution acted in self-interest, but Morgan does a good job of rationalizing this fact to support his thesis. “…self-interest had once again aligned with principle to produce a beneficial result for the American people”(116). Although some of the Framers had in mind property-gains for themselves and benefits for the rich, the underlying logic of the Constitution proved to overcome these small kinks and in time make a huge leap towards true equality of all men.
In the last two paragraphs of the conclusion of Morgan’s book, he briefly summarizes all of that which was accomplished and what is still being accomplished today, and leaves the audience with a powerful statement that government, “as long as any man remains less free than another, cannot honorably cease”(156).