The essex result
Explain how the ideas of sovereignty outlined in ‘The Essex Result’ differ from those held by Blackstone and Adams, and discuss whether there was in the mid-eighteenth century an essentially British view of sovereignty and an essentially American view The Essex Result was a statement from Essex County in Massachusetts in which a committee of the electoral convention delegates of the new state set out their objections to the 1778 draft Massachusetts constitution.
Many of the objections that were published in the Result either ‘quoted from or paraphrased’ John Adams’ “Thoughts on government”, which had been published in pamphlet form in 1776 and which had considerable influence on the drafting of the constitutions in many of the states of the newly formed United States. Unalienable rights are ‘called the rights of conscience’ (Documents 1, p.28) which can neither be given nor taken away from an individual and for which the individual is answerable only to God.
The message in the passage quoted is that men may form themselves into a society and elect members of that society to form a ‘body politic’ in which they may freely vest certain powers on the basis of them acting for the benefit of the whole of that society, in terms of the policies that they pursue.
Should this not be the case then they are deemed to have acted in a manner which usurps their position and the members of the society can refuse obedience. This is, in effect, one of the arguments that certain of the colonists had employed when they sought independence from Britain and it is perhaps significant that it should be employed soon after the colonists gained the freedom to determine their own futures independent of Britain.
The broad based argument of this part The Essex Result is, arguably at least, centred on the law of contract and the principle of consideration being received in return for the other parties entering into the agreement, in this case the people of Massachusetts were stating that they were willing to allow their elected representatives to take certain decisions for the common good but only in so far as this is necessary for the benefit of the whole.
The ‘supreme power’ referred to in the extract is the collective power of the state which each member of that society has agreed to vest in a central seat of power and influence within that society and does so willingly. Blackstone’s views appear to be very much based on his apparent approval of the system which existed in Britain, and continues to exist today albeit in a bastardised form thanks to the corruption and self serving nature of the present so-called government.
This was centred on the King being an integral part of the political system and acting as a check on the excesses of politicians at a time when they were able to exert greater political influence than has been the case over the last 150 years or so. In both Britain and America the argument of no taxation without representation had arisen, although this had occurred in Britain some 150 years earlier during the reign of Charles I, and led to the temporary rejection of the monarchy in favour of a short-lived republic.
In bold terms The Essex Result advocates a republican form of government-Paine having suggested ‘that [government] was set up to preserve the liberties of the people’ (Common Sense, Book1 p13). This immediately contrasts with Blackstone’s earlier publication in which eh argued in favour of the prevailing system in Britain, with the ‘executive power (King)’ forming ‘a branch of the legislature’ and acting as a check and counterbalance on the potential excesses of parliament, with each branch able to act independently of the other for the greater good of the whole.
Each of the three central passages, the Result, Blackstone’s and Adams make reference to the dangers of an omnipotent parliament, as shown during the long parliament of the 1640’s, which had sought to create a self-perpetuating and regulating organ beyond the control of the nation at large. For this reason the Result argues that all freemen must have the opportunity to express their choice of representative, whilst both Blackstone and Adams are less sympathetic to such a course.
Adams sets out in his argument that the position of governor should be subject to annual election, in order to ensure that the post-holder acts in a manner which is in keeping with the benefit of the society he ‘governs’ through the state legislature and seeks only to veto laws that do not benefit the whole of that society, rather than feeling free to act on the basis of other influences, financial, political, personal or otherwise.
Each writer argues passionately that elections must be free from corruption-highly significant at a time in British history when rotten boroughs were still part of political life and MP’s were, in many cases, little more than the personal representatives of the local gentry and considered as their fiefdoms. Blackstone argues that sovereignty in Britain lies in the “freedom” of the enfranchised to choose their parliamentary representatives, whilst in marked contrast the Result argues that sovereignty lies with the people of Massachusetts and not with a central (federal) state.
In 1776 the English radical Thomas Paine argued that the colonies should declare themselves independent because ‘there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island’. During the nineteenth century the island in question would come to rule a large portion of the world. Its leaders would never again attempt to impose direct taxes on its colonies. (Was the American Revolution inevitable? , Francis D Cogliano, April 2001, bbc. co. uk/history)
For this reason if for no other, in my opinion it would be unwise to suggest that at the time of the split from Britain there was a stereotypical viewpoint either in Britain or America. What is significant, however, is that the colonists should seek to press for representation despite the fallacious argument that they were “represented” in Parliament simply because they were regarded as being Englishmen and therefore did not need to choose their representatives on the basis that the voting franchise was narrow and self-serving and thereby denied to so many men in Britain at the time.
However, one significant difference between the two lies in the fact that Americans sought to provide themselves with a written constitution, setting out the limits of each part of the body politic, executive, legislative and judiciary rather than rely on the unwritten constitution which continues to prevail in Britain into the 21st century.
Despite the fact that they set out with the aim of ensuring greater electoral accountability and accessibility though an extended franchise in many ways the new colonies failed to do so-black Americans were still treated an under-class well into the 20th century, for example. Clark noted that ‘as the colonies came to replicate British society’ (Englander, p. 29) so they began to grow increasingly independent, rather as a child throws off the restraints of its parent as it matures and begins to develop its own identity and makes its own way in the world.
Finally, it should be notes that America, after independence, continued to operate in many states in accordance with the original mandates by which they were set up and that they should carry forward many of the principles of English law and tradition is further indication that in many ways the two societies were similar is testament to the fact that Americans saw themselves as “English”