“American Constitutionalism Heard Round the World, 1776-1989: A Global Perspective”: A Review

About the Book

Book jacket

 Review by Senator Richard Moore

“American constitutionalism represents this country’s greatest gift to human freedom, yet its story remains largely untold. For over two hundred years, its ideals, ideas, and institutions influenced different peoples in different lands at different times. American constitutionalism and the revolutionary republican documents on which it is based affected countless countries by helping them develop their own constitutional democracies.

This is the introduction to what will, I believe, become one of the definitive books on our American influence of the democratic movement in world history.

It is a monumental study of the influence of American democracy. This well-researched magnum opus defines American constitutionalism in much broader fashion than just the document itself, but includes a collection of six texts written between 1776 and 1791. In addition to the U.S. Constitution, they are: the Declaration of Independence; the first state constitutions—including my own Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, still our guiding light; the Articles of Confederation; “The Federalist Papers”; and the Bill of Rights.

As the author notes, “all reflect the revolutionary republican constitutionalism of the founding era and articulate the principles of American constitutionalism …the greatest creative period of constitutional thought in all of American history.”

Historian George Athan Billias, who was my faculty advisor when I was a student many years ago at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., traces the spread of American constitutionalism beginning with the American Revolution and the “shot heard round the world” and ending with the conclusion of the Cold War in 1989. Billias and I have kept in touch over the years since my graduation from Clark, and he is a widely respected author and teacher of American history.

Of special interest to state legislators and students of the state legislative institution, are the author’s attention to the importance of the state constitutions of Connecticut (1818), Delaware (1776), Maryland (1776), Massachusetts (1780), New Hampshire (1783), New Jersey (1776), New York (1777), Pennsylvania (1776), South Carolina (1776), Vermont (1777), and Virginia, including the Declaration of Rights (1776). Billias also notes the role played by American constitutionalism in the establishment of other states, including our newest states of Alaska and Hawaii as well as of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The author details the role these collective works of state and national constitutions that were the models, not only for the United States, but for emerging democracies in Latin America, Europe and Asia.

In addition, this very readable book explains why some efforts at constitutional democracy failed while other succeeded in fully, or at least partially, meeting the vision of those who used them as models. Billias notes other countries were less likely to simply copy and try to impose the American model, but employed the democratic concepts and values of the American and state constitutions modified by the history and tradition of the people who sought guidance in developing their own versions of democracy.

Senator Richard Moore of Massachusetts is the 2010-2011 president of NCSL.