Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger


Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner


Contracts are the promises that are made individually or collectively that are presumed to be legally enforceable. They are normally the product of negotiation and deliberation among parties regarding the mutual obligations that they accept voluntarily.[1] Not every agreement is a contract, and not every promise is legally enforceable, but contracts have become an essential means by which individuals can organize themselves and carry out personal and professional interactions, particularly with persons or entities with whom they have no personal or familial connection. The ability to make contracts, and the capacity and willingness for a neutral arbiter to guarantee that contracts will be enforced, became one of the critical developments that made long-term and long distance trade relations possible.[2] Contracts also became a building block of the modern corporation, which is often described today as a “nexus of contracts.”[3]

The freedom to make contracts and the confidence that contracts will be enforced cannot be taken for granted. Prior to the United States Constitutional Convention of 1787, many of the original thirteen states were actively undermining the enforcement of contracts among citizens. In most cases, the contracts that were threatened by state actions were concerned with debts. State legislatures enacted a number of laws which prevented creditors from collecting debts in the time frame stipulated in contracts. For this reason, many creditors looked to the federal government to curb state actions which threatened the execution of contracts. Congress, under the Articles of Confederation, provided in the Northwest Ordinance that in that soon to be developed territory stipulated “no law ought ever to be made, or have force in the said territory, that shall in any manner whatever interfere with, or affect private contracts or engagements, bona fide and without fraud previously formed.” [4] Notably the clause pertained only to “private” contracts that were already in existence.

At the Constitutional Convention, a stand-alone contracts clause was debated and ultimately rejected, but the Committee on Style inserted a general form of the clause within a section dealing with limits on state power, which the convention did approve.[5] The final language in Article 1, Section 10, reads as follows: “No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.”[6] The clause is sandwiched between other provisions that limit states’ ability to engage in diplomacy, affect international trade, or carry out monetary policy. There is no language limiting the clause’s application to private contracts, nor is the clause clearly limited to contracts that were “previously formed,” although the courts quickly established that state law could regulate future behavior that might otherwise be the subject of a contract. It should also be noted that the contracts clause does not forbid the federal government from “impairing the obligation of contracts.” In fact, the federal government may modify debt contracts very dramatically through bankruptcy laws, which were authorized explicitly by the bankruptcy clause in Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution.

The clause was applied in some early cases of the Supreme Court. In 1810, the Court ruled in Fletcher v. Peck that the state of Georgia could not revoke a previously issued land grant to private parties. This ruling established that the contract clause applied to both public and private contracts.[7] A few years later, the Court more clearly asserted the constitutional protection of contracting in the case of Dartmouth College v. Woodward. In this ruling, the Court held that a charter establishing and organizing a private academic institution could not be fundamentally changed by an enactment of the New Hampshire legislature.[8] This decision was not only significant because it defended the right of private parties to have their contracts respected, but also because it recognized that private associations and incorporated entities could be at least somewhat insulated from state government control.

In later cases, the Court made clear that the right to engage in personal contracts is not absolute. In Ogden v. Saunders, the Court ruled that the states could make laws affecting contracts as long as those laws had prospective effect.[9] Later, in Stone v. Mississippi, the justices ruled that the contract clause did not prevent states from exercising their police powers to protect health and morals.[10] This ruling was echoed in a twentieth century case, Home Building & Loan Association v. Blaisdell, in which the Court expanded that exception to include advancing public welfare through a redistribution of resources.[11] In recent years, some legal scholars have said that the federal Constitution’s contract clause has been eviscerated because the courts have ruled that its applicability is limited by so many public policy related exceptions.[12] Nevertheless, it should be noted that many state constitutions contain contract impairment laws which are still applied, often in legal challenges to legislative changes in public employee pension fund benefits.[13]

The freedom to contract and the expectation that contractual obligations will be enforced has been critical to American economic life since its founding. Courts have long been involved in the settling of contractual disputes, sometimes invoking the contract clause, but more often using common law principles or provisions of the Uniform Commercial Code, which every state has adopted. But the implications of the freedom to contract is not limited to economic matters. Contracts are involved in many forms of association,  including political organizations and civic and religious entities. Without protection for these contracts, these associations could not function effectively.

James C. Clinger, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of political science at Murray State University. His teaching and research has focused on state and local government, public administration, regulatory policy, and political economy. His forthcoming co-edited book is entitled Local Government Administration in Small Town America.

[1]  Cornell Law School.   Legal Information Institute.  Accessed August 12, 2023.   On the view that contracts should be seen essentially as promises, see Fried, Charles.   Contract as Promise: A Theory of Contracting Obligation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

[2] Wallis, John Joseph.  “Institutions, Organizations, Impersonality, and Interests:  The Dynamics of Institutions.”   Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 79 (1-2)

[3]  Jensen, Michael C., and William H. Meckling. 1976. “Theory of the Firm: Managerial Behavior, Agency Costs and Ownership Structure.” Journal of Financial Economics 3 (4): 305–60.

[4]  Northwest Ordinance.  Article II, Clause 5.   See also McConnell, Michael W. “Contract Rights and Property Rights: A Case Study in the Relationship between Individual Liberties and Constitutional Structure.” California Law Review 76, no. 2 (1988): 267–95.

[5]  Douglas W. Kmiec and John O. McGinnis, “The Contract Clause: A Return to the Original Understanding, 14 Hastings Const. Law Quarterly 5 (1987): 525-560.

[6]  United States Constitution, Article I, Section 10

[7]  Fletcher v. Peck.  10 US 87 (1810).   See also  Hobson, Charles F. 2017. “The Yazoo Lands Sale Case: Fletcher v. Peck (1810).”      Journal of Supreme Court History 42 (3): 239–55.

[8]  17 US 518. See also O’Kelley, C. R. T. (2021). What Was the Dartmouth College Case Really About? Vanderbilt Law Review, 74(6), 1645–1725.

[9] 25 US 518 (1827).

[10]  101 US 814 (1879).

[11]  290 US 398 (1934).

[12]  Ely, James W., Jr. “Whatever Happened to the Contract Clause?” Charleston Law Review 4 (2010): 371–94.

[13]  Hull, Bradley. 2015. “State Contract Impairment Clauses and the Validity of Chapter 9 Authorization.” Emory Bankruptcy Developments Journal 32 (1): 87–122.

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger
Principle of Due Process of Law

Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Janine Turner



The principle of due process of law has long been a central principle in Anglo-American jurisprudence. The principle has been formally codified within the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. However, while the principle has a long history, it has changed dramatically over time, with new interpretation and applications of the principle affecting not only law and administrative practices throughout the country.

In Clause 39 of the Magna Carta, the essence of due process is expressed in the following terms: “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”[i] At the very least, this provision limited the power of the crown to take arbitrary or capricious injurious actions that were not sanctioned by law. The phrase “law of the land” later found its way into many of the provisions of American state constitutions, although the phrase “due process of law” was also used, with apparently very similar if not identical meaning. Many of the early state courts, applying this language, considered the protections of due process or the law of the land to be a means of preventing governments from carrying out policies threatening vested rights in property of their citizens, although it could also protect their personal liberty.[ii]

The “due process” language appeared in the federal constitution in the form of the Fifth Amendment, which declares that no person “be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” The Fifth Amendment is most famous for its provisions regarding criminal procedures, although it also contains the very significant “takings clause” pertaining to protections for property. There is very little historical record regarding the inclusion of the due process language, and the clause was not invoked by the United States Supreme Court until the 1856 case of Murray v. Hoboken Land & Improvement Company.[iii]    The following year saw the clause invoked again, this time in an infamous ruling in the case of Scott v. Sanford,[iv] more commonly known as the Dred Scott decision.

For much of the period before the Dred Scott case, state courts had generally treated due process as a procedural protection, just as the wording suggests. When government deprived someone of life, liberty, or property, due process required that individuals have a right to a hearing before an impartial arbiter and to confront their accusers. In short, due process did not absolutely prohibit deprivations of life, liberty, or property by government but did require government to do so only in a manner that contained expected legal safeguards. What emerged in the Dred Scott decision was a judicial concern for the substance of government action, a view that has come to be known as “substantive due process.” To some, substantive due process is an oxymoron concept, much like “green, pastel redness,” in the words of John Hart Ely.[v] In this decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney, joined by six other justices, ruled that the federal government had deprived a slaveholder of property without due process of law by forbidding slavery in free territories under the Missouri Compromise. This decision was essentially about the substance of the federal government’s position on slavery and had little to do with the process by which that policy came into being or the way in which it was enforced. The decision was immensely controversial and must be considered one of the key events that precipitated the Civil War.

After the war, Congress proposed and the requisite number of states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which includes a due process clause that is applicable specifically to the states, rather than just the federal government. It should be noted that most state constitutions already had due process clauses at the time the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, but this new provision involved the federal government in ensuring that due process was followed. These protections were intended to provide a legal guarantee of due process for the recently freed slaves and their descendants in all states, including the states that had promoted slavery prior to the Thirteenth Amendment. Of course, the language was quite broad, offering a guarantee of due process to all persons.

Many states, however, found ways to circumvent the due process clause, largely because the provisions applied to public action, rather than private activities. In some cases, the clause was used by business organizations who believed that state regulations deprived them of property without due process of law. In the case of Lochner v. New York, the Supreme Court invoked essentially substantive due process arguments to strike down a New York law limiting the working hours of bakers.[vi] In that case, the plaintiff successfully argued that the state law denied him property that could have been generated if his freedom to contract had not been denied by the regulation. By the 1930s, the Supreme Court stepped away from economic versions of substantive due process arguments, but in the 1960s and thereafter began to identify a doctrine of individual privacy that is not explicitly based on specific provisions of the Constitution but which appears to be a socially liberal version of substantive due process.[vii]

Another implication of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause is what has been called the “selective incorporation” of the Bill of Rights. What this doctrine means is that some if not all provisions of the Bill of Rights, which originally limited the actions of the federal government, are now applied to the state governments. It is not clear that the drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment had any form of incorporation in mind when the due process clause was written. The Supreme Court did not clearly apply this doctrine until 1925 in the Gitlow v. New York decision that applied the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech to state governments.[viii] No majority of the Court has ever concluded that the entirety of the federal constitution applies to the states, but the Court has concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment selectively incorporates only those rights that are “of the very essence of a scheme of ordered liberty.”[ix] Over time, through incremental decisions, the Court has incorporated most of the Bill or Rights. The few exceptions include such provisions as the Third Amendment’s prohibition against the quartering of soldiers, the grand jury indictment requirement in the Fifth Amendment, and the Seventh Amendment’s stipulation that a jury trial be available for suits where the value in controversy exceeds twenty dollars.

Over the last sixty years, the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment has taken on new meaning because the definitions of property have changed. The language of the clause indicated that due process must be provided when the state deprives “life, liberty, or property.” In cases involving capital punishment, the government clearly must supply due process. In fact, in such cases the government is compelled to provide exceptional procedural protections. In cases involving arrest or incarceration, obviously the government is obligated to provide due process. Traditionally, when governments deprive individuals of property they are involved in activities such as eminent domain or regulations that affect personal and corporate income. But beginning in the 1960s, the courts began to perceive that individuals could have a property interest in various kinds of government benefits, which could include welfare or disability payments, public contracts, government licenses or permits, or even public employment. In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that welfare recipients had a property interest in the receipt of their payments, so that the state of New York could not terminate payments without first having a public pre-termination hearing.[x] A few years later, applying the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause, the Court ruled that recipients of Social Security disability checks were entitled to some due process, but not as much as in the case at issue in Goldberg v. Kelly. With disability cases, post-termination hearings would be sufficient, because the Court reasoned that other interests must be “balanced” with those of the individual claimants.[xi] The courts have continued to ponder very particular circumstances in individual cases to determine how much and what kind of process is due in very particular situations.[xii]

The last issue that this essay examines is the ambiguous issue of what constitutes public action. The due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments apply to public entities, not private firms or organizations. But can a private organization be subject to due process requirements if it is acting pursuant to public policies?[xiii] Of course, there is also a dispute regarding what constitutes a policy? Would a guidance document issued by a government agency be considered a public policy? A statute enacted by a legislature no doubt would be a public action. Generally speaking, a rule issued by a government agency under a legislature’s delegated authority would be considered a public action, since it would normally be considered legally binding. A guidance document or an interpretive rule would not, strictly speaking, be considered legally binding, but agencies may threaten investigations or the loss of future grant funds or contractual dollars if a private organization is not in compliance with directives that are not formally recognized as legally binding. The case law on these issues is still developing, but recent cases indicate that private organizations acting under the influence of government may be liable if they do not offer due process protections, even if the policy that they are following is quite informal. For example, Cornell University, a private institution, has been challenged by a dismissed faculty member for following irregular investigative procedures derived in part from the Title IX guidance handed down by the Office of Civil Rights within the Department of Education.[xiv]

James C. Clinger, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of political science at Murray State University. His teaching and research has focused on state and local government, public administration, regulatory policy, and political economy. His forthcoming co-edited book is entitled Local Government Administration in Small Town America.

[i] Magna Carta, Clause 39.  Accessed July 7, 2023 from Magna Carta Project – 1215 Magna Carta – Clause 39 (

[ii] Inglis, Laura. “Substantive Due Process: Continuation of Vested Rights?” The American Journal of Legal History 52, no. 4 (2012): 459–97.

[iii] 18 Howard 272.

[iv] 60 US 393 (1857)

[v] John Hart Ely, 1980.  Democracy and Distrust: A Theory of Judicial Review.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 18.

[vi] 198 US 45 (1905)

[vii] See, for example, Griswold v. Connecticut 381 US 479 (1965).

[viii] 268 US 652 (1925)

[ix] 302 US 319 (1937)

[x] 397 U.S. 254 (1970)

[xi] 424 U.S. 319 (1976)

[xii] Shapiro, Sidney A., and Richard E. Levy. 2005. “Government Benefits and the Rule of Law: Toward a Standards-Based Theory of Due Process.” Administrative Law Review 57 (1): 107–53.

[xiii] Verkuil, Paul R. 2005. “Privatizing Due Process.” Administrative Law Review 57 (4): 963–93.

[xiv] Vengalatorre v. Cornell University.  2022.  United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.   Docket No. 20-1514.

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger


Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner


“…it ought not to be overlooked, that such an additional accumulation of power in the judicial department would not only furnish pretexts for clamor against it, but might create a general dread of its influence, which could hardly fail to disturb the salutory effects of its ordinary functions…There is nothing, of which a free people are so apt to be jealous,, as of the existence of political functions, and political checks, in those, who are not appointed by, and made directly responsible to themselves.” – Joseph Story, United States Supreme Court Justice appointed by James Madison, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States: With A Preliminary Review of the Constitutional History of the Colonies and States, Before the Adoption of the Constitution. Published in 1833.

The above quotation from Joseph Story, an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court, is drawn from his discussion of the United States Senate, and more specifically from his analysis of the role of the Senate in the impeachment process. Story’s analysis is an insightful illustration of what is sometimes called the separation of powers, but which some observers call “separate institutions, sharing powers.”[1]

In Article I, Section 1 of the United States Constitution, the Framers wrote that “all legislative powers are vested in a Congress.  Article II of the Constitution discusses executive powers, and Article III covers judicial powers, but notably the adjective “all” is absent from the text of those articles. Only in the first article does the text emphasize the comprehensive nature of the powers vested in Congress. To make sense of this language and to contrast it with the empowering language written for the executive and judicial branches requires us to have some understanding of what words such as “legislative” and “executive” and “judicial” actually mean. Virtually all dictionary definitions describe the word “legislative” as pertaining to the making or enacting of laws. However, that definition is of little use to us if we do not have any particular idea of what a law actually is. Definitions of “law” are a bit more varied, in part because the definitions sometimes refer to regularities in natural phenomena with a common causal pattern (e.g., the law of gravity). In a constitutional context, law is generally regarded to be general rules made by government, using a proper procedure not forbidden to the government, which the government enforces with the use of penalties. Those penalties may take the forms of civil and/or criminal actions. This legislative power stands in contrast to the power of the executive, which is a word drawn from the Latin word exsequor, which means “to follow thoroughly.”[2] Ironically, the executive function has come to be known as a matter of leadership, rather than as the role of a follower. In the case of a government executive, the executive function is a matter of following or administering the rules enacted through a legislative process. The judicial power is generally a matter of making decisions regarding a legal matter in which there are two or more contending parties. Unlike the legislative power, which is applicable to all within a community, and accessible to all in a republic, the application of the judicial power has immediate effect upon the particular parties standing before the court. However, the judgments of an appellant court may become precedents that would have impact on other parties more generally.

In the case of impeachment, the Constitution authorizes a legislative function that in some respects resembles a judicial process.   Article II, Section 4, of the Constitution specifically states that the president, the vice-president, and all civil officers of the United States may be removed from office “on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” This is a process that makes decisions regarding particular individuals accused of high crimes and misdemeanors. It is not a process that implicates whole classes of individuals or entire categories of behaviors, but a particularized decision about specifically identified individuals. The cause of action for an impeachment action is some kind of “High Crime or Misdemeanors,” which implies the possibility of a criminal proceeding. Nonetheless, as Joseph Story points out, impeachment is not considered a judicial process. No punishment beyond removal from office can be ordered through impeachment. In these instances, a civil officer accused of misconduct is examined by the House of Representatives, a chamber made up of elected individuals. Upon an impeachment vote by the House, the members of the Senate, acting as representatives of the states, consider whether or not to remove the civil officer.

As Story noted, a “free” public would be “jealous” of its power to use their elected, political representatives to make decisions on the removal of civil officers found to be guilty of misconduct. That kind of decision, if made by unelected judges, would outrage the public. As is often the case, the public has expectations about what kinds of decisions an institution within the government should make. Of course, since Joseph Story’s time public perceptions of the proper institution to address different issues may have changed dramatically. Views on the separation of powers have often changed over time. Recent events suggest that much of the public has a very results-oriented view of public decisions, without considering which institution is constitutionally authorized to make important policy choices. These views may be quite short-sighted, since an institution which usurps the powers of other institutions may occasionally make decisions favored by the public, but over the long term may accumulate power that will threaten individual rights and the aggregate interests of the public.

James C. Clinger, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of political science at Murray State University. His teaching and research has focused on state and local government, public administration, regulatory policy, and political economy. His forthcoming co-edited book is entitled Local Government Administration in Small Town America.

[1] Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership.   New York: Wiley (1964), p. 42.


Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

The year 1776 was notable not only for the Declaration of Independence, but also for the publication of a notable work of scholarship that represented a dramatic change in not only the economic systems of the world but also the shape of the governmental arrangements of the United States, Britain, and other nations. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, by a Scottish academic, Adam Smith, was published at about the same time that the Continental Congress, thousands of miles away, considered a resolution to declare independence from Great Britain.[i]

Smith’s work is today largely considered an economic monograph extolling the virtues of capitalism, but in its own day its contribution was somewhat different. The word “capitalism” was not in wide use at that time. “Economics” was not considered an identifiable academic discipline or focus of study. Smith’s university teaching career was largely concerned with what was then called “natural philosophy.” In the Wealth of Nations, Smith suggested the free exchange of goods and services could promote not only material wealth, but also improve human well-being in a more general sense.

In making these arguments, Smith took the opportunity to attack human contrivances that thwarted free exchange. Slavery and colonialism were also criticized, and an extensive critique of the economic thinking and practices known as mercantilism became a central focus of the book.   Mercantilism was a fundamental basis for colonial rule, and the opposition to mercantilist practices was part of the justification for the American Revolution. Similarly, the breakdown of mercantilism as a defensible basis for imperial control of territory led to British willingness to permit its colonies to gain their independence.

Mercantilism was an economic system that contended that national wealth was promoted by government interventions to encourage trade and investment in certain industries and enterprises. In particular, mercantilist advocates believed that the government should conserve national reserves of gold (and sometimes silver), which were used in international trade for goods and resources that could not be found within a nation. If a country controlled colonies, purchases could be made without using gold, thus sparing reserves that could be used for essential international transactions. The colonial power would dictate the permissible terms of trade in which its colonies could participate, usually compelling the colonies to trade only with the mother country or with other colonies within the same empire. Transactions with other countries would be forbidden or subject to very high tariffs.

Before the revolution, the American colonials chafed at the terms of trade dictated by the British. In 1774, the British imposed the Intolerable Acts as a punitive measure in response to the Boston Tea Party and other protests. The protests in the American colonies were largely demonstrations against some of the taxes (e.g., the Stamp Act) and the exclusive monopolies over many import enterprises given to the East India Company. That same year, the First Continental Congress enacted the Articles of Association as a trade boycott against the British. Many American colonial enterprises, including that owned by John Hancock, circumvented British trade restrictions by doing business with Dutch firms and other colonies. In the Declaration of Independence, two of the complaints prominently noted were the claims that the British were “cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world” and “imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.”[ii] These complaints were common among colonial people throughout the world, not only within the British Empire but within the colonies of all the imperial powers.

After the revolution, the Founders made strategic choices that affected the international trade practices that the new nation would follow.   Tariffs and trade restrictions were still permissible, but procedural constraints limited their use. Within the United States Constitution, the Founders established a particular process by which taxes, including tariffs, would be enacted. Only Congress could approve taxes, and all money bills would originate in the House of Representatives, the only offices at that time filled through popular election.[iii] Foreign entanglements presumably could be minimized by the requirement that all treaties must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the present members of the Senate.[iv] The Senate was filled with representatives of the states originally chosen by the legislatures of the states. The requirement that a two-thirds vote of the members of the Senate consent to a treaty guaranteed that any treaty that took effect would have broad support among the various states. A measure that had the support of a simple majority of the general population would not be sufficient. A super-majority of the members of the representatives of states in the Senate was required. It is important to note that the equal representation of states in the Senate is one aspect of the Constitution that was regarded so essential that it could never be changed through constitutional amendment.[v]

British colonialism continued long after the American Revolution, but its economic underpinnings gradually eroded over time. Shortly after the end of the Napoleonic wars, Britain imposed a high tariff on imported agricultural products. This was reversed in 1846 with the repeal of the so-called “Corn Laws,” beginning a general trend toward freer international trade and away from protectionism.[vi] There was a short-term return to protectionist practices in the 1930s after the United States enacted the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, but Britain returned to a freer trade position after World War II.[vii]

Suffrage within Britain expanded throughout the nineteenth century, and the British found it harder philosophically to defend its dictating of the terms of trade with its colonies without granting them a voice in their own affairs. These denials of both economic and political freedoms seemed particularly unfair when the colonized peoples differed racially, ethnically, religiously, and culturally from the British. In fairness, it should be said that the British, more so than many imperial powers, did permit colonial peoples to elect the members of their representative assemblies and to retain the use of their native languages in schools and government offices.[viii] In general, the British colonies fared better economically than the colonies of many other European nations.[ix]

In terms of geographic territory, the British Empire reached its peak around 1920, but it had already loosened its control over many of its colonies and some, such as the United States, had already gained their independence. After World War II, many British colonies and protectorates separated from British control, even though most remained within the British Commonwealth. The Bretton Woods Accord established the American dollar as the primary currency to be used in international exchange. The British faced pressure from both its allies and from international organizations, such as the United Nations, to decolonize. New international economic institutions, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and its successor organization, the World Trade Organization, encouraged trade liberalization. A few pieces of territory remain British colonies in far-flung parts of the globe, but the old empire has been dismantled as the economic and political basis for its existence has disappeared.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. Dr. Clinger teaches courses in state and local government, Kentucky politics, intergovernmental relations, regulatory policy, and public administration. Dr. Clinger is also a member of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board and a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association. He currently resides in Hazel, Kentucky.

[i] Smith, Adam, and Edwin Cannan. The Wealth of Nations. New York, N.Y.: Bantam Classic, 2003.

[ii] Declaration of Independence

[iii] United States Constitution, Article I, Section 7

[iv] United States Constitution, Article 2, Section 2

[v] United States Constitution, Article V

[vi] O’Rourke, Kevin H. 2000.  “British Trade Policy in the 19th Century: A Review Article.”  European journal of Political Economy 16:: 829-842.

[vii] de Bromhead, Alan, Alan Fernihough, Markus Lampe, and Kevin Hjortshøj O’Rourke. 2019. “When Britain Turned Inward: The Impact of Interwar British Protection.” American Economic Review 109 (2): 325–52.

[viii] Lange, Matthew, Tay Jeong, and Charlotte Gaudreau. 2022. “A Tale of Two Empires: Models of Political Community in British and French Colonies.” Nations & Nationalism 28 (3): 972–89.

[ix] Lange, Matthew, James Mahoney, and Matthias vom Hau. 2006. “Colonialism and Development: A Comparative Analysis of Spanish and British Colonies.” American Journal of Sociology 111 (5): 1412–62.


Click here for American Exceptionalism Revealed 90-Day Study Schedule
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox


Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

The American Constitution was crafted in a deliberate way to prevent the failures of the government under the Articles of Confederation and to stop the harmful events that the Founders could see abroad and throughout history. Of particular concern was the need to empower the president to execute the law in a faithful manner. At the same time, the United States Constitution would limit executive power in order to prevent the rise of a dictator. Such safeguards have not always been found in the constitutions or governmental structures of other nations, and ambitious political figures, such as Napoleon Bonaparte, have taken advantage of every opportunity to amass more and more power, often at great cost to their own countries and also to the detriment of neighboring states.

The Articles of Confederation provided for virtually no executive authority. The American Constitution took another approach, both authorizing executive power but also constraining its exercise with a combination of institutional checks and balances. With the exception of the power to veto bills passed by Congress, which appears in Article I, the bulk of the presidential powers listed in the Constitution are found in Article II. This article is much more brief than the text of Article I, which applies to legislative powers, and approximately half of the text of Article II deals with qualifications for office and the manner of election, rather than powers and duties of the office. Some observers may infer from the small amount of verbiage in Article II compared to Article I that the legislature holds far greater power than the executive. In fact, James Madison wrote in Federalist #51, “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.”[1] Other observers believe that while the actual text of Article II is terse, the specifically listed powers are broad, and additional powers may be implied from those that are explicitly stated. Within Article II, the president of the United States is “vested” with executive power. There has been considerable debate on whether that vesting refers to holding the explicit powers that are later listed, or whether this provides authority to carry out general powers that are deemed to be executive. What “executive” action actually entails is not completely clear. The word “executive” is derived from the Latin words ex sequi, which in English means to follow or to carry out.[2] This suggests that an executive, including a president, is primarily a follower acting on behalf of someone or something else. Nevertheless, many Americans think of the modern president as more of a leader than a follower.

The first powers listed in the first clause of Article II authorize the president to be commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States. It also indicates that the president “may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices.”   Notably, the Constitution does not say that the president can tell principal officers what to do. The president is also given the power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment. The president is not given clemency powers for state offenses.

The second clause of Article II authorizes the president “to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law.” By law, the Congress may “vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.”

These provisions, commonly known as the advice and consent clause, have been at the center of various controversies during American history. The clause indicates that the president may appoint “officers” of the United States, but it does not define what an officer is. Furthermore, while the clause explicitly provides for presidential appointment, it nowhere authorizes the president to remove the appointees that he has appointed.[3] As a practical matter, the federal courts have concluded that the president has at least some removal power implied by the executive powers vested in Article II,[4] but there have been a number of disputes about this question resolved somewhat inconsistently by the Supreme Court in cases such as Myers v. United States,[5] Humphrey’s Executor v. United States,[6] and Seila Law, LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.[7]

The Constitution also gives the president the power to “make” treaties, subject to the approval of two-thirds of the senate, but it is not specific about the enforcement of treaties or their termination. During the War of Independence, the United States entered into a treaty allying itself with France. A few years later, after the French Revolution had become brutal and bloody, President George Washington issued a proclamation of neutrality, effectively voiding the treaty. This was controversial in its time, since the Constitution did not seem to authorize that sort of unilateral action, and also because there were many prominent figures in government, such as Thomas Jefferson, who were at least initially sympathetic to the French Revolution. In support of Washington’s action, Alexander Hamilton penned seven letters for publication making the case for the neutrality proclamation. Using the pen name, Pacificus, Hamilton sparred with James Madison, with whom he had written many of the Federalist Papers. Madison, writing under the name Helvidius, was recruited to oppose Washington’s position by Jefferson, who was then serving as secretary of state.[8]

Article II also imposes obligations upon presidents, as well as confers powers. Presidents are required to inform Congress “from time to time” of the State of the Union. The chief executive is also obliged to recommend, for the consideration of Congress, such measures which the president deems as “necessary and expedient.” When Congress is not in session, the president is authorized to call a special session of one or both houses of Congress. The president is also empowered to receive all foreign ambassadors. This has been construed to mean that the president has exclusive authority to recognize foreign governments.

Finally, Article II also demands that the president “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” This appears to be a broad, encompassing authority and responsibility to carry out federal law, even those that are not supported by the president. While there is some inherent discretion in all enforcement, the president does not have any general authority to dispense with laws enacted by the legislature, as was the case in some monarchical systems.

The Constitution also constrains the chief executive and all other officers by providing for their impeachment and removal for the offenses of “Treason, Bribery, and other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” This suggests that no executive can flout the law without consequences. It also provides for a means of removing an officer without resorting to a coup or assassination.

Many countries do not so carefully curb the powers of their executives, or they lack the will or the ability to enforce these constraints. In France in 1799, the newly established government, called the Directory, fell to a coup which was encouraged from within. The plural executive body was joined by a bicameral legislature made up of a Council of Five Hundred and a Council of Elders. One director, Abbe Emmanuel Sieyes, plotted a coup that would force out most of the directors and lead to the creation of a consulate, headed by a military leader as first consulate while he exerted actual control. Although not Sieyes’ first choice, the popular and successful General Napoleon Bonaparte was selected to serve as first consul. The general’s brother, Lucien Bonaparte, served as president of the Council of Five hundred, as expected to assist the coup. The coup succeeded in sweeping away the Directory, but Napoleon was not content to serve Sieyes’ interests. Very quickly, Napoleon rather than Sieyes was firmly in control, with no internal dissent permitted.[9]

Napoleon was not curbed by constitutional constraints upon his executive power. He suppressed the critical press and created his own propaganda machine.[10] The emperor was able to use his military to crush internal dissent, stop brigandage, and thwart foreign invasions.[11] Unconstrained by prior legal limitations on his conduct, the emperor designed his own legal system, the Code Napoleon, and imposed it upon his own nation. Ultimately, Napoleon’s own limitless ambition led to his undoing, but not until thousands had died in his pursuit of conquest. Of course, the United States has also had its own constitutional crises, most notably in the Civil War, which also cost much in blood and treasure. But under the Constitution, the United States has been freed of the folly of a dictatorship led by a single tyrant. The Constitution’s limits on the executive have thus far staved off that calamity.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. Dr. Clinger teaches courses in state and local government, Kentucky politics, intergovernmental relations, regulatory policy, and public administration. Dr. Clinger is also a member of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board and a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association. He currently resides in Hazel, Kentucky.

[1] The Federalist Papers, Number 51

[2] Rohr, John A. 1997. “Public Administration, Executive Power, and Constitutional Confusion.” International Journal of Public Administration 20 (4/5): 887

[3] Tillman, Seth Barrett. 2010. “The Puzzle of Hamilton’s Federalist No. 77.” Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 33 (1): 149–67.

[4]  Prakash, Saikrishna.  2006.   “New Light on the Decision of 1789,”    Cornell Law Review. 91:1021-1078.

[5] 272 U.S. 52

[6] 295 U.S. 602,

[7] 140 S. Ct. 2183

[8] Young, Christopher J . 2011. “Connecting the President and the People: Washington’s Neutrality, Genet’s Challenge, and Hamilton’s Fight for Public Support.” Journal of the Early Republic 31 (3): 435–66.

[9] Rapport, Michael. 1998. “Napoleon’s Rise to Power. (Cover Story).” History Today 48 (1): 12–19.

[10] Dwyer, Philip G. 2004. “Napoleon Bonaparte as Hero and Saviour: Image, Rhetoric and Behaviour in the Construction of a Legend.” French History 18 (4): 379–403.  See also Forrest, Alan. 2004. “Propaganda and the Legitimation of Power in Napoleonic France.” French History 18 (4): 426–45.

[11] Devlin, Jonathan D.  1990.  “The Directory and the Politics of Military Command: The Army of the Interior in South-East France.”  French History,  4 (2):, 199–223.   See also Brown, Howard G. 1997. “From Organic Society to Security State: The War on Brigandage in France, 1797-1802.” Journal of Modern History 69 (4): 661-695.


Click here for American Exceptionalism Revealed 90-Day Study Schedule
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox

Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

The United States and France had complicated and seemingly inconsistent relations in the years preceding and shortly following the American Revolution. In the 1750s, the American colonists and the British military fought the French in the French and Indian War. But in the 1770s, the French provided invaluable assistance to the American cause in the fight against the British in the War of Independence. During that war, the newly formed United States entered into a treaty allying itself with France, but after another revolution broke out in France in the 1790s, America’s first president, George Washington, issued a neutrality proclamation, effectively negating the treaty.

While the revolution raged in France, American politicians staked out positions of support or denunciation of the increasingly bloody regimes that replaced the government that had aided their cause in the fight for independence. A few years later, a new government and a new powerful figure, Napoleon Bonaparte, ruled over France. His rule made a considerable mark in the United States, for he was responsible for ceding enormous territory to the new nation in what has become known as the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. A few years later, the wars Bonaparte stirred up in Europe carried over to the western hemisphere in what is known now as the War of 1812, in which Americans once again fought the British, the primary enemy of France in that era.

The foreign affairs of these two nations are not so much the focus of this essay as they are illustrations of the implications of domestic events in each nation. During these years, the new nation of the United States and the relatively old nation of France each experienced dramatic changes in their constitutional development. These developments left the United States with an energetic yet institutionally constrained executive leading the government of a federal republic. In France, an emperor dominated the political scene of a unitary state in which the executive controlled both the legislature and the judiciary. This essay will explore how and why two nations with such intertwined histories took such divergent paths.

In 1984, the political scientist, Donald S. Lutz, published an article reporting his findings from research that examined which European authors were most frequently cited in the writings of America’s founders both before and after the revolution. The author most commonly cited was Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, the author of a book published in English under the name The Spirit of the Laws.[1] In that work, Montesquieu developed a modern theory of what we now call the separation of powers. Montesquieu also made a case for an independent and secure court system, not subject to the will of the executive, the legislature, or any particular private interest. Montesquieu had significant impact in the design of the federal constitution, as well as the constitutions of many American state constitutions. He also had considerable influence in Britain. Ironically, his influence in his native France was not as deep or long-lasting as his impact abroad.

The first American national charter, The Articles of Confederation, did not display any interest in a separation of powers. The government established a unicameral legislative body which could, by committee, appoint one of their number as a president with little power.[2] There were no courts for the central government. State courts would handle legal disputes within their states’ boundaries, and the confederation congress would hear cases involving boundary disputes between states.[3] All of this changed with the ratification of the new constitution. While there was some overlap and sharing of functions between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, to a great extent these institutions were kept separate, establishing a check against the mischief that might temporarily prevail in a single branch. The specific details of those checks will be discussed in the next essay. Suffice it to say now, that the institutional design of the constitution took into account the issues about which Montesquieu had written approximately a half century earlier.

In the Federalist Papers, the design of the United States Constitution was defended before a skeptical audience. James Madison, author of Federalist Paper #38, argued that no matter what flaws could be found in the new constitution, it was surely superior to the Articles of Confederation. In Madison’s words,

It is a matter both of wonder and regret, that those who raise so many objections against the new Constitution should never call to mind the defects of that which is to be exchanged for it. It is not necessary that the former should be perfect; it is sufficient that the latter is more imperfect. No man would refuse to give brass for silver or gold, because the latter had some alloy in it. No man would refuse to quit a shattered and tottering habitation for a firm and commodious building, because the latter had not a porch to it, or because some of the rooms might be a little larger or smaller, or the ceilings a little higher or lower than his fancy would have planned them. But waiving illustrations of this sort, is it not manifest that most of the capital objections urged against the new system lie with tenfold weight against the existing Confederation?[4]

One particularly noteworthy aspect of the new framework was provision for a president heading an executive branch of government. According to Alexander Hamilton, the constitution provided for “energy” in the executive through both the powers assigned to the office and the manner in which the officeholder would be selected. In Hamilton’s words, “The ingredients which constitute energy in the Executive are, first, unity; secondly, duration; thirdly, an adequate provision for its support; fourthly, competent powers.”[5] Under the Constitution, there is one chief executive, consistent with the unity principle. The president would serve fixed, four-year terms, consistent with the duration precept. Whether the support for the executive would be adequate would largely depend upon the appropriations of money by Congress. Hamilton believed that the powers vested in the president in Article II of the Constitution were “competent,” although at various times in history this claim has been challenged.

The political transformation of France took a different course. In 1789, while the American constitution was being drafted, France was a somewhat centralized monarchy, but with considerable autonomy exercised in its provinces. A National Assembly served as a constituent assembly, but it was unable to handle some pressing economic and political problems that were growing in the 1780s. The financial costs of war, including the American Revolution, had made the government almost bankrupt, despite the general trend of economic and population growth that the country enjoyed in prior decades. Crops failed in much of France in 1788, and prices for food and many other items spiraled up dramatically. The comptroller general of finances, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, proposed a substantial tax increase on the upper classes to cover the budget deficit, but the National Assembly refused to approve this proposal, instead calling for the gathering of the Estates-General, which had not met since 1614. The Estates General was a body representing the clergy, the aristocracy, and the commoners. When the Estates General met in Versailles, the Third Estate, representing the commoners, declared itself the National Constituent Assembly and began to write a new constitution. King Louis XVI reluctantly accepted the new body and urged the nobles and the clergy to join it. Behind the scenes, the king sought out armed forces to oppose it.[6]

The new constitution did provide for some separation of powers in which the assembly was preeminent, but the king could appoint and remove his own ministers. The nobles lost their titles and hereditary privileges, and the franchise was extended to most adult men. The provinces lost much of their power to eighty-three newly created departements, which were roughly equal in size and uniform in their organization. Each departement was further divided into districts, cantons, and communes. Originally, each departement elected its own officials, but eventually these units became tools of the central government.[7]

The Assembly declared that all church property was at the “disposition of the nation.” The government then issued bonds, called assignats, that were secured by the value of the land. Later, all property owned by emigrants to France were also declared to be national lands. These securities were tradable, and functioned for a while as a paper currency.   As the volume of assignats increased, so did inflation. By 1790, the Assembly required all sitting priests and bishops to take an oath of submission to the government. The bishops overwhelming refused to do this, but about half of the parish priests took the oath. Many clerics left the country, and about two-thirds of the country’s military officers resigned their commissions. As dissent became more prevalent, the government attempted to control the press. More radical factions began to subvert the role of the elected assembly, arguing that demonstrations, petitions, and public protests were superior methods of expressing the will of the people.[8]

Though his powers were limited, the king was still formally the head of state until August of 1792. The country was facing armed resistance from without and within, and more radical elements were gaining power.  After militants stormed the royal palace in Paris, the Assembly suspended the king. Immediately afterward, more than half of the Assembly’s deputies fled the city. As Prussian troops advanced toward the capital, French troops marched out to face them. With much of the elected government gone and most of the military absent from the city, mobs took over the city’s prisons, held sham trials, and killed over a thousand inmates, almost half the local prison population. A National Convention was held, which had as its first order of business the determination of the fate of the king. The Convention unanimously ruled that the king was guilty of treason, and by a much closer vote ordered his execution. Later his Austrian-born wife, Marie Antoinette, was also sent to the guillotine. With each bloody act, the revolution generated more resistance, and as more officials fled the government, or were imprisoned for their perceived disloyalty, the more radical the remaining officeholders became. Ultimately, some of the more blood-thirsty of the revolutionaries, such as Maximilien Robespierre, fell out of favor and were executed themselves without trial.[9]

After Robespierre’s death, the National Convention designed a new, somewhat more conservative constitution in 1795. This new government had a bicameral legislature and a plural, five-member executive called the Directory. Each director was supposed to serve one-year terms. The short duration of the Directory and the plural nature of its membership were not in keeping with Hamilton’s views regarding an ideal executive branch. The new government was beset with dramatic inflation and serious military threats, as well as challenges from radical dissidents. The legislature ultimately forced out four of the five directors. The new directors looked to form a new kind of constitution to provide stability in 1799. This new constitution provided for three ruling consuls, but only the first held substantial power. The constitution was approved by plebiscite. As first consul, the directors eventually chose a young, military hero who had managed to lead French armies to victory despite a depleted officer corps and a mass of enlisted soldiers who were recruited through a very unpopular conscription process. This person’s name was Napoleon Bonaparte. He was initially named consul, but soon made clear that he wished to exceed his constitutional limits. By 1804, Napoleon was named emperor by several government agencies and subsequently was approved as emperor in a national plebiscite.[10]   Napoleon was to wield more concentrated power than any extant monarch in the world. His rise to power demonstrates both the failure of France’s constitutional design and its commitment to enforce constitutional provisions.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. Dr. Clinger teaches courses in state and local government, Kentucky politics, intergovernmental relations, regulatory policy, and public administration. Dr. Clinger is also a member of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board and a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association. He currently resides in Hazel, Kentucky.

[1] Lutz, Donald S. “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought.” The American Political Science Review 78, no. 1 (1984): 189–97.

[2] Articles of Confederation, Article IX

[3] Articles of Confederation, Article IX

[4] The Federalist Papers, Number 38

[5] The Federalist Papers, Number 70

[6] Encyclopedia Britannica, French Revolution. Accessed July 10, 2022.

[7] Encyclopedia Britannica, Restructuring France.  Accessed July 10, 2022.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.


Click here for American Exceptionalism Revealed 90-Day Study Schedule
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox

Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

The federal, or United States Constitution, drafted during a hot summer in Philadelphia in 1787 was not the only constitution written in that time period, nor was it the first. Earlier, as the former American colonies became newly formed states, they adopted new constitutions that would later influence other states and even the form of the federal Constitution. These documents became the first statements of how republican government would be framed and put into practice.[1] According to Akhil Reed Amar, within these constitutions were “certain overarching elements that are now so commonplace that we forget how truly revolutionary they were in 1776: writtenness, concision, replicability, rights declaration, democratic pedigree, republican structure, and amendability.”[2]

Most of the new constitutions roughly resembled the colonial charters that they replaced. Connecticut and Rhode Island even retained their colonial charters with only minor modification. But some states began a serious effort to craft their own, unique constitutions which would both empower and constrain state government as well as protect the rights and liberties of their people. New Hampshire drafted its constitution even before independence was declared, and several others followed suit while the revolution was being fought.[3]

Many of those early state constitutions were hastily drafted under adverse conditions. The threat of approaching British troops forced some constitutional conventions to adjourn and reconvene multiple times.   Some states’ constitutional framers were not completely convinced that the revolution would be successful.[4] According to Article 26 of New Jersey’s constitution of 1776, “if Reconciliation between Great Britain and these Colonies should take place, and the latter be again taken under the Protection and Government of the Crown of Great Britain, this Charter shall be null and void, otherwise to remain firm and inviolable.”

There were certain commonalities in the various constitutions, but a number of unique features in particular states. All states provided for some separation of powers which would become a distinctive feature of both state and federal governments. Most states provided for a fairly weak executive, although in many respects the chief executive, almost always referred to as a governor, was more powerful than any executive in the national government under the Articles of Confederation. Many states did not provide for a veto for their governor, and some gave veto authority to a plural body, sometimes called a council of censors.[5]

Most state legislatures were bicameral, although both Pennsylvania and Georgia established a single chamber in their initial constitutions.   There were usually property requirements to hold office in the legislature, with stricter requirements for members of the upper chamber. The lower chambers’ members were directly elected by the voters. This was usually the case for the members of the upper chamber, which today in every state is called a senate, but in Maryland the senators were chosen indirectly with voters selecting electors who would then select the members of the senate. A few states later adopted this method, and a few for a short time used electors to select their governor.   Direct election of the governor was established in only five of the original thirteen states’ initial constitutions. In the remaining states, the legislature would select the chief executive.[6] Under the initial state constitutions, judges were either appointed by the legislatures or by the governor with approval of the legislature or at least the senate. The legislature was generally permitted to change the compensation of judges at will, thus diminishing the courts’ reputations for independence.[7]

The terms for almost all offices in the early constitutions were very short. With one exception, all states limited the length of lower legislative house members’ terms to one year. South Carolina had two-year terms. Most states’ senators served terms of one or two years, as did most governors and many judges. These brief terms were a primary check on the behavior of public officials.[8]

The early state constitutions established suffrage requirements for state voters. Most states required property holding requirements, but those varied dramatically from state to state. Property requirements might also vary for the electors of different offices. To vote in elections for the lower legislative chamber, Pennsylvania and North Carolina offered the franchise to all freemen who paid taxes. To vote for members of the state senate, North Carolina required ownership of fifty acres of land. New Hampshire imposed a poll tax. New Jersey had a minimum property requirement of fifty pounds value that applied to suffrage for all state office.[9] These voter qualification requirements had implications for voting in elections for the federal House of Representatives, once the U.S. Constitution took effect, since Article I, Section 2 stipulates that the voters for the U.S. House of Representatives “shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.”

Some, but not all, of the new constitutions included a bill of rights or a declaration of rights. Some of the language in these declarations was largely precatory, with admonitions that state government “ought” not to do certain things, such as impose excessive bail. Other language seems to impose more of a binding commitment on the government. Some of the rhetoric is fairly sweeping, such as the declaration in the Virginia Declaration of Rights that all men are “born free.” The absence of a bill of rights in the federal Constitution was a contentious issue during its ratification. But that issue was resolved with the passage of the first ten amendments. These state declarations became a model for the Bill of Rights, although there were notable differences between the first state declarations and the federal Bill of Rights. The state declarations usually referred to rights to jury trials, the free exercise of religion, and the right to bear arms. The very first state constitutions did not refer to a general freedom of speech, although later constitutions did. Notably, most state constitutions did not include a state equivalent of the federal Establishment Clause.[10] Some constitutions, in fact, authorized state government to support religious institutions[11] and several authorized religious tests for holding certain public offices.[12] The initial constitutions of the original thirteen states did not mention slavery as an institution, although a few rhetorically declared that the British monarch had enslaved the American colonies. Provisions defending, limiting, and abolishing slavery within different states would appear in subsequent constitutional revisions in the coming years.[13]

Some of the early state constitutions were hastily written and did not even provide a provision for amendment. Thus, constitutional changes took place through wholesale re-writes of the documents. Many states drafted entirely new constitutions in the first few years of the republic, and more constitutions were written and ratified as new states were added to the union. Many of those constitutions borrowed from the existing constitutions of other states. For example, about 70% of the 1792 constitution of the new state of Kentucky was taken almost word for word from the Pennsylvania constitution of 1790.[14] Of course, many features of the federal Constitution borrowed somewhat from the state constitutions. Most early state constitutions or amendments were adopted through a legislative process. The constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was one of the first to require approval by voters. In that instance, the document was voted upon by local towns and townships. Today, most states require a public referendum to approve new constitutions or constitutional amendments.[15]

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Dr. James Humphreys for his comments on an earlier draft of this essay. Any errors are the responsibility of the author.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. Dr. Clinger teaches courses in state and local government, Kentucky politics, intergovernmental relations, regulatory policy, and public administration. Dr. Clinger is also the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board and a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association. He currently resides in Hazel, Kentucky. 

[1] Adams, Willi Paul.. The First American Constitutions: Republican Ideology and the Making of the State Constitutions in the Revolutionary Era / Willi Paul Adams; Translated by Rita and Robert Kimber; with a Foreword by Richard B. Morris. Expanded ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; 2001.

[2] Amar, Akhil Reed.   The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840.  Basic Books,


[3] Adams, loc cit.

[4] Squire, Peverill.  The Evolution of American Legislatures: Colonies, Territories, and States, 1619-2009.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.   p.83

[5] Squire, loc cit., p. 87

[6] Lutz, Donald S. “The Theory of Consent in the Early State Constitutions.” Publius 9, no. 2 (1979): 11–42.

[7] Tarr, G. Alan.  “Contesting the Judicial Power in the States.”   Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 35, no. 2 (2012): 643-661.

[8] Lutz, loc cit.

[9] Lutz, loc cit.

[10] Lutz, Donald S. “The State Constitutional Pedigree of the U.S. Bill of Rights.” Publius 22, no. 2 (1992): 19–45.

[11] Vincent Phillip Muñoz, “Church and State in the Founding-Era State Constitutions.”   American Political Thought  4, (Winter 2015):1-38.

[12] Wilson, John K. “Religion Under the State Constitutions, 1776-1800.”  Journal of Church and State.  32, no. 4 (1990): 753-773.

[13] Herron, Paul E. “Slavery and Freedom in American State Constitutional Development.” Journal of Policy History 27, no. 2 (2015): 301-336.

[14] Ireland, Robert M.  “The Kentucky Constitution.”  Clinger, James C., and Michael W. Hail.  Kentucky Government, Politics, and Public Policy. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2013.

[15] Tarr, 2000

Click here for American Exceptionalism Revealed 90-Day Study Schedule
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox

Essay 87 – Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

George Walton was one of the most fascinating, but puzzling signers of the Declaration of Independence. His life and career included great triumphs and defeats, as well as a number of changes in political course that were thought by some to be rank opportunism. Others believed those choices were principled. He rose to great heights of political and governmental office, but also endured censure and disappointment, losing offices and missing opportunities for greater esteem. He died in relatively modest circumstance after serving as a senator, governor, judge, and militia officer in service to Georgia and his country.

George Walton was born in Virginia sometime between 1740 and 1750.  The exact date is not known.[1] Walton’s father had died before his birth, and his mother died a few years later, so Walton was taken in by his father’s brother, who was also named George Walton. The elder Walton was not a poor man, but he had thirteen children of his own to raise, as well as those of his brother. When he was fifteen, the younger Walton was apprenticed as a carpenter, where he learned that trade. He was released from his apprenticeship while still a teenager, when he moved with an older brother to Savannah, Georgia. There, he became a clerk in an attorney’s office, and began to learn the law while on the job. By 1775, Walton had not only become a practicing attorney, but had also become one of the most sought-out and prosperous lawyers in Savannah.  As his professional success grew, Walton became involved with the young Whigs opposing British rule in America.[2]

There were multiple factions jockeying for influence in Georgia’s colonial politics at the time. Some Loyalists wished to remain a British colony. The Whigs wished to separate, but they were internally divided between more radical and more conservative factions, which were concentrated in different parishes. Walton had relatives who had settled in western Georgia, but he was also connected to more conservative politicians along the Atlantic coast. Walton was elected to the provincial congress in July of 1775 and chosen for the Council of Safety in December. He also became a high-ranking officer in the Georgia militia, where he became a close follower of Colonel Lachlan McIntosh.    Walton was chosen as one of five delegates to the second Continental Congress, but he was one of only three to attend the proceedings and vote on independence. Walton was the last of the three to arrive in Philadelphia, so he missed some of the debate over the motion to break free from Britain. He did arrive in time to hear John Adams’ summation of the arguments for independence. Years later, Walton wrote to Adams telling him that “Since the first day of July, 1776, my conduct, in every station in life, has corresponded with the result of that great question which you so ably and faithfully developed on that day.”[3] Walton remained an enthusiastic Adams supporter for the rest of his life.

Walton served four one-year terms in the Continental Congress, although the terms were not consecutive. Walton spent much of his time in Congress convincing other representatives of the importance of Georgia in the war effort asking for assistance. In late 1777, Walton returned to Savannah and his law practice. Walton married Dorothy Camber, who was said to be in her teens at the time. They had two sons together. Walton soon returned to public office by serving in the General Assembly. He also volunteered in November, 1778, to serve in the militia to repel a British invasion from Florida. In December, the British landed on the Georgia coast to attack Savannah. Walton ordered his militia unit to stop British troops advancing through a swamp. His troops were unable to hold their position and quickly retreated. Walton was left in the field, badly wounded by a bullet wound in his thigh and a fall from his horse. He spent the next ten months as a prisoner of war.[4]

After his release, Walton began a political transformation that perplexed many historians and at times infuriated some of his contemporaries.   Over the next few years, Walton was named to a number of public offices: governor, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, state supreme court chief justice, and United States Senator. Before and during the revolutionary war, Walton had been a political ally of Lachlan McIntosh and a virulent critic of Button Gwinnett, who had joined Walton and Lyman Hall in Philadelphia as Georgia’s representatives to the Second Continental Congress. Walton was even censured for his support of a duel in which McIntosh killed Gwinnett. But after his release by the British in a prisoner exchange, Walton began to re-align himself politically with the factions that he had previously opposed. He turned away from McIntosh and fell in with the more radical faction that Gwinnett had led before his death.[5] Walton allegedly forged a letter ostensibly penned by the speaker of the Georgia house of representatives which urged the removal of McIntosh as commander of Georgia’s military forces. After the speaker reported that he had not signed the damaging letter, Congress repudiated its dismissal and restored McIntosh to his position. Later, the son of Lachlan McIntosh, Captain William McIntosh, reportedly horsewhipped Walton, a crime that led to his court-martial.[6]

Whether this was a strategic, politically opportunistic decision or a principled change of heart is not clear, but there is no doubt that many of Walton’s contemporaries believed that he had betrayed his former allies.   Nonetheless, despite accusations of dishonesty and betrayal, Walton continued to be elected or nominated for public offices. Finally, after serving part of a U.S. Senate term to fill a vacancy, Walton failed to be re-elected in 1795.[7]

Earlier, in 1787, Walton was asked to attend the federal constitutional convention as a delegate from Georgia, but he declined so he could attend to matters of state. In 1789, Walton was named as a delegate to the convention to craft Georgia’s second state constitution.[8] That convention produced a document quite similar in form to the new federal constitution, with a separation of powers and a bicameral legislature.[9]   After the constitutional convention, Walton was elected a second time as governor. During his time in office, the state capital was moved to Augusta, where Walton and many of his relatives had settled. Walton spent much of his time in negotiation with Indian tribes, seeking the ceding of lands to the state. Soon Walton was embroiled in two land sale scandals, one involving the “pine barren speculation” of south-central Georgia, the other, larger scandal involving the Yazoo land sales of territory making up present-day Alabama and Mississippi. Walton approved the Yazoo land sales that had begun under Governor George Mathews and which involved bribery within the state legislature. When the scandal came to light, the Georgia General Assembly enacted a law canceling and revoking the land sales that had already been completed.   This led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Fletcher v. Peck, in which the court ruled, for the first time, that a state law violated the federal constitution. Specifically, the court ruled that the Georgia law violated the prohibition of the impairment of the obligation of contracts in Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1.[10]

Unlike most men of property and influence in Georgia, Walton did not own slaves. There is little record of his public views on slavery, but it is known that shortly after leaving the governor’s mansion, Walton spoke out against what he called “barbarian” treatment of members of an African-American Baptist congregation in Yamacraw, Georgia, in 1790.   When the congregation first began to hold services, local whites imprisoned some of the church-goers and whipped about fifty members of the assembly. After Walton spoke out against this outrage, a state court ordered the release of the prisoners and declared that religious services could continue.[11]

In his last years, Walton lived somewhat quietly in a cottage outside of Augusta that was located on confiscated Tory land. He never completely left public life, serving as a superior court judge and speaking out on matters of public concern that received his attention. He became an enthusiastic booster supporting the economic development of Augusta.   He was a founder of Richmond Academy and tried unsuccessfully to have Franklin College, the predecessor of the University of Georgia, located in Augusta. His last years were difficult. He had never completely recovered from his wounds incurred in the revolution and he suffered many illnesses in his final years.[12] He was not well off financially. Walton died in February of 1804, only two months after the death of his oldest son.[13]

George Walton’s reputation was marred by scandal that might have broken many politicians. But Walton continually returned to power after losing office and influence. His resolve to return again and again to the political fray displayed his commitment to the building of a new nation. One of the youngest signers of the Declaration of Independence, George Walton was certainly a skilled statesman who sacrificed much in service to his country and his state of Georgia.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. Dr. Clinger teaches courses in state and local government, Kentucky politics, intergovernmental relations, regulatory policy, and public administration. Dr. Clinger is also the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board and a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association. He currently resides in Hazel, Kentucky. 

Podcast by Maureen Quinn.



[2] Bridges, Edwin C.  “George Walton,” in Georgia’s Signers and the Declaration of Independence, by Edwin C. Bridges, Harvey H. Jackson, Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr. and James Harvey Young. Cherokee Publishing Company, 1981.

[3] Bridges, op cit., page 64.

[4] Bridges, op cit.

[5] Bridges, op cit.

[6] Daughters of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.

[7] Daughters of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. ibid .

[8] Bridges, op cit.

[9] Hill, Melvin B., Jr., and Hill, Laverne Williamson Hill.   “Georgia: Tectonic Plates Shifting.” In George E. Connor and Christopher W. Hammons (editors).  The Constitutionalism of American States. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2008.

[10] 10 U.S. 87 (1810).

[11] Whitescarver, Keith. 1993. “Creating Citizens for the Republic: Education in Georgia, 1776-1810.” Journal of the Early Republic 13 (4): 468.

[12] Daughters of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.

[13] Bridges, op cit.

Click Here for Next Essay

Click Here for Previous Essay

Click Here To Sign up for the Daily Essay From Our 2021 90-Day Study: Our Lives, Our Fortunes & Our Sacred Honor 
Click Here To View the Schedule of Topics From Our 2021 90-Day Study: Our Lives, Our Fortunes & Our Sacred Honor 

Essay 86 – Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

Lyman Hall was a multi-talented clergyman, physician, and statesman who served in the Second Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence, and won state office in his adopted state of Georgia.   Repeatedly, Hall faced personal and financial losses as a result of his service to his country and his state, but he emerged as a respected political figure in a politically fractious environment.

Most sources indicate that Hall was born in Connecticut in 1724, although some authorities list a later year of birth. Hall’s family was filled with pious Congregationalists, and his father and uncle served as clergy. To no one’s surprise, Hall studied divinity at nearby Yale University, and then began a career as a parson. He lost his position because of some sort of scandal involving confessed immoral conduct.   The exact nature of the offense is not now known. Whatever the details of the controversy were, Hall’s reputation was not so severely damaged that he was unable to secure some income preaching occasionally at local churches. For a time, he also taught school. Perhaps those careers did not offer much attraction to Hall, since he resolved to learn to practice medicine through an internship with an established physician.[1]   This kind of medical education was not uncommon at that time, even though it would be unthinkable in the United States today.

Hall married Abigail Burr in 1752, but she died a year later. Hall later married Mary Osborne, who bore him a son. Hall and his family moved from Connecticut to Dorchester, South Carolina, in 1756, where he practiced medicine. He later moved to Liberty County, Georgia, where he again set up a medical practice and later acquired a plantation. In both South Carolina and Georgia, Hall settled amongst transplanted New Englanders, descendants of Puritans. Once in Georgia, Hall became active in the push for independence.[2]

In 1775, Hall was elected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress from St. Johns Parish. The colony of Georgia at that time was divided amongst factions that were urging independence and those that wished to become reconciled with the British government. Because he was not chosen state-wide, Hall attended the First Continental Congress as a non-voting member. Hall brought a shipment of rice to Philadelphia to be distributed in Boston which was suffering from the British embargo on foodstuffs from other colonies. Hall served on a scientific committee along with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Patrick Henry.[3]

In 1776, Hall was chosen as one of five delegates to the Second Continental Congress, although only three attended at the time of the debate and to vote on independence. Hall and Button Gwinnet, who were personal friends and members of the same faction in Georgia’s colonial politics, arrived first. George Walton, who represented a different faction and geographic areas of Georgia, arrived only shortly before the vote. Hall served on committees concerned with provision of medical supplies to the continental troops. Hall was regarded as a steady and hardworking committee member.[4] The Georgia delegation was stalwart in its support for the proposal for independence, but according to Thomas Jefferson, the delegations from Georgia and South Carolina led the opposition to his provision “reprobating the enslaving [of] the inhabitants of Africa.”[5]

Hall was steadily re-elected to the Congress through 1780, but he may not have actually served in Philadelphia after February of 1777.   Matters of state and family necessity required him to return to Georgia and later to flee to South Carolina, where he still had friends and supporters. The British issued a bill of attainder directing his arrest and the confiscation of his property. Hall’s plantation house at “Hall’s Knoll” and his home in Sunbury, Georgia, were burned to the ground by British troops.[6] Years later, the United States Constitution would forbid the use of bills of attainder by the federal government (Article I, Section 9, Clause 3) and by the states (Article I, Section 10). In addition to the losses of property, many personal papers and public documents were lost in the flames.

Hall was devastated by the death of Button Gwinnett in a duel in 1777.   Hall made an unsuccessful effort to arrest and prosecute the duelist, Lachlan McIntosh, who killed Gwinnett. Hall briefly returned to his medical practice, but was elected to the Georgia House of Assembly in 1783. One of the first acts of the Assembly was to elect Hall governor.   It was not a position that he had sought. While governor, Hall worked futilely on the state’s finances, which were in a complete shambles. Hall also initiated negotiations with Native American tribes from whom the state wished to gain land concessions.[7] Hall pushed hard for a piety-oriented educational system that would “restrain vice and encourage virtue.” Hall supported the creation of what was originally known as Franklin College, which later became the University of Georgia.[8]

Factional politics in Georgia was fierce, both before and after statehood.   After Hall left office as governor he was taken into custody for contempt because he failed to produce some public documents regarding sequestered estates. He later was cleared of the charge, but the allegations placed great strain on the last years of his life. The estate of a one-time business partner was suing Hall over twenty year old disputes as late as 1786. His loss of property during the revolution and the demands of his public obligations upon his time left him in financial difficulties.[9]

Hall moved to Savannah in 1785, where he once more practiced medicine. He did not leave public service entirely, though, for he supplemented his income as Judge of the Chatham Court. Hall moved to a Burke County plantation shortly before he died in 1790, leaving behind a widow and a son who would both die within three years.[10]

Lyman Hall’s name may be the most well-known of Georgia’s signers of the Declaration of Independence, although much of his fame may be attributed to the stage and movie musical, 1776, in which Hall plays a significant supporting role. Unfortunately, very little about the musical’s portrayal of Hall can be established as factual. Hall’s actual life was certainly dramatic enough to deserve the attention of all Americans, and certainly all Georgians.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. Dr. Clinger teaches courses in state and local government, Kentucky politics, intergovernmental relations, regulatory policy, and public administration. Dr. Clinger is also the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board and a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association. He currently resides in Hazel, Kentucky. 

Podcast by Maureen Quinn.


[1] Young, James Harvey.  “Lyman Hall,” in Georgia’s Signers and the Declaration of Independence, by Edwin C. Bridges, Harvey H. Jackson, Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr. and James Harvey Young. Cherokee Publishing Company, 1981.

[2] Krafka, J.. “Lyman Hall-Yale 1747: A Connecticut Doctor Who Mixed Medicine and Politics in Georgia.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 10 (1938): 531-537.

2 Young, James Harvey.  “Lyman Hall,” in Georgia’s Signers and the Declaration of Independence, by Edwin C. Bridges, Harvey H. Jackson, Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr. and James Harvey Young. Cherokee Publishing Company, 1981.

[4] Young, op cit.

[5] Jefferson, Thomas. “The Declaration of Independence: Thomas Jefferson’s Account.”

[6] Young, op cit.

[7] Krafka, op cit.

[8] Whitescarver, Keith. 1993. “Creating Citizens for the Republic: Education in Georgia, 1776-1810.” Journal of the Early Republic 13 (4): 455-479.

[9] Krafka, op cit.

[10] Krafka, op cit.

Click here for Next Essay

Click Here for Previous Essay

Click Here To Sign up for the Daily Essay From Our 2021 90-Day Study: Our Lives, Our Fortunes & Our Sacred Honor 
Click Here To View the Schedule of Topics From Our 2021 90-Day Study: Our Lives, Our Fortunes & Our Sacred Honor 

Essay 85 – Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger
Nathaniel Hone the Elder (Irish, 1718–1784)Title: Portrait of Button Gwinnett, signer of the Declaration of Independence from GeorgiaMedium: Oil on Canvas Size: 84.5 x 73.7 cm. (33.3 x 29 in.)

Button Gwinnett was one of the three Georgia delegates to the Second Continental Congress who signed the Declaration of Independence. Gwinnett was also was a prominent leader in Georgia’s state government. But despite those prominent achievements, Gwinnett’s life was also full of controversies, scandals, and tragedies. He was the second of the fifty-six signers to die, and his death was caused by internal political and personal feuding within Georgia, not by the new nation’s battles with the British.

Gwinnett was born in Gloucester, England, in 1735, the son of an Anglican vicar. He was named in honor of his godmother, Barbara Button. He married Anne Bourne, and they had three children together. For much of his adult life, he worked as a merchant, but was never consistently successful. In fact, he may have fled England to come to the colonies in order to escape his creditors. After living briefly in Nova Scotia and Jamaica, Gwinnett arrived in Savannah, Georgia, where his business ventures were mostly unsuccessful.[1] Gwinnett did have some success in politics as he quickly became a leader within a faction that favored wresting political control from elites in Christ Church Parish as well as from the British. Georgia was the last of the original thirteen colonies to be organized by the British. The population was concentrated within a few miles of the Atlantic coast, with only sparse settlement in the backcountry. Much of the representation in the colonial assembly was held by landed gentry from Christ Church Parish, while other parishes had little influence.[2] Gwinnett became an outspoken leader of colonists from St. Johns Parish and claimed to represent the common people throughout all of Georgia.

The British presence was led by royal governors, the last of which was a fairly popular and capable administrator, Sir James Wright. Actions by the British government affected all of the American colonies slowly led to opposition in Georgia.[3] The opponents of British rule were known as Whigs, but the group was divided among different factions. The more conservative faction had its base in Christ Church parish, while a more radical faction, which included Button Gwinnett, had more support elsewhere. The radical faction, later known as the Popular Party, gained political strength in Georgia after the Stamp Act was enacted in Britain and after British troops fought with colonists in Lexington and Concord.[4]

Gwinnett rented a store shortly after arriving in Savannah and established himself as a merchant. That venture proved unsuccessful and Gwinnett borrowed money to buy St. Catherine’s Island in St. John’s Parish so that he could become a planter. At that time, he became active in local politics and civic affairs, becoming a justice of the peace and later a representative to the Commons House of Assembly. During his first term in legislative office, he made a name for himself as an advocate for parishes that had taxes imposed upon them without legislative representation. He also became known as an opponent of the royal governor.[5]

Gwinnet left the Assembly after one session to try to return to his plantation and stave off bankruptcy. Soon both his personal property and his land were put up for forced sale to satisfy his creditors in 1773.   Gwinnett returned to politics, claiming that his troubles and those of other Georgians were the doing of the elites from Christ Church Parish and the royal governor. Georgia did not send a delegation to the First Continental Congress, because of divisions between the different Whig coalitions. The St. Johns Parish representatives also boycotted the First Provincial Congress, but later held a Second Provincial Congress in July of 1775 which was attended by all factions, but not by Gwinnett.   Forging an alliance between his supporters in St. John’s Parish and new recruits from the western, rural areas of Georgia, Gwinnett built up a personal following. When the Continental Congress declared that Georgia should raise a continental battalion, the colonial legislature chose Gwinnett as the commander, despite his complete lack of military qualifications. However, Gwinnett never served as commander because the different factions later chose him as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, joining his friend and political ally, Lyman Hall.   The man then chosen to serve as the battalion commander was Lachlan McIntosh, an officer in George Washington’s continental army, who at the time, at least, was considered to be unaffiliated with any particular faction.[6]

Gwinnett presented his credentials in Philadelphia on May 20, 1776.    He served on some committees, but little is known about his participation in any debates on independence. Gwinnett did vote for the motion in support of independence, and he did sign the Declaration of Independence on August 2. Gwinnet returned to Georgia, probably hoping to re-gain the appointment to the battalion commander, but McIntosh was selected to remain in that position. Gwinnet was soon chosen to participate in a state constitutional convention that would draft the first of Georgia’s constitution. Once he arrived at the convention, Gwinnett was chosen as speaker. Most records of the debates at the convention have not survived to this day, but it appears that the final product was to Gwinnett’s liking. The new state constitution established relatively low property ownership requirements for voting, created a unicameral state legislature, and established a weak chief executive, elected by the legislature, who could not veto legislative actions. The new constitution also abolished the parish system of representation and created counties that would serve as administrative units of the state as well as a basis for representation in the legislature. The new document was approved in February of 1777. By that time, Gwinnett served on the Council of Safety, which assumed governmental power after the Provincial Congress adjourned. The president of the Council of Safety, Archibald Bulloch was the de facto chief executive. Bulloch died suddenly, late in that month. The Council of Safety selected Gwinnett to serve as temporary president. The only dissenting vote was cast by George McIntosh, the brother of Lachlan McIntosh.[7]

Gwinnett urged the Continental Army to form an expedition to attack British troops and sympathizers in what is now St. Augustine, Florida.   But those urgings were ignored or rejected. Gwinnett also urged the Georgia battalion to take action, but was met with resistance from Lachlan McIntosh, who thought the Georgia forces were ill-prepared to mount an operation in that territory far from their sources of supply.   Eventually, an attempt to begin an expedition did occur, but the effort was abandoned before the troops moved more than a few miles from their base of operations.

Gwinnett’s feud with the McIntosh family intensified after he received a packet of documents in March of 1777 that reported that George McIntosh had entered into a business partnership with his brothers-in-law to ship rice first to Dutch Guiana and then to the British West Indies.   The shipment took place before independence was declared, but it was a violation of the Continental Association’s prohibition of trade with British ports. George McIntosh was arrested, but later released on bail, paid for in part by members of the Council of Safety.[8]

By early May, the first assembly under the new constitution met to elect the first governor. Gwinnett expected to be chosen, but the legislature selected another member of the Popular Party, John Adam Treutlen, as governor. The legislature also reported the results of an investigation into the St. Augustine expedition, which upheld Gwinnett’s position and implicitly rejected the stance taken by Lachlan McIntosh. Enraged, McIntosh took to the floor of the Assembly and declared that Gwinnett was “a Scoundrell & Lying Rascal.” Gwinnett was not willing to allow the insult to go unchallenged. On May 15, 1777, he issued a written challenge to McIntosh to a duel on the following day. McIntosh agreed.   The following morning, standing only about a dozen paces apart, Gwinnett and McIntosh fired at one another. Both men hit their target.   McIntosh suffered a flesh wound to his thigh, but his shot shattered bone just above Gwinnet’s knee. McIntosh asked if both parties could re-load and fire again, but the seconds intervened to put an end to the duel. The antagonists shook hands, and their seconds took the wounded men home. McIntosh made a complete recovery, but Gwinnett’s wounds quickly became gangrenous. He died Monday morning, May 19, leaving behind a destitute widow and three orphaned children. He was the second of the signers of the Declaration of Independence to pass away, and the first to die violently.[9]

Gwinnett was an intriguing, controversial figure. He was in many ways politically adroit, but he was an utter failure in business and even in politics his victories were short-lived. He was loved by some of his followers but was hated by his opponents. Lachlan McIntosh was far from the first to accuse him of dishonesty and betrayal. Nonetheless, he is remembered today for his role in crafting, and signing in support of, one of America’s foundational documents, the Declaration of Independence.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. Dr. Clinger teaches courses in state and local government, Kentucky politics, intergovernmental relations, regulatory policy, and public administration. Dr. Clinger is also the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board and a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association. He currently resides in Hazel, Kentucky.  

Podcast by Maureen Quinn.


[1] Davis, Robert Scott.   “The Dark and Heroic Histories of Georgia’s Signers,” Journal of the American Revolution.  February 11, 2019.

[2] Jackson, Harvey H.  “Factional Politics in Revolutionary Georgia,” in Georgia’s Signers and the Declaration of Independence, by Edwin C. Bridges, Harvey H. Jackson, Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr. and James Harvey Young. Cherokee Publishing Company, 1981.

[3] Bridges, Edwin C.  “Prelude to Independence,” in Georgia’s Signers and the Declaration of Independence, by Edwin C. Bridges, Harvey H. Jackson, Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr. and James Harvey Young. Cherokee Publishing Company, 1981.

[4] Jackson, Harvey H.  “Factional Politics in Revolutionary Georgia,” in Georgia’s Signers and the Declaration of Independence, by Edwin C. Bridges, Harvey H. Jackson, Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr. and James Harvey Young. Cherokee Publishing Company, 1981.

[5] Jackson, Harvey H.  “Button Gwinnett,” in Georgia’s Signers and the Declaration of Independence, by Edwin C. Bridges, Harvey H. Jackson, Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr. and James Harvey Young. Cherokee Publishing Company, 1981.

[6] Jackson, ibid.

[7] Jackson, ibid. 

[8] Jackson, ibid.

[9] Fleming, Thomas H. (2011). “When Politics Was Not Only Nasty… But Dangerous”. American Heritage. 61 (1). Retrieved 24 May 2021.

Click Here for Next Essay

Click Here for Previous Essay

Click Here To Sign up for the Daily Essay From Our 2021 90-Day Study: Our Lives, Our Fortunes & Our Sacred Honor 
Click Here To View the Schedule of Topics From Our 2021 90-Day Study: Our Lives, Our Fortunes & Our Sacred Honor 

Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

An admirer of inventors Bell, Edison, and Einstein’s theories, scientist and inventor Philo T. Farnsworth designed the first electric television based on an idea he sketched in a high school chemistry class. He studied and learned some success was gained with transmitting and projecting images. While plowing fields, Farnsworth realized television could become a system of horizontal lines, breaking up images, but forming an electronic picture of solid images. Despite attempts by competitors to impede Farnsworth’s original inventions, in 1928, Farnsworth presented his idea for a television to reporters in Hollywood, launching him into more successful efforts that would revolutionize moving pictures.

On September 3, 1928, Philo Farnsworth, a twenty-two year old inventor with virtually no formal credentials as a scientist, demonstrated his wholly electronic television system to reporters in California. A few years later, a much improved television system was demonstrated to larger crowds of onlookers at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, proving to the world that this new medium could broadcast news, entertainment, and educational content across the nation.

Farnsworth had come far from his boyhood roots in northern Utah and southern Idaho. He was born in a log cabin lacking indoor plumbing or electrical power. His family moved to a farm outside of Rigby, Idaho, when Farnsworth was a young boy. For the first time, Farnsworth could examine electrical appliances and electric generators in action. He quickly learned to take electrical gadgets apart and put them back together again, often making adaptations to improve their function. He also watched each time the family’s generator was repaired. Soon, still a  young boy, he could do those repairs himself. Farnsworth was a voracious reader of science books and magazines, but also devoured what is now termed science fiction, although that term was not in use during his youth. He became a skilled violinist, possibly because of the example of his idol, Albert Einstein, who also played the instrument.[1]

Farnsworth excelled in his classes in school, particularly in mathematics and other sciences, but he did present his teachers and school administrators with a bit of a problem when he repeatedly appealed to take classes intended for much older students. According to school rules, only high school juniors and seniors were supposed to enroll in the advanced classes, but Farnsworth determined to find courses that would challenge him intellectually. The school resisted his entreaties, but one chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, agreed to tutor Philo and give him extra assignments both before and after school.

One day, Farnsworth presented a visual demonstration of an idea that he had for transmitting visual images across space. He later claimed that he had come up with the basic idea for this process one year earlier, when he was only fourteen. As he was plowing a field on his family farm, Philo had seen a series of straight rows of plowed ground. Farnsworth thought it might be possible to represent visual images by breaking up the entire image into a sequence of lines of various shades of light and dark images. The images could be projected electronically and re-assembled as pictures made up of a collection of lines, placed one on top of another. Farnsworth  believed that this could be accomplished based on his understanding of Einstein’s path-breaking work on the “photoelectric effect” which had discovered that a particle of light, called a photon, that hit a metal plate would displace electrons with some residual energy transferred to a free-roaming negative charge, called a photoelectron.[2] Farnsworth had developed a conceptual model of a device that he called an “image dissector” that could break the images apart and transmit them for reassembly at a receiver. He had no means of creating this device with the resources he had at hand, but he did develop a model representation of the device, along with mathematical equations to convey the causal mechanisms. He presented all of this on the blackboard of a classroom in the high school in Rigby.   Tolman was stunned by the intellectual prowess of the fifteen year old standing in front of him. He thought Farnsworth’s model might actually work, and he copied down some of the drawings from the blackboard onto a piece of paper, which he kept for years.[3] It is fortunate for Farnsworth that Tolman held on to those pieces of paper.

Farnsworth was accepted into the United States Naval Academy but very soon was granted an honorable discharge under a provision permitting new midshipman to leave the university and the service to care for their families after the death of a parent. Farnsworth’s father had died the previous year, and Farnsworth returned to Utah, where his family had relocated after the sale of the farm. Farnsworth enrolled at Brigham Young University but worked at various jobs to support himself, his mother, and his younger siblings. As he had in high school, Farnsworth asked to be allowed to register in advanced classes rather than take only freshman level course work. He quickly earned a technical certificate but no baccalaureate degree. While in Utah, Farnsworth met, courted and eventually married his wife, “Pem,” who would later help in his lab creating and building instruments. One of her brothers would also provide lab assistance. One of Farnsworth’s job during his time in Utah was with the local Community Chest. There he met George Everson and Leslie Gorrell, who were regional Community Chest administrators who were experienced in money-raising. Farnsworth explained his idea to them about electronic television, which he had never before done to anyone except his father, now deceased, and his high school teacher, Justin Tolman. Everson and Gorrell were impressed with Farnsworth’s idea, although they barely understood most of the science behind it. Everson and Gorrell invited Farnsworth to travel with them to California to discuss his research with scientists from the California Institute of Technology (a.k.a., Cal Tech). Farnsworth agree to do so, and made the trek to Los Angeles to meet first with scientists and then with bankers to solicit funds to support his research.     When discussing his proposed electronic television model, Farnsworth became transformed from a shy, socially awkward, somewhat tongue-tied young man to a confident and articulate advocate of his project. He was able to explain the broad outline of his research program in terms that lay people could understand. He convinced Gorrell and Everson to put up some money and a few years later got several thousand more dollars from a California bank.[4]

Philo and Pem Farnsworth re-located first to Los Angeles and then to San Francisco to establish a laboratory. Farnsworth believed that his work would progress more quickly if he were close to a number of other working scientists and technical experts at Cal Tech and other universities. Farnsworth also wanted to be near to those in the motion picture industry who had technical expertise. With a little start-up capital, Farnsworth and a few other backers incorporated their business, although Farnsworth did not create a publicly traded corporation until several years later. At the age of twenty-one, in 1927, Farnsworth filed the first two of his many patent applications. Those two patents were approved by the patent office in 1930. By the end of his life he had three hundred patents, most of which dealt with television or radio components. As of 1938, three-fourths of all patents dealing with television were by Farnsworth.[5]

When Farnsworth began his work in California, he and his wife and brother-in-law had to create many of the basic components for his television system. There was very little that they could simply buy off-the-shelf at any sort of store that they could simply assemble into the device Farnsworth had in mind. So much of their time was devoted to soldering wires and creating vacuum tubes, as well as testing materials to determine which performed best. After a while, Farnsworth hired some assistants, many of them graduate students at Cal Tech or Stanford. One of his assistants, Russell Varian, would later make a name for himself as a physicist in his own right and would become one of the founders of Silicon Valley. Farnsworth’s lab also had many visitors, including Hollywood celebrities such as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, as well as a number of scientists and engineers. One visitor was Vladimir Zworykin, a Russian émigré with a PhD in electrical engineering who worked for Westinghouse Corporation. Farnsworth showed Zworykin not only his lab but also examples of most of his key innovations, including his image dissector. Zworykin expressed admiration for the devices that he observed, and said that he wished that he had invented the dissector. What Farnsworth did not know was that a few weeks earlier, Zworykin had been hired away from Westinghouse by David Sarnoff, then the managing director and later the president of the Radio Corporation of America (a.k.a., RCA). Sarnoff grilled Zworykin about what he had learned from his trip to Farnsworth’s lab and immediately set him to work on television research. RCA was already a leading manufacturer of radio sets and would soon become the creator of the National Broadcasting Corporation (a.k.a., NBC). After government antitrust regulators forced RCA to divest itself of some of its broadcasting assets, RCA created the American Broadcasting Corporation (a.k.a., ABC) as a separate company[6]. RCA and Farnsworth would remain competitors and antagonists for the rest of Farnsworth’s career.

In 1931, Philco, a major radio manufacturer and electronics corporation entered into a deal with Farnsworth to support his research. The company was not buying out Farnsworth’s company, but was purchasing non-exclusive licenses for Farnsworth’s patents. Farnsworth then moved with his family and some of his research staff to Philadelphia.   Ironically, RCA’s television lab was located in Camden, New Jersey, just a few miles away. On many occasions, Farnsworth and RCA could receive the experimental television broadcasts transmitted from their rival’s lab. Farnsworth and his team were working at a feverish pace to improve their inventions to make them commercially feasible. The Federal Radio Commission, later known as the Federal Communications Commission, classified television as a merely experimental communications technology, rather than one that was commercially viable and subject to license. The commission wished to create standards for picture resolution and frequency bandwidth. Many radio stations objected to television licensing because they believed that television signals would crowd out the bandwidth available for their broadcasts.   Farnsworth developed the capacity to transmit television signals over a more narrow bandwidth than any competing televisions’ transmissions.

Personal tragedy struck the Farnsworth family in 1932 when Philo and Pem’s young son, Kenny, still a toddler, died of a throat infection, an ailment that today could easily have been treated with antibiotics. The Farnsworths decided to have the child buried back in Utah, but Philco refused to allow Philo time off to go west to bury his son. Pem made the trip alone, causing a rift between the couple that would take months to heal. Farnsworth was struggling to perfect his inventions, while at the same time RCA devoted an entire team to television research and engaged in a public relations campaign to convince industry leaders and the public that it had the only viable television system. At this time, Farnsworth’s health was declining. He was diagnosed with ulcers and he began to drink heavily, even though Prohibition had not yet been repealed. He finally decided to sever his relationship with Philco and set up his own lab in suburban Philadelphia. He soon also took the dramatic step of filing a patent infringement complaint against RCA in 1934.[7]

Farnsworth and his friend and patent attorney, Donald Lippincott, presented their argument before the patent examination board that Farnsworth was the original inventor of what was now known as electronic television and that Sarnoff and RCA had infringed on patents approved in 1930. Zworykin had some important patents prior to that time but had not patented the essential inventions necessary to create an electronic television system. RCA went on the offensive by claiming that it was absurd to claim that a young man in his early twenties with no more than one year of college could create something that well-educated scientists had failed to invent. Lippincott responded with evidence of the Zworykin visit to the Farnsworth lab in San Francisco. After leaving Farnsworth, Zworykin had returned first to the labs at Westinghouse and had duplicates of Farnsworth’s tubes constructed on the spot. Then researchers were sent to Washington to make copies of Farnsworth’s patent applications and exhibits. Lippincott also was able to produce Justin Lippincott, Philo’s old and then retired teacher, who appeared before the examination board to testify that the basic idea of the patent had been developed when Farnsworth was a teenager. When queried, Tolman removed a yellowed piece of notebook paper with a diagram that he had copied off the blackboard in 1922. Although the document was undated, the written document, in addition to Tolman’s oral testimony, may have convinced the board that Farnsworth’s eventual patent was for a novel invention.[8]

The examining board took several months to render a decision. In July of 1935, the examiner of interferences from the U.S. Patent Office mailed a forty-eight page document to the parties involved. After acknowledging the significance of inventions by Zworykin, the patent office declared that those inventions were not equivalent to what was understood to be electronic television. Farnsworth’s claims had priority.   The decision was appealed in 1936, but the result remained unchanged.  Beginning in 1939, RCA began paying royalties to Farnsworth.

Farnsworth and his family, friends, and co-workers were ecstatic with the outcome when the patent infringement case was decided. For the first time, Farnsworth was receiving the credit and the promise of the money that he thought he was due. However, the price he had paid already was very high. Farnsworth’s physical and emotional health was declining. He was perpetually nervous and exhausted. As unbelievable as it may sound today, one doctor advised him to take up smoking to calm his nerves. He continued to drink heavily and his weight dropped.      His company was re-organized as the Farnsworth Television & Radio Corporation and had its initial public offering of stock in 1939.    Whether out of necessity or personal choice, Farnsworth’s work in running his lab and his company diminished.

While vacationing in northern, rural Maine in 1938, the Farnsworth family came across a plot of land that reminded Philo of his home and farm outside of Rigby. Farnsworth bought the property, re-built an old house, constructed a dam for a small creek, and erected a building that could house a small laboratory. He spent most of the next few years on the property. Even though RCA had lost several patent infringement cases against Farnsworth, the company was still engaging in public demonstrations of television broadcasts in which it claimed that David Sarnoff was the founder of television and that Vladimir Zworykin was the sole inventor of television. The most significant of these demonstrations was at the World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows, New York. Many reporters accepted the propaganda that was distributed at that event and wrote up glowing stories of the supposedly new invention. Only a few years before, Farnsworth had demonstrated his inventions at the Franklin Institute, but the World’s Fair was a much bigger venue with a wider media audience. In 1949, NBC launched a special televised broadcast celebrating the 25th anniversary of the creation of television by RCA, Sarnoff, and Zworykin. No mention was made of Farnsworth at all.[9]

The FCC approved television as a commercial broadcast enterprise, subject to licensure, in 1939. The commission also set standards for broadcast frequency and picture quality. However, the timing to start off a major commercial venture for the sale of a discretionary consumer product was far from ideal. In fact, the timing of Farnsworth’s milestone accomplishments left much to be desired. His first patents were approved shortly after the nation entered the Great Depression. His inventions created an industry that was already subject to stringent government regulation focused on a related but potentially rival technology: radio. Once television was ready for mass marketing, the nation was poised to enter World War II. During the war, production of televisions and many other consumer products ceased and resources were devoted to war-related materiel. Farnsworth’s company and RCA both produced radar and other electronics equipment. Farnsworth’s company also produced wooden ammunition boxes. Farnsworth allowed the military to enjoy free use of his patents for radar tubes.[10]

Farnsworth enjoyed royalties from his patent for the rest of his life.   However, his two most important patents were his earliest inventions.  The patents were approved in 1930 for a duration of seventeen years. In 1947, the patents became part of the public domain. It was really only in the late 1940s and 1950s that television exploded as a popular consumer good, but by that time Farnsworth could receive no royalties for his initial inventions. Other, less fundamental components that he had patented did provide him with some royalty income. Before the war, Farnsworth’s company had purchased the Capehart Company of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and eventually closed down their Philadelphia area facility and moved their operations entirely to Indiana. A devastating wildfire swept through the countryside in rural Maine, burning down the buildings on Farnsworth’s property, only days before his property insurance policy was activated. Farnsworth’s company fell upon hard times, as well, and eventually was sold to International Telephone and Telegraph. Farnsworth’s health never completely recovered, and he took a disability retirement pension at the age of sixty and returned to Utah.   In his last few years, Farnsworth devoted little time to television research, but did develop devices related to cold fusion, which he hoped to use to produce abundant electrical power for the whole world to enjoy. As of now, cold fusion has not been a viable electric power generator, but it has proved useful in neutron production and medical isotopes.

Farnsworth died in 1971 at the age of sixty-four. At the time of his death, he was not well-known outside of scientific circles. His hopes and dreams of television as a cultural and educational beacon to the whole world had not been realized, but he did find some value in at least some of what he could see on the screen. About two years before he died, Philo and Pem along with millions of other people around the world saw Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. At that moment, Philo turned to his wife and said that he believed that all of his work was worthwhile.

Farnsworth’s accomplishments demonstrated that a more or less single inventor, with the help of a few friends, family members, and paid staff, could create significant and useful inventions that made a mark on the world.[11] In the long run, corporate product development by rivals such as RCA surpassed what he could do to make his brainchild marketable.   Farnsworth had neither the means nor the inclination to compete with major corporations in all respects. But he did wish to have at least some recognition and some financial reward for his efforts. Unfortunately, circumstances often wiped out what gains he received. Farnsworth also demonstrated that individuals lacking paper credentials can also accomplish significant achievements. With relatively little schooling and precious little experience, Farnsworth developed devices that older and more well-educated competitors could not. Sadly, Farnsworth’s experiences display the role of seemingly chance events in curbing personal success. Had he developed his inventions a bit earlier or later, avoiding most of the Depression and the Second World War, he might have gained much greater fame and fortune. None of us, of course, choose the time into which we are born.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. He is the co-author of Institutional Constraint and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance and co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Clinger is the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board, a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association, and a former firefighter for the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1]  Schwartz, Evan I. 2002. The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television. New York: HarperCollins.


[3] Schwartz, op cit.

[4] Schwartz, op cit.

[5] Jewkes, J. “Monopoly and Economic Progress.” Economica, New Series, 20, no. 79 (1953): 197-214

[6] Schwartz, op cit.

[7] Schwartz, op cit.

[8] Schwartz, op cit.

[9] Schwartz, op cit.

[10]Schwartz, op cit.

[11]Lemley, Mark A. 2012. “The Myth of the Sole Inventor.” Michigan Law Review 110 (5): 709–60.


Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

An attorney representing Alexander Graham Bell and his business partner, Gardiner Hubbard, filed a patent application for an invention entitled an “Improvement in Telegraphy” on February 14, 1876. That same day, Elisha Gray, a prominent inventor from Highland Park, Illinois, had applied for a patent caveat for a similar invention from the same office. On March 7, Bell’s patent was approved by the patent office and the battle over the rights to the invention that we now know as the telephone began. The eventual outcome would shape the development of a major industry and the opportunities for communication and social interaction for the entire country.

The invention came from an unlikely source. Alexander Graham Bell was a Scottish-born teacher of elocution and tutor to the deaf whose family had migrated to Ontario, Canada, after the death of two of Bell’s siblings. Alexander Melville Bell, Alexander Graham Bell’s father, believed that their new home in Ontario offered them a better, more healthful climate. The elder Bell was a student of phonetics who had developed a system of “Visible Speech” to allow deaf people the chance to speak intelligibly. Melville Bell lectured periodically at the Lowell Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, and his son Alexander moved to Boston permanently to assume a teaching position at the Boston University.[1]

Though trained in acoustics and the science behind the sounds of the human voice, Bell did not have a strong understanding of electrical currents or electromagnetism. But early on he realized that the magnetic field of an electrical current was capable of vibrating objects, such as a tuning fork, which could create audible sounds. As he was learning of how electrical currents could be used for sound production, other researchers such as Joseph Stearns and Thomas Edison were developing a system of telegraph transmission in which multiple signals could be sent over the same wire at the same time. These systems relied upon sending the series of dots and dashes at different frequencies. Bell joined that research to find a better “multiplex” telegraph. In order to develop what Bell called a “harmonic telegraph,” Bell needed more funds for his lab. Much of his funding came from a notable Boston attorney, Gardiner Hubbard, who hired Bell as a teacher of his daughter, Mabel, who had become deaf after a bout with scarlet fever. Hubbard, who had a dislike for Western Union’s dominance in long-distance telegraph service, encouraged and subsidized Bell’s research on telegraphy. Hubbard and another financial backer, Thomas Sanders, formed a partnership with Bell, with an agreement that all three hold joint ownership of the patent rights for Bell’s inventions. Bell made significant progress on his research, and had more success in his private life. Mabel Hubbard, who was his student, became his betrothed. Despite the initial objections of her father, Mabel married Bell shortly after her eighteenth birthday.[2]

Other inventers were hard at work on similar lines of research. Daniel Drawbaugh, Antonio Meucci, Johann Philipp Reis, and especially Elisha Gray all were developing alternative versions of what would soon be known as the telephone while Bell was hard at work on his project.  Most of these models involved a variable resistance method of modifying the electrical current by dipping wires into a container of liquid, often mercury or sulfuric acid, to alter the current flowing to a set of reeds or diaphragm that would emit various sounds. Most of these researchers knew more about electrical currents and devices than Bell did. But Bell had a solid understanding of the human voice. Even though his research began as an effort to improve telegraphy, Bell realized that the devices that he created could be designed to replicate speech. His patent application in February of 1876 was for a telephone transmitter that employed a magnetized reed attached to a membrane diaphragm when activated by an undulating current. The device described in the patent application could transmit sounds but not actual speech. Months later, however, Bell’s instrument was improved sufficiently to allow him to convey a brief, audible message to his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, who was in another part of his laboratory. In the summer of 1876, Bell demonstrated the transmission of audible speech to an amazed crowd at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Elisha Gray attempted to demonstrate his version of the telephone at the same exhibition, but was unable to convey the sound of human voices. The following year, Bell filed and received a patent for his telephone receiver, assuring his claim to devices that would both transmit and receive voice communications.[3]

In 1877, Bell and his partners formed the American Bell Telephone Company, a corporation that would later be known as American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T). The corporation and Bell personally were soon involved in a number of lawsuits alleging patent infringement and, in one case, patent cancellation. There were many litigants over the years, but the primary early adversary was Western Union, which had purchased the rights to Elisha Gray’s telephone patent. The United States federal government also was involved in a suit for patent cancellation, alleging that Bell gained his patents fraudulently by stealing the inventions of others. The lawsuit with Western Union was settled in 1879 when the corporation forfeited claims on the invention of the telephone in return for twenty percent of Bell’s company’s earnings for the duration of the patent.[4] The other lawsuits meandered through multiple courts over several years until several were consolidated before the United States Supreme Court. Ultimately, a divided court ruled in favor of Bell’s position in each case. The various opinions and appendices were so voluminous that when compiled they made up the entire volume of United States Reports, the official publication of Supreme Court opinions.[5]

The court decisions ultimately granted vast scope to the Bell patent and assigned an enormously profitable asset to Bell’s corporation. The firm that became AT&T grew into one of the largest corporations in the world.[6] Years earlier, the telegraph had transformed communication, with huge impacts on the operation of industry and government. But although the telegraph had enormous impact upon the lives of ordinary Americans, it was not widely used by private individuals for their personal communications. Almost all messages were sent by businesses and government agencies. Initially, this was the common practice for telephone usage. But with the dawn of the twentieth century, telephones became widely used by private individuals. More phones were available in homes rather than just in offices. Unlike telegrams, which were charged by the word, telephone service for local calls were priced with a flat monthly rate. As a result, telephone service was enjoyed as a means of communication for social purposes, not just commercial activities.    Within a hundred years of Bell’s initial patent, telephones could be found in almost every American home.[7]

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. He is the co-author of Institutional Constraint and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance and co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Clinger is the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board, a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association, and a former firefighter for the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1] Billington, David P. “Bell and the Telephone.” In Power, Speed, and Form: Engineers and the Making of the Twentieth Century, 35-56. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006.

[2] Billington, op cit.

[3] Stone, Alan. “Protection of the Newborn.” In Public Service Liberalism: Telecommunications and Transitions in Public Policy, 51-83. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

[4] MacDougall, Robert. “Unnatural Monopoly.” In The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age, 92-131. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

[5] The Telephone Cases.  126 US 1.

[6] Beauchamp, Christopher. “Who Invented the Telephone? Lawyers, Patents, and the Judgments of History.” Technology and Culture 51, no. 4 (2010): 854-78.

[7] MacDougall, Robert. “Visions of Telephony.” In The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age, 61-91. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.


Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

On September 5, 1867, the first Texas cattle were shipped from the railhead in Abilene, Kansas, with most of the livestock ending their destination in a slaughterhouse in Chicago, Illinois. These cattle made a long, none too pleasant journey from south Texas to central Kansas.   Their hardships were shared by cowboys and cattlemen who drove their herds hundreds of miles to find a better market for their livestock. For almost two decades, cattle drives from Texas were undertaken by beef producers who found that the northern markets were much more lucrative than those they had been dealing with back home. These drives ended after a combination of economic, legal, and technological changes made the long drives impractical or infeasible.

After the end of the civil war, much of the economy of the old Confederacy was in shambles. In Texas, the rebels returning home often found their livestock scattered and their ranches and farms unkempt and overgrown. Once the Texas ranchers reassembled their herds, they found that the local market for beef was very limited. The ranchers’ potential customers in the region had little money with which to buy beef and there was no way to transport livestock to distant markets except by ships that sailed off the Gulf coast. The major railroad lines did not reach Texas until the 1870s. Many of the cattlemen were “cattle rich but cash poor,” and it did not appear that there was any easy way to remedy their situation.[1]

Several cattlemen, cattle traders, and cattle buyers developed a solution.   Rather than sell locally, or attempt to transport cattle by water at high costs, cattle were to be driven along trails to railheads up north. Among the first of these was Abilene, Kansas, but other “cow towns,” such as Ellsworth and Dodge City, quickly grew from small villages to booming cities. This trek required very special men, horses, and cattle.   The men who drove the cattle were mostly young, adventurous, hardened cowhands who were willing to work for about $30 per month in making a trek of two months or more. Several Texas-bred horses were supplied for each cowhand to ride, for it was common for the exertions of each day to wear out several horses. The cattle themselves differed significantly from their bovine brethren in other parts of the continent.   These were Texas Longhorns, mostly steers, which were adorned with massive horns and a thick hide. The meat of the Longhorns was not considered choice by most connoisseurs, but these cattle could travel long distances, go without water for days, and resist many infectious diseases that would lay low cattle of other breeds.

Most cattle drives followed along the path of a number of trails from Texas through the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) into Kansas.   The most famous of the trails was the Chisholm Trail, named after Jesse Chisholm, a trader of cattle and other goods with outposts along the North Canadian River in northern Texas and along the Little Arkansas in southern Kansas. The drives ended in a variety of Kansas towns, notably Abilene, after some entrepreneurial cattle buyers, such as Joseph McCoy and his brothers, promoted the obscure train stop as a place where Texas cattle could be shipped by rail to market.[2] The cattle drives had emerged as an entrepreneurial solution to desperate circumstances where economic gains were blocked by geographic, technological, and legal obstacles.

The cow towns grew rapidly in size and prosperity, although many faltered after the cattle drives ended. The cattle and cowboys were not always welcomed. Many Kansas farmers and homesteaders believed that the Longhorns brought diseases such as “Texas Fever” that would infect and kill their own cattle. The disease known today as Babesiosis was caused by parasites carried by ticks that attached themselves to Texas steers. The Longhorn cattle had developed an immunity to the disease, but the northern cattle had not. The ticks on the hides of the Texas cattle often traveled to the hides of the livestock in Kansas, with lethal results.[3]   The Kansas farmers demanded and gained a number of state laws prohibiting the entry of Texas cattle. These laws were circumvented or simply weakly enforced until the 1880s. At first glance, these laws might appear to conflict with the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 3, which authorized Congress, not the states, to regulate commerce among states. Yet, the federal Supreme Court ruled in 1886 in the case of Morgan’s Steamship Company v. Louisiana Board of Health that quarantine laws and general regulation of public health were permissible exercises of their police powers, although they could be preempted by an act of Congress.[4]

The cattle drives faced many hazards on their long treks to the north.   Harsh terrain, inclement weather, hostile Indians, rustlers, and unwelcoming Kansas farmers often made the journey difficult.   Nevertheless, for about twenty years the trail drives continued and were mostly profitable. Even after the railroads reached Fort Worth, Texas, many cattlemen still found it more profitable to make the long journey to Kansas to ship their beef. Cattle prices were higher in Abilene, and the costs of rail shipment from Fort Worth were, at least in the 1870s, too high to justify ending the trips to Kansas.[5] Eventually the drives did end, although there is some dispute among historians about when and why the cattle drives ceased. By the 1880s, barbed wire fencing blocked the cattle trails at some points. The new railheads in Texas offered alternative routes to livestock markets. Finally, Kansas enacted a strict quarantine law to keep out Texas cattle in 1885. Of course, past quarantine laws had been weakly enforced. State officials seemed to take the 1885 law more seriously. Perhaps economic incentives encouraged stricter quarantine enforcement. The cattle herds of the northern plains had been growing gradually over the years. After the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, the United States Army largely pacified hostile tribes in the Rocky Mountain states, with the result that the cattle industry thrived in Wyoming and Montana. With bigger and more carefully bred livestock available to the Kansas cattle buyers, the need to buy Texas cattle diminished. Enforcing the quarantine laws became less costly to the cattle traders and certainly pleased many of the Kansas farmers who voted in state elections. The end came relatively abruptly. In 1885, approximately 350,000 cattle were driven from Texas to Kansas. The following year, in 1886, there were no drives at all.[6] The cattle drives had emerged in the 1860s as an entrepreneurial solution to desperate circumstances where economic gains were blocked by geographic, technological, and legal obstacles. In the 1880s, the marketplace had been transformed. New barriers to the cattle drive had appeared, but by then the cattlemen in Texas had safer and more cost-effective  means to bring their livestock to market.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. He is the co-author of Institutional Constraint and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance and co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Clinger is the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board, a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association, and a former firefighter for the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1] Specht, Joshua. “Market.” In Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America, 119-73. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019.

[2] Gard, Wayne. “Retracing the Chisholm Trail.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 60, no. 1 (1956): 53-68.

[3] Hutson, Cecil Kirk. “Texas Fever in Kansas, 1866-1930.” Agricultural History 68, no. 1 (1994): 74-104.

[4] 118 U.S. 455

[5] Galenson, David. “The Profitability of the Long Drive.” Agricultural History 51, no. 4 (1977): 737-58.

[6] Galenson, David. “The End of the Chisholm Trail.” The Journal of Economic History 34, no. 2 (1974): 350-64.


Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

On July 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Land-Grant Agricultural and Mechanical College Act, widely known today as the Morrill Act. The act was the culmination of work over many years by many legislators, notably the legislation’s author and chief sponsor, Justin Morrill of Vermont, who was one of the long-serving members of Congress during the 19th century. Congress had passed an earlier version of Morrill’s bill in 1857, but the bill was vetoed by President James Buchanan. An earlier bill sponsored by Henry Clay that would have used federal land revenues to support education and internal improvement was also vetoed by President Andrew Jackson. In each veto case, an argument was made that the federal government had no business involving itself in educational matters or other issues that were properly the province of state governments.[1]

The Morrill Act permitted participating states to make use of the sale, rent, and/or royalties derived from property granted to the states by the federal government. If a state did not have sufficient federal land situated within its borders, the state would be granted scrip representing proceeds from federal land in other states or territories. Somewhat similar land grants had been used by the federal government for a variety of purposes, but many of those programs did not attract a great deal of interest or cooperation from state governments. The Morrill Act required participating governments to produce annual reports regarding the use of funds from both the state governors and the recipient colleges and universities.[2]

Morrill pushed for a land grant program that would support education, a cause to which he was devoted for much of his career. Morrill had relatively little formal education himself, but he was dedicated to the effort to provide higher education to people of humble station. He also favored a very particular kind of higher education, one supporting agriculture and the “mechanic arts” (today generally known as engineering).[3] At the time, many colleges and universities in America and Europe largely emphasized the classics and humanities to the exclusion of more applied fields of study. Studies focusing on seemingly more practical and career-related topics were given little attention. The successful 1862 legislation, unlike the 1857 bill, also indicated that the funding would support the teaching of “military tactics.” In light of the on-going civil war, the emphasis on military training broadened the bill’s appeal.[4] The bill gained a co-sponsor in the Senate in the person of Ben Wade of Ohio, who later would serve as president pro tempore of the chamber. Wade is remembered today as the man who would have become acting president if the senate had voted to remove President Andrew Johnson in his impeachment trial in 1868.

Opponents of the legislation included those who believed that education matters were solely the responsibility of the states. But many who took this position in 1857 were no longer in Congress in the 1860s. In fact, many were southerners who left Congress when their states seceded from the union. Other legislators, particularly from the western states, objected to the fact that land situated in their states sometimes was used to provide revenue to states in the east that lacked substantial amounts of federal land. Some objected to the legislation because they feared that the new funding would support new institutions that would compete with existing colleges and universities. As various iterations of the Morrill bill moved through Congress between 1860 and 1862, various amendments were approved to appease the objections of some critics.   Notably, the bill was amended to exclude mineral lands and to limit the amount of federal land that could be sold within any given state. Final passage was also delayed so that settlers granted federal land under the recently enacted Homestead Act could have their first choice of land.[5]

After enactment, many states used the land grant funds to support existing colleges and universities, both public and private. While the land grant system overwhelmingly has favored public institutions, a few private schools, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cornell University, and Brown University, received land grant money for some considerable time, and some continue to operate as land-grant institutions to this day.[6] In most states, however, entirely new institutions were created, generally with some reference to agriculture in their titles. These institutions became what are now known as land-grant colleges, even though the total number of schools that receive land-grant support is far greater than most people realize.

The impact of the Morrill Act is hard to overestimate. It was not the first federal grant programs offering aid to state governments, but it was one of the most important and enduring programs. In comparison to categorical aid programs that became popular in the 1960s and later, the program attached few strings with which the recipient governments had to comply. However, in comparison to its predecessors, the land-grant act imposed significant requirements upon its benefactors, particularly regarding reporting obligations and the formal commitment of  resources to particular fields of study.

The act caused a great increase in the number of higher education institutions in the country, and greatly increased the accessibility of college for many Americans of limited income who often lived far removed from population centers or the locations of extant colleges and universities. The Morrill Act was amended in 1890 by new legislation that prohibited grants to states that excluded students from higher education on the basis of race. Recipient states were also required to create universities intended to serve African-Americans. Today these schools are generally called Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).[7]

The land-grant program had a huge impact in agriculture, engineering, and military science. The land-grant institutions conducted agriculture research and trained agricultural students. These institutions became a part of the Department of Agriculture’s extension service, which has disseminated research findings throughout the country.[8] By the early twentieth century, the military tactics classes that were supported by the land-grants had evolved into the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program.[9] The “mechanic arts” emphasis in the land-grant colleges built up the knowledge base and the professional identity of the engineering profession.[10] The economic implications of this support for both basic and applied science have been significant, although their exact magnitude is disputed. Research by Isaac Ehrlich, Adam Cook, and Yong Yin indicates that the returns from the land-grant schools had made the United States into an economic superpower by the early twentieth century, surpassing countries such as the United Kingdom that followed a much different higher education model.[11] In short, the Morrill Act and subsequent legislation regarding the land-grant colleges has had an astounding impact upon educational quality and access, economic growth and opportunity, and leadership in the nation’s military.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. He is the co-author of Institutional Constraint and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance and co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Clinger is the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board, a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association, and a former firefighter for the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1] Duemer, Lee S. 2007. “The Agricultural Education Origins of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862.” American Educational History Journal 34 (1): 135–46.

[2] Lieberman, Carl. “The Constitutional and Political Bases of Federal Aid to Higher Education, 1787-1862.” International Social Science Review 63, no. 1 (1988): 3-13.

[3] Key, Scott. 1996. “Economics or Education: The Establishment of American Land-Grant Universities.” Journal of Higher Education 67 (March): 196–220.

[4] Benson, Michael T., and Hal Robert Boyd. 2018.  College for the Commonwealth: A Case for Higher Education in American Democracy.  Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

[5] Lieberman, Carl. “The Constitutional and Political Bases of Federal Aid to Higher Education, 1787-1862.” International Social Science Review 63, no. 1 (1988): 3-13.

[6] Carstensen, Victor. 1962. “Century of the Land-Grant Colleges.” Journal of Higher Education 33 (January): 30–37.

[7] Wheatle, Katherine I. E. 2019. “Neither Just nor Equitable.” American Educational History Journal 46 (1/2/2019): 1–20.

[8] Duemer, Lee S. 2007. “The Agricultural Education Origins of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862.” American Educational History Journal 34 (1): 135–46.

[9] Benson, Michael T., and Hal Robert Boyd. 2018.  College for the Commonwealth: A Case for Higher Education in American Democracy.  Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

[10]Nienkamp, Paul. 2010. “Land-Grant Colleges and American Engineers.” American Educational History Journal 37 (1/2): 313–30.

[11] Ehrlich, Isaac, Adam Cook, and Yong Yin. 2018. “What Accounts for the US Ascendancy to Economic Superpower by the Early Twentieth Century? The Morrill Act-Human Capital Hypothesis.” Journal of Human Capital 12 (2): 233–81.

Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

On May 24, 1844, Samuel Finley Breese Morse demonstrated his electro-magnetic telegraph in the capitol building in Washington, DC, by transmitting a message sent to a railway station in Baltimore, Maryland, approximately thirty-eight miles away. The message transmitted over the telegraph line was “What has God wrought?” a biblical passage from Numbers 23:23. This demonstration convinced many in both government and industry of the viability and usefulness of the new technology.

Much had happened before that eventful day to bring that demonstration to fruition. Much would happen afterward that would make this demonstration momentous in American history. Morse was not a scientist by training. He had already made his mark, if not his fortune, as an artist who preferred to paint epic, historical scenes but who often resorted to completing commissioned portraits of prominent figures as a way of making money. He became acquainted with advances in electro-magnetic telegraphy in Europe while on a voyage to Europe after the death of his first wife. His discussions with European scientists gave him some background knowledge in the scientific issues that had to be confronted. His own creativity and his dogged willingness to learn from the work of others led him to develop a model telegraphic device that proved to be practical and profitable. Among those who had worked in this field before were William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, who patented an electro-magnetic telegraph in Britain.   Cooke and Wheatstone employed a variety of different circuits and electrical wires to transmit signals to a receiver. When a current was transmitted through different circuits, or different combinations of circuits, signals for different characters were recognized and a needle was turned to point to various letters of the alphabet. However, the Cooke-Wheatstone telegraph message was, in Morse’s words, “evanescent.” It left no permanent record.[1]

Morse developed a telegraph that operated on a single circuit with a single wire situated between the transmitter and receiver. The transmitter employed a lever that would connect and disconnect an electrical current that would start and then stop a magnetic attraction within a mechanism at the receiver. The magnetic attraction would cause the arm of the device to mark a paper tape with dots and dashes, representing the length of time that the circuit was engaged. The innovation achieving the marking of paper may have been the creation of Morse’s assistant, Alfred Vail. What is not in doubt is that Morse created the code that translated combinations of dots and dashes into letters of the alphabet and numerals. The code was essentially a form of binary language that is now in use in computer systems today, except that now the dots and dashes have been replaced by a series of ones and zeroes.[2]

Morse also had to tackle the difficulty of transmitting signals over great distances. The signal strength declined the farther along the line that the message traveled. Morse relied upon the assistance of the famous physicist, Dr. Joseph Henry, later the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Henry showed Morse how a series of relays situated miles apart from each other could renew the signal strength for an indefinite distance. Morse acknowledged the contribution of Henry in private correspondence before perfecting his invention, but downplayed Henry’s role later during challenges to his patent.[3]

Morse demonstrated his invention in many venues, but had not demonstrated its ability to work over a long distance. Morse approached Congress to gain an appropriation of $30,000 to develop the telegraphic device but also to construct a telegraph over a long distance to demonstrate its feasibility. When the appropriation bill was debated in the House of Representatives, some Congressmen ridiculed the proposal.   A tongue-in-cheek amendment to the bill, proposing an appropriation to send messages through “mesmerism,” was discussed and voted on in the chamber. Ultimately, the appropriation narrowly passed the House, and then passed unanimously in the Senate. The funding could not have come at a better time for Morse, who later estimated that just after the vote he had only thirty-seven-and-a half cents to his name. Morse originally attempted to build a long trench stretching from Baltimore to Washington, in which an insulated telegraph wire was placed.   Preliminary tests proved unsuccessful, so Morse quietly arranged to support the wires over a series of poles that would hold the lines above ground. Once completed, Morse was able to send the famous “What hath God wrought?” message from Washington, D.C. to Vail in Baltimore.  The on-looking Congressmen were amazed by the achievement, and were generous in their praise of Morse.[4]

Under Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution, Congress was empowered “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”   The exclusive right to the discoveries of a scientific nature takes the form of what is generally known as a patent. Morse had been denied a patent for his invention in the United States when he first applied in 1837, although he had received a “caveat” from the office that would give priority to his claim in front of other applicants seeking a patent for an identical device. He was able to patent his creation in the United States by 1840, but had been denied a patent in Britain in 1838.[5] That same year he received a French patent, which was one reason the U.S. Supreme Court eventually limited the duration of his American patent to fourteen years from the date of his original French patent, October 30, 1838.[6] The Supreme Court also limited the scope of his patent to the telegraph device that Morse had designed. He was not able to enjoy exclusive rights to “use of electro-magnetism, however developed, for marking or printing intelligible characters, signs, or letters at any distances,”  as Morse’s original patent claim held. If that overly broad had been accepted, Morse could plausibly claim patent rights covering modern day fax transmissions and email messages.[7]

Morse was able to sell territorial licenses to his patent which permitted companies to run telegraph services in certain geographic areas but not nationwide. For a time, the telegraphy business was quite decentralized and competitive, but by the late 1860s, one company, Western Union, had achieved a dominant position in the industry. The new invention had major impacts on industrial development, military operations, and government regulation. The telegraph was used by both Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War. For the first time, commanders far distant from battlefields could provide specific orders to troops in combat. In some instances, President Abraham Lincoln skipped over the normal chain of command to send instructions directly to officers in the field through the telegraph.[8]

The telegraph proved very useful in industry in conveying almost instant   information about price changes in products and securities, as well as news of events that might affect the supply and demand for products and the factors of production. No industry was more greatly affected by the telegraph than the railroads. The speed of communication over long distances allowed railroad management to coordinate the movement of trains moving over single tracks in opposite directions. Railroads aided the expansion of telegraph lines by granting rights-of-way to telegraph companies to set up poles and wires alongside the railroad tracks.[9]

In much of the world, telegraph services were owned and operated by the government. For the most part, this was not the case in the United States and Canada. Governments were still deeply involved in the growth of the telegraph services, both by subsidizing the infrastructure and by regulating the service. States promoted the industry by granting rights-of-way and imposing penalties for damaging lines. They also regulated the industry by imposing penalties for refusing to receive messages sent from other telegraph companies, for transmitting dispatches out of the order in which they were received, and for disclosing private communications to third parties.[10] As telegraph lines crossed state lines, the federal government gained some jurisdiction.   The Post Office operated some limited telegraph services for a time.   Later the Interstate Commerce Commission regulated interstate services, although railroads, not the telegraph industry, were the primary focus of the ICC. Later, the Federal Communications Commission gained jurisdiction, although by then telephony and radio and broadcast television was the major concern of that regulatory body.[11]

If Morse had never worked on telegraphy he would still be remembered today, at least to art historians, as an exceptionally fine painter. His work on the telegraph and, perhaps more importantly, the Morse code was of monumental importance. Morse’s work on communicating messages across enormous spaces in minimal periods of time has had enormous impact upon the way that America and the whole world have developed over the last century-and-a-half.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. He is the co-author of Institutional Constraint and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance and co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Clinger is the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board, a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association, and a former firefighter for the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

[1] Wheeler, Tom. “The First Electronic Network and the End of Time.” In From Gutenberg to Google: The History of Our Future, 87-116. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2019.

[2] Wheeler, op cit..


[4] Wheeler, op cit.


[6] O’Reilly v. Morse, 56 U.S. 15 at page 96

[7] Kappos, David J., and Christopher P. Davis. 2015. “Functional Claiming and the Patent Balance.” Stanford Technology Law Review 18 (2): 365–74.

[8] Wilhelm, Pierre. “The Telegraph: A Strategic Means of Communication During the American Civil War.” Revista De Historia De América, no. 124 (1999): 81-9

[9] Du Boff, Richard B. 1980. “Business Demand and the Development of the Telegraph in the United States, 1844-1860.” Business History Review 53 (4): 459-479.

[10] Nonnenmacher, Tomas. “State Promotion and Regulation of the Telegraph Industry, 1845-1860.” The Journal of Economic History 61, no. 1 (2001): 19-36.

[11] Goldin, H. H. “Governmental Policy and the Domestic Telegraph Industry.” The Journal of Economic History 7, no. 1 (1947): 53-68.


Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

On May 14, 1804, President Thomas Jefferson’s private secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and an army captain, William Clark, began an expedition exploring the territory stretching from the Mississippi River, along the Missouri River, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. But the origins of the expedition began long before this, even before Jefferson became president of the United States and well before the Louisiana Purchase took place. Only a few years after the Revolutionary War, shortly after sea captain Robert Gray had discovered the estuary of the Columbia River in present-day Oregon, Jefferson instructed Andre Michaux to “explore the country a[long] the Missouri, & thence Westwardly to the Pacific ocean.” [1] The enterprise was sponsored by the American Philosophical Society and included the support of subscribers such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. The expedition was quickly ended before the entourage reached the Missouri River after it was discovered that Michaux was acting as an agent of the French government. Other expeditions, led by explorers such as Zebulon Montgomery Pike, Thomas Freeman, William Dunbar, and Peter Custis, were also enlisted by Jefferson during his presidency to explore various sections of the American West, but none of these luminaries have gained the popular recognition that the Lewis and Clark Expedition retains today.

Meriwether Lewis, like Jefferson, was born into a family of Virginia planters. Lewis served for a time in the army during the Whiskey Rebellion, but saw no combat. For a period of about six months, Lewis served under the command of William Clark, who was the younger brother of the Revolutionary War commander, George Rogers Clark.     Lewis left the army as a captain to become the private secretary to President Jefferson, whom he advised on the capabilities and political loyalties of high-ranking officers in the military. Lewis availed himself of Jefferson’s personal library, which was considered one of the finest in the world. After his appointment as the commander of the expedition to the west (also known as the “Corps of Discovery”) Lewis received instruction in astronomy, botany, and medicine by some of the leading scientists in the country to prepare him for his mission. Lewis later asked William Clark to join in the command with the rank of captain, although the initial budget for the expedition included pay for only one captain.   Clark was eventually commissioned as a lieutenant, although this was not known to the crew.[2]

President Jefferson first proposed the Lewis and Clark expedition in a secret message to Congress on January 18, 1803, months before the Louisiana Purchase took place. The message stressed the need for the government to develop the fur trade along the Missouri River in what was then Spanish territory. Jefferson wished to provide new lands to compensate private fur traders who would be forced out as the federal government purchased Indian titles to land along the Mississippi River.   Jefferson hoped to induce Native-American tribes to take up agriculture and abandon their reliance upon hunting and fur-trading.[3] Although the primary purpose of the expedition was commercial in nature,  it should be understood that with that commercial development, significant expansion in government authority would necessarily take place. In addition to its implications for commerce and government, the expedition had other purposes and objectives. Jefferson’s specific marching orders to Lewis indicated that “the object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregan, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce. . . . Beginning at the mouth of the Missouri, you will take [careful] observations of latitude & longitude, at all remarkeable points on the river, & especially at the mouths of rivers, at rapids, at islands, & other places & objects distinguished by such natural marks & characters of a durable kind, as that they may with certainty be recognised hereafter….The interesting points of the portage between the heads of the Missouri, & of the water offering the best communication with the Pacific ocean, should also be fixed by observation, & the course of that water to the ocean, in the same manner as that of the Missouri.”[4]

Jefferson clearly had interest in the geographic and scientific discoveries that the expedition could make, and was particularly interested in learning if a water route from the Missouri to the Pacific could be found.  Jefferson also hoped to learn something about the life of the Native American tribes the expedition would encounter along the way.[5]

The original plan was for Lewis to lead a party of only a dozen or so men. A larger party was thought to be perceived as a military threat to the Native Americans encountered along the way. Lewis and Clark, however, decided to add some additional members for the expedition, while still keeping the numbers down to a sufficiently small size to convince the Indians of their peaceful intentions. The expedition departed from the northern bank of the Missouri River, just north of St. Charles, Missouri, on May 21, 1804. Traveling in a heavily laden keelboat and two pirogues, the expedition only traveled three-and-a-half miles before stopping to camp for the night. Twenty-eight months later, the expedition returned to St. Louis. A total of forty-five men began the expedition. Others were added for a while on the journey but left before the expedition was completed. Thirty-three returned. One member died along the way of a “bilious colic,” which may have been appendicitis.   The party included William Clark’s African-American slave, York, and a French-Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau, and his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, who was pregnant when she joined the expedition.   Sacagawea was a talented interpreter of Indian languages, and also skilled in finding edible plants on the westward journey. Her very presence in the party was beneficial in that Native American tribes did not believe a war party would contain a woman in its midst. This provided convincing evidence that the Corps of Discovery had peaceful intentions. Throughout the entire expedition, the party had only one lethal encounter with Native Americans. A band of Piegan Blackfeet Indians attacked the camp in an attempt to steal horses and weapons.   Two of the Blackfeet were killed in the battle.

The Corps of Discovery made slow progress up the Missouri River and into the Rocky Mountains. The expedition had to proceed on foot and on horseback for much of the way after learning that there was no water route through the mountains to the ocean. The expedition made its way to the Pacific coast by the December of 1805, when it voted to spend the winter at Fort Clatsop. The entire party participated in the decision, including York and Sacagawea,  perhaps marking the first time that an African-American slave and a Native American woman had participated formally in a decision of a federal governmental body.[6]

Lewis and Clark made their return in the spring of 1806. In July, Lewis took part of the company with him while Clark took the remainder to explore different paths within the territory of present-day Montana. The two groups re-joined one another in August in present-day North Dakota. The expedition proceeded back to St. Louis, where the party arrived on September 22. As Lewis scrambled out of his canoe, the first question that he had for a local resident was “When does the post leave?” Lewis was desperate to report to the president.[7]

Lewis had been directed by Jefferson to keep a journal of his discoveries. Clark also kept a journal, which he filled with descriptions of his observations, as well as fine illustrations of flora and fauna above, beneath, and beside his handwritten text on the pages of the journal.    Lewis traveled to Washington, D.C., to report directly to the president.   What was said at that meeting is unknown, but it is clear that Lewis pledged to write and publish a book that would report his findings.   Unfortunately, the book was never written. Jefferson offered Lewis an appointment as the governor of the territory of Louisiana. Jefferson no doubt expected that the position would provide income and security for Lewis as he authored his book. However, the sedentary position did not suit Lewis, who seemed unable to master administrative duties once the expedition was completed. He suffered from serious drinking problems, indebtedness, and acute melancholy. He died from gunshot wounds, probably by his own hand, while staying at an inn on a trip to Washington.[8]

Because of Lewis’s death and failure to complete his narrative about the expedition, much of the scientific, ethnographic, and geographic findings of the enterprise were not fully appreciated. Many of the discoveries of plants and animals that the Corps made were, for a time, lost. Those species were later re-discovered many years later. Sergeant Patrick Gass, a member of the expedition, did compose a book length narrative about the venture, but that volume did not contain much of the kind of discoveries that were of original interest to President Jefferson.    Francis Biddle, later the president of the Second Bank of the United States, conducted an “audit” of the enterprise and then was the primary, but uncredited author of the official history of the expedition, which appeared in two volumes. The second of the two volumes was devoted to the botanical and zoological discoveries of Lewis and Clark, but Biddle was neither an expert scientist nor a first-hand observer of the phenomena that he was to describe. Biddle was one of the great intellectuals of his age, but he was not scientifically trained and he could have benefited greatly from the elaboration that Lewis could have offered him had he lived. For these reasons, the significance of the expedition was not recognized in the first century after the return of the Corps of Discovery as it could have been and, in fact, as it has been in more recent years as more and more scholars have slowly uncovered more evidence of the events that took place.[9] Today, we can see that the Corps of Discovery accomplished much in the way of learning of the terrain, climate, and physical environment of the trans-Mississippi West.   The expedition learned much of the Native Americans who lived in that territory. This knowledge aided in the settlement and development of a massive land area on the North American continent. Obviously, those developments have had diverse implications for all involved, most notably for the Native Americans who lived there. Nevertheless, the Lewis and Clark expedition paved the way for the future transformation of much of what is now the United States.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of  Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. He is the co-author of Institutional Constraint and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance and co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Clinger is the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board, a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association, and a former firefighter for the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.


[2] Ambrose, Stephen E.  1996. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.   New York: Simon & Schuster. Pages 133-136.

[3] Guinness, Ralph B. 1933. “Purpose of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 20 (January): 90–100.


[5] Ronda, James P.  1991.  ‘A Knowledge of Distant Parts’: The Shaping of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.   Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Autumn): 4-19.

[6] Ambrose, Stephen E.  1996. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.   New York: Simon & Schuster. Pages 313-316.

[7] Ambrose, op cit.  Chapter 32.

[8]Ambrose, op cit.  Chapter 39

[9] Snow, Spencer. 2013. “Maps and Myths: Consuming Lewis and Clark in the Early Republic.” Early American Literature 48 (3): 671–708.

Guest Essayists: James C. Clinger and Michael W. Hail


Constitutions can be thought of as institutional arrangements that shape the way that individual preferences will be expressed and collective decisions made within a government. The provisions of a constitution also reflect preferences, but the provisions of a constitution may have long-run impacts upon the way that individual preferences are translated into legally binding collective decisions well into the future. Some of these decisions will have implications that are unforeseen and unintended, even if the specific provisions of a constitution were intended by its framers to have different results. In particular, the constitutional framework of a state or nation shapes the path dependent development of that political community. Once the highest law of a polity has been designed, political, legal, and economic decisions are made with that framework in mind. Decisions involving sunk costs are made premised on a particular legal order. Once those decisions are made, it may be difficult to reverse them. The political and economic trajectory of a polity may be set in place, and the momentum built up over history may be hard to swerve in a different direction. Such can be seen in Kentucky’s experience with its state constitutions.

Constitutions can also be understood as covenants.[1] The role of political theory is particularly useful in understanding constitutions and the jurisprudence interpreting them. While classical understandings of Plato and Aristotle were central to the American Founders’ constitutionalism, they were even more influenced by modern political theory from Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. “The treatment of covenant …in [Thomas Hobbes] Leviathan is thoroughly Puritan, and in general should be regarded as a secularized version of the English Puritans’ theory of a commonwealth.”[2] Ultimately, the way the founders understand a constitution is the most important foundation for constitutional interpretation and this is often referred to as original intent. The meaning of provisions in any constitution will require time for judicial processes and political governance to fully articulate, and under the English common law legal system, the original understanding of those who found constitutions is central to the subsequent constitutional interpretation.

The Commonwealth of Kentucky has crafted four different constitutions.[3] Each can be seen to reflect the ideas and interests of its proponents. Each was a response to particular events and circumstances.   Each has been interpreted over time, not only by the courts but by agencies authorized to implement state law.

The first constitution was drafted in 1792 as a condition of Kentucky’s admission to the United States.[4] There were “four successive enabling acts passed by the legislatures of Virginia, that Kentucky was allowed to enter the Federal Union as an Independent State, on an equality with those which had established themselves as a nation.”[5] Kentucky had similar influences as the other states and scholars have generally concluded the resulting constitutions follow the model of the federal constitution of 1787.[6] The federal constitution was an example of American exceptionalism. “The Constitutional Convention was a signal event in the history of federalism for it was there that the American style of federalism originated.”[7] The Compact With Virginia, as the fourth enabling act has come to be known as, provided the constitutional and legal road map to statehood for Kentucky. Nine pre-constitutional conventions were held as part of the process leading to the Compact With Virginia. The tenth was the actual founding constitutional convention.

Although many Kentuckians were from Virginia, and some of the easternmost counties in Kentucky were formerly counties within Virginia, much of the first constitutional structure was drawn from the 1790 state constitution of Pennsylvania. George Nicholas, often considered the primary architect of the document at the state constitutional convention, deliberately drew from the Pennsylvania charter, which was considered among the more radical of its day. The politics of admission to the union was influential in looking to Pennsylvania also, as Kentucky was competing with Vermont in the Federalist-controlled Congress for admission as the next state after the original thirteen. The political balance of power in Congress was a cloud over the admission process that affected these considerations. Kentucky endured numerous pre-constitutional conventions and the Compact With Virginia ultimately governed Kentucky’s transition to statehood. Kentucky retained the constitutional offices, state and local administrative structures, local government forms of Virginia despite some influence from Pennsylvania. The Bill of Rights that the constitution included at the end of the document reappeared in virtually unchanged form in each of the following three Kentucky constitutions, although those provisions have been moved near the beginning of the document. Isaac Shelby was a central leader in the Kentucky constitutional conventions and the admission to statehood process.  Shelby was elected as the first Governor of Kentucky and remains to this day the only Governor elected unanimously. Isaac Shelby would return to election as Kentucky Governor a second time as Kentucky and the nation prepared for the War of 1812.

The 1792 constitution provided for a fairly broad elective franchise, a secret ballot, and provision for a referenda for constitutional conventions but provided for  no amendment process. The legislature was granted the power to regulate the slave trade. The bicameral legislature was made up of eleven members in the senate and no fewer than forty and no more than one hundred members of a house of representatives. An electoral college would select both the governor and the members of the senate.

The second constitution was drafted in large part in response to a controversy over gubernatorial succession. The document responded to demands for more restriction on government powers, including limits on the authority of the legislature to regulate slavery. The electoral college was eliminated, providing for direct election of all constitutional offices.   The secret ballot was eliminated and viva voce voting put in its place. The constitution specified that the senate would have at least twenty-four members, with no fewer than fifty-eight in the house, nor more than one hundred. 

The third constitutional convention met in 1849 and the resulting document was ratified by public vote in 1850. The issue of slavery hung heavily over the constitutional deliberations. The influence of Jacksonian democracy could be seen in the document, with more offices up for election, with a long ballot being the result. The document specified that the senate would have thirty-eight members with one hundred in the house. For the first time, public education was covered at length, with the document establishing a Common School Fund to help finance schools. Slavery and education were the only policy issues to receive extensive attention.

The fourth and current constitution was ratified after a convention in 1891. The document was drafted in a time of progressive reform in much of the country. In Kentucky, there was a great deal of resentment felt toward corporations and specifically, railroads. It was widely believed that the legislature had been badly corrupted by corporate interests. As a result, the new constitution put many restrictions on local and special legislation that was believed to favor special interests. The preamble was changed to identify Kentucky as a “commonwealth” and to assert that all power is “inherent in the people.” The bill of rights was moved to the beginning of the document. The secret ballot which been absent in the last two constitutions was returned. For the first time, the constitution provided for an amendment process so the constitution could be changed in a piecemeal basis. The document was filled with policy-specific details including special provisions regarding corporations, local government, debt, and taxes. The constitution limited the governor and other constitutional officers to one four-year term, a restriction that was not removed until the 1990s. The General Assembly was to meet only every other year, although the legislature was authorized to meet in annual sessions by constitutional amendment in 2001. Judges were to be elected in non-partisan races.

Kentucky’s fourth and, thus far, last constitution placed substantial curbs on state and local governments much like other states, particularly southern state constitutions, have done. However, while Kentucky has long been a socially conservative state, the constitution–and its interpretation–have not pushed the Commonwealth as far to the right as some other southern states have gone, particularly on fiscal and regulatory matters. What is notable is that the basic political trajectory of the Commonwealth’s policies and politics can be understood in light of  the Kentucky courts’ decisions which have added to and sometimes subtracted from the actual constitutional text.

Section 14 of the Constitution guaranteed that “All courts shall be open, and every person for an injury done him in his lands, goods, person or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law, and right and justice administered without sale, denial or delay.” The court structure was completely revamped in the 1970s, but the “open courts” provisions have remained untouched. This has prevented efforts to institute tort reform or other limitations upon liability that are common in other states. Legislation that would have had medical malpractice claims pass through a medical review process before heading to court were struck down as unconstitutional.[8]

The constitution explicitly listed permissible tax sources for both state and local government. An income tax for local governments was not authorized, but license taxes were. In the early twentieth century, the city of Louisville imposed occupational license taxes in which the liability of each taxpayer was defined as a percentage of their earned income. This levy was quickly challenged as an unconstitutional tax. The state’s highest court ruled in the City of Louisville v. Sebree case that the occupational license tax—which was a flat income tax under another name—was a permissible tax under the constitution.[9]

Section 246 of the Constitution also limited the compensation given to state officials, with the highest sum permitted set at $12,000. Though unamended since 1949, the  constitution was construed in 1962 to permit the Commonwealth to pay officers and employees an amount equal in buying power to that of the standard set in 1949.[10] This application of the “rubber dollar doctrine” has probably permitted the state to recruit and retain employees who would not be willing to work for the constitutionally specified salary. Nevertheless, it is not clear that this practice is what the framers intended.

One of the most important constitutional rulings which has expanded the scope and size of government in the Commonwealth dealt with public education. Kentucky, like most states, has long had a substantial share of the financing of public education provided by local tax sources, primarily the property tax. Since tax bases are limited, and tax levies legally limited by the state, public schools had difficulty raising money and some school districts were much more limited in their revenues than others. General language in Section 183 of the Constitution stipulating that “The General Assembly shall, by appropriate legislation, provide for an efficient system of common schools throughout the State” was used by the state supreme court to invalidate the existing financing system.[11]    Since that decision, Kentucky has risen from one of the lowest spending states on public education to one that is in the middle ranks of the states.[12]

Kentucky has periodically had discussion of constitutional reform but despite commissions and studies, Kentucky continues to operate under the fourth Constitution of 1891.[13] Amending the Kentucky Constitution requires passage in both the House and Senate by three-fifths majority in each chamber and amendments can originate in either chamber. An amendment approved by the session of the General Assembly is placed on the general election ballot for consideration by the Kentucky electorate and a simple majority is required for ratification of an amendment. There can be no more than four amendments considered by the voters in a general election. The Governor has no authority in the amendment process, other than the duty to make a proclamation regarding the amended constitution if approved by the voters in the general election.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of  Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University.  He is the co-author of Institutional Constraint and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance and co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Clinger is the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board, a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association, and a former firefighter for the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.

Michael W. Hail is Professor of Government and Director of the Statesmanship at Morehead State University in Kentucky, and serves as Government Program Coordinator and Director of the Intelligence Center for Academic Excellence (ICCAE). He is co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Hail focuses his research on federalism and intergovernmental management. His research interests include economic development policy, state and local government, American political thought, and Western political philosophy. Dr. Hail teaches courses on Public Administration, Federalism and Constitutional Law, Public Management, State and Local Government, Economic Development, Western Political Philosophy, Intelligence Studies, and American Political Thought. 

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90 Day Study on Congress.

[1] Elazar, Daniel.  Covenant and Constitutionalism: The Covenant Tradition in Politics.  New York: Routledge, 2018.

[2] Schneider, Herbert W., ed.  Thomas Hobbes Leviathan – Parts One and Two. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1958, p.x.

[3] Clinger, James C., and Michael W. Hail. Kentucky Government, Politics, and Public Policy. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2013.

[4] Ireland, Robert M.  “The Kentucky Constitution.”  Clinger, James C., and Michael W. Hail.  Kentucky Government, Politics, and Public Policy. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2013.

[5] Thorpe, Francis Newton. The Federal and State Constitutions: Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming the United States of America. Washington Government Printing Office, 1909.

[6] Taulbee, Ashley.  The Kentucky Constitutional Conventions and the Federalism of the Founding Fathers.  Master Thesis.  Morehead State University, 2017.  Taulbee states, “There are several aspects of influence and interconnectedness between national constitutionalism and state constitutionalism reflected in the Kentucky case. The political theory influences, as well as the structure of the institutions in the U.S. Constitution of 1787, and certainly the political thought expressed at the convention in Philadelphia, all are major influences on how state constitutional conventions are modeled. Core constitutional provisions such as separation of powers, checks and balances, and bicameral legislative bodies are among the constitutional features of the U.S. constitution that are consistently incorporated in state constitutions. The politics in Congress as well as in the territory itself play a significant role in framing the terms under which statehood and state constitutional conventions can operate.”(pp.3-4)

[7] Smith, Troy.  “Constitutional Convention of 1787.”  Federalism In America.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006, p.116.

[8] Commonwealth v. Claycomb, 2017-SC-000614.

[9] City of Louisville v. Sebree, 214 S.W.2d 248

[10]Matthews v. Allen,  360 S.W.2d 135 (1962

[11] Rose v. Council for Better Education, 790 S.W.2d 186

[12] Digest of Education Statistics,  Department of Education, National Center for Educations Statistics.

[13] Clinger, James C., and Michael W. Hail. Kentucky Government, Politics, and Public Policy. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2013.

Guest Essayists: James C. Clinger and J. Drew Seib


State legislatures normally have had only very few, basic constitutional procedural requirements regarding the passage of legislation. Most state constitutions stipulate that laws can be enacted only after bicameral passage of identical measures, followed by presentment to the chief executive. There may also be requirements that bills receive “readings” on three or more legislative days before passage. Practically speaking, most legislative procedure is determined by internal rules of each chamber. These rules refer to bill referral to committees, methods of bringing bills to the chamber floor, procedures for disciplining members, etc.

Many of the early state constitutions did not provide a means by which the governor could block legislation through a veto. This reflected an anti-executive power bias that carried over from the opposition to the king in colonial times. Gradually, however, the powers of governors increased, and among the most important powers of the governor was the power to veto. In the 1990s, North Carolina’s governor was the last to gain the veto power. The veto power varies dramatically among the states, particularly regarding which measures are subject to veto and the ease with which the legislatures can override the veto. Many states now permit an item veto for appropriation bills, but not for other legislation. Proposed constitutional amendments approved as joint resolutions by the legislature cannot be vetoed by the governor, but instead in most states today go to the electorate for approval. In several states vetoes can be overridden by margins much smaller than the two-thirds requirement necessary for overriding presidential vetoes. In some states, only a simple majority of those elected to serve in each chamber is needed to override the governor’s veto.[1]

In the early 20th century, many states began to adopt direct democracy mechanisms, such as the initiative, that permitted citizens and interest groups to propose new statutory laws or new constitutional amendments without going through the legislature. This has led to the adoption of new laws that would have not gained legislative approval and new institutional changes that dramatically changed legislative careers.[2]

One of the notable changes associated with the initiative process is the adoption of legislative term limits placed within state constitutions. The limits prevent elected officials, often legislators, from serving beyond a specified number of terms in office. Gubernatorial term limits have been more common for years, but only more recently have term limits on state legislators become common. These limits have generally been opposed by state legislators whose careers would be altered by the constraints. Opponents of term limits have also said that the restrictions reduce the professionalism of their elected office and shift the balance of power from legislators to the governor and legislative staff.[3]

For much of American history, state legislatures could be characterized as “amateur” public institutions. Legislators were not well-paid, had few resources for legislative research, constituency service, or administrative agency oversight. They worked as part-time volunteers who did not expect to remain in office for an extended period of time. During the 1960s and 70s in particular, most but not all state legislatures increased legislative salaries (or legislator per diem payments), adopted longer legislative sessions, increased legislative staffing, and created legislative research bureaus to help with bill drafting and analysis of proposed bills or policy problems. This seems to have led to more member stability and longer legislative tenure. It may have also motivated activists in the term limits movement, who distrusted professional, career politicians. Scholarly research on this topic has found that professionalization of state legislatures has led to more African-Americans and fewer women entering the chambers.[4] It may have also increased the size of the Democratic Party share of the legislature, at least outside the South,[5] though the effects of professionalization appear to vary by party.[6] The imposition of term limits does not have appeared to have ended political careerism, since many term limited state legislators pursue other offices, including congressional seats.[7] Legislative professionalism as well as one party dominance has also been found to particularistic, such as local legislation and special bills, which are apparently aimed at boosting chances for re-election.[8]

Finally, it should be noted that the role of state legislatures has changed because of actions of the federal government. Under the national supremacy clause, discussed above, federal law prevails when it is in conflict with state law. This practice, known as preemption, has been used throughout much of American history.[9] More recently, however, state laws have been invalidated through preemption not only when laws enacted by Congress conflict with laws enacted by state legislatures but also when federal agency interpretations of how or whether to enforce laws may conflict with laws enacted by state legislatures.[10] Intergovernmental grant programs may also lead to a “work around” the state legislatures. For example, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act provided that state chief executives, not legislatures, would  approve the creation of state health insurance exchanges.[11]

While very influential in national politics early on in U.S. history, the addition of particularly the 17th Amendment, but also the 16th, 19th and 26th Amendments have weakened the role of state legislatures in national politics. What is more, federal preemption by not only laws enacted but also federal agency interpretation of laws has weakened the role of state legislatures in national politics.

Since their inception, the state legislatures have served as the proverbial “lab of democracy” both across states and for the federal government. The variation in design, rules, and procedures has served as an opportunity to study institutional arrangements and their effects.  Many of the features in the U.S. Congress were taken from practices in state legislature and states often adopt successful reforms from other states.[12]  Their variation in designs is an opportunity to learn and strengthen political institutions in the United States.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of  Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University.  He is the co-author of Institutional Constraint and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance and co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Clinger is the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board, a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association, and a former firefighter for the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.

Dr. J. Drew Seib joined the faculty at Murray State University in the Fall of 2012. He teaches courses in American politics and research methods. Dr. Seib is the advisor for the Murray State Chapter of Pi Sigma Alpha, the National Political Science Honor Society. Dr. Seib received his Ph.D. and M.A. from Southern Illinois University with an emphasis in American political behavior. His dissertation, Frantic Voters: How Context Affects Information Searches, was awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant. Dr. Seib received his B.A. from Westminster College in Fulton, MO, triple majoring in political science, Spanish, and international studies, and minoring in European studies.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90 Day Study on Congress.


[2] See Gerber, Elisabeth R., Lupia, Arthur, McCubbins, Mathew D., and Kiewiet, D. Roderick. Stealing the Initiative: How State Government Responds to Direct Democracy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 2001.

[3] Carey, John M., Richard G. Niemi, and Lynda W. Powell.  1998. “The Effects of Term Limits on State Legislatures.”  Legislative Studies Quarterly, 23(2): 271-300.

[4] Squire, Peverill.  “Legislative Professionalization and Membership Diversity in State Legislatures.” Legislative Studies Quarterly.  Vol. 17, No. 1. (1992): 69-79 .

[5] Meinke, Scott R., and Edward B. Hasecke. “Term Limits, Professionalization, and Partisan Control in U.S. State Legislatures.” The Journal of Politics 65, no. 3 (2003): 898-908.

[6] Sanbonmatsu, Kira.  2002. “Political Parties and the Recruitment of Women to State Legislatures.”  The Journal of Politics, 64(3):791-809.

[7] Carey, John M., Niemi, Richard G., and Powell, Lynda.  Term Limits in the State Legislatures.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. (2000).

[8] Gamm, Gerald, and Kousser, Thad. “Broad Bills or Particularistic Policy? Historical Patterns in American State Legislatures.” The American Political Science Review 104, no. 1 (2010): 151-70.

[9] For an early example, see Gibbons v. Ogden).  22 U.S. 1. (1824).

[10] See, for example, Arizona v. United States, 567 U.S. 387 (2012)

[11] Fahey, Bridget A.. “Consent Procedures and American Federalism.” Harvard Law Review Vol. 128,(2014): 1564-1629.

[12] see Berry, Frances Stokes, and William D. Berry. 1990. “State Lottery Adoptions as Policy Innovations: An Event History Analysis.” American Political Science Review 84(2): 395–415.


Guest Essayists: James C. Clinger and J. Drew Seib


The legislatures in American state governments developed alongside and even prior to the more famous and well-studied Congress of the federal government. Their origins can be found in the colonial assemblies that existed before the American Revolution. Those institutions developed structures, procedures, and qualifications for office-holding that influenced the development of the national legislature. This essay will briefly describe the development of the state legislatures and their relationship to the federal government.

Legislatures in the American colonies developed very quickly, largely at the request of local interests, not at the behest of the British government. These assemblies varied greatly from one another, although most, but not all, were bicameral, with different qualifications for office-holding and for voting for different chambers.[1] These assemblies were not modeled after the British parliament, which in its modern form did not exist. In fact, the first legislatures in the American colonies were created long before the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which established the principle of parliamentary supremacy over the monarch.

During the American Revolution, royal governors often dismissed or at least attempted to suspend the colonial assemblies. Most of the newly declared states established legislatures that have come to be known as provincial congresses, which lasted until the end of hostilities. At that time, formally recognized state legislatures were created, and were allowed great authority under the Articles of Confederation. Once the new federal constitution was drafted, the state legislatures exercised new roles within the newly created union as well as within their respective states. Under the new constitution, the electorate choosing the members of the United States House of Representatives were to have the same qualifications “requisite for the Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.”[2] At that time, states frequently had more stringent voter qualifications to vote for the upper chamber of the legislature (i.e., the senate) than they had for the more numerous, lower chamber (e.g., the house of representatives, although many states use a variety of names for their lower chambers). By setting higher voter qualifications (usually regarding age, sex, property ownership, “freemen” status) for their own legislatures, the state could affect the electorate choosing its delegation to the United States House of Representatives.

Originally, the state legislatures directly selected the United States senators from each state, although that practice was ended by the ratification of the 17th Amendment, which established direct election of U.S. senators.[3] In the early years of the constitutional republic, the state legislatures regularly sent instructions to their senate delegations, describing how they should vote on issues in Congress. Earlier, under the Articles of Confederation, the state legislatures not only chose their state’s delegates to congress but also had the authority to recall them from office if the legislatures were displeased with their performance.[4]

The federal constitution also assigned a role for the state legislatures in determining the “Times, Places, and Manner” of federal house members and senators, subject to the proviso that “the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Place of Chusing Senators.”[5] Years later, the discretion of state legislatures was constrained further by the ratification of the 15th, 19th, and 26th amendments (creating a right to vote for people of all races, for women, and for eighteen year olds), and by the passage of the Voting Rights Act and other pieces of legislation.

The Constitution also provided a role for state legislatures in amending the federal charter, by either proposing a convention for proposing amendments (by a vote of two-thirds of the states) and by ratifying constitutional amendment proposals (by a vote of three-fourths of the states).[6] All successful constitutional amendment proposals have been proposed, not by a convention called by the state legislatures, but by two-thirds votes of each chamber in Congress. All but one successful amendment—the exception being the 21st, which repealed prohibition–were ratified by the state legislatures. The repeal of prohibition was ratified by special conventions in the states.

The Constitution also stipulated that certain powers were forbidden for the states. Although state legislatures were not explicitly mentioned, legislatures would have been the body enacting such prohibited laws (e.g., regarding titles of nobility, currency, interstate taxation).[7]  The constitution also stipulates that federal laws, including the constitution, laws, and treaties, constitute the “supreme Law of the Land,” and state officers, including members of the state legislatures, must be bound by oath or affirmation to uphold the constitution.[8] The national supremacy clause was included in the constitution only after the defeat of a proposal by James Madison to authorize Congress to negate any state law that it opposed.[9]

The early state legislatures varied in structure but had some common structural elements.   Most, but not all (i.e., Georgia and Pennsylvania had only one legislative chamber and today Nebraska is the only unicameral legislature in the U.S.), were bicameral. A small number chose their senators through an electoral college, as was sometimes done for governors and as is still done for the federal president. That practice was not common and was ended completely well before the civil war. Most state legislatures developed standing committees early in their histories, often well before the federal Congress had established that practice. State legislators generally controlled the internal rules of their chambers and selected their own leadership. Once political parties were well-established, the organization of each chamber (leadership selection, committee assignment, and committee chair selection) became largely a matter for the party organizations to decide. Today, even Nebraska’s non-partisan legislature organizes along partisan lines.[10] Most legislatures met in annual sessions and most legislators served terms of office of one year, although some members of the upper chamber served two or three years.   Later in the nineteenth century, biennial sessions became standard practice, but in the late 20th century annual sessions became the norm again.[11] The size of each chamber differed widely among the states. Originally, South Carolina’s lower chamber had 199 members, while its upper chamber had only 13. Delaware, on the other hand, had only 21 in its lower chamber and nine in its upper.[12] Most legislators represented single member districts. The number of legislators was and still is significant because as the size of the legislative chamber increases, the average size of each district or constituency diminishes. Usually the demographic diversity of the constituency diminishes as the size of the district goes down. This changes the task of representation of constituency interests dramatically.[13] The number of seats in the lower chamber compared to the number in the upper chamber affects the difficulty that an ambitious, career-minded legislator may have to move from the lower to upper chamber.[14]

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of  Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University.  He is the co-author of Institutional Constraint and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance and co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Clinger is the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board, a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association, and a former firefighter for the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.

Dr. J. Drew Seib joined the faculty at Murray State University in the Fall of 2012. He teaches courses in American politics and research methods. In addition to his teaching duties, Dr. Seib is the advisor for the Murray State Chapter of Pi Sigma Alpha, the National Political Science Honor Society, and Racers for Bernie. His research focuses on how voters make decisions. He is especially interested in how voters acquire information during campaigns under a variety of contexts and conditions. Dr. Seib also privately consults on web-based surveys. Dr. Seib received his Ph.D. and M.A. from Southern Illinois University with an emphasis in American political behavior. His dissertation, Frantic Voters: How Context Affects Information Searches, was awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant. Dr. Seib received his B.A. from Westminster College in Fulton, MO, triple majoring in political science, Spanish, and international studies, and minoring in European studies.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90 Day Study on Congress.

[1] Squire, Peverill.  The Evolution of American Legislatures: Colonies, Territories, and States, 1619-2009.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012.

[2] United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 2, Clause 1.

[3] United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 3, Clause 1, and United States Constitution, 17th Amendment, Section 1.

[4] United States Articles of Confederation, Article 5.

[5] United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 4, Clause 1.

[6] United States Constitution, Article 5.

[7] United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 10.

[8] United States Constitution, Article 6, Sections 2-3.

[9] Hobson, Charles F. “The Negative on State Laws: James Madison, the Constitution, and the Crisis of Republican Government.” The William and Mary Quarterly 36, no. 2 (1979): 215-35.

[10] Wright, Gerald C. and Brian F. Shaffner. 2002. “The Influence of Party: Evidence from the State Legislatures.”  American Political Science Review 96(2): 367-379.

[11] Squire, Peverill. “American State Legislatures in Historical Perspective.” PS: Political Science & Politics 52, no. 3 (2019): 417–21.

[12] Squire, Peverill.  The Evolution of American Legislatures: Colonies, Territories, and States, 1619-2009.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012, 84.

[13] Denzau, Arthur T., and Michael C. Munger. “Legislators and Interest Groups: How Unorganized Interests Get Represented.” The American Political Science Review 80, no. 1 (1986): 89-106.

[14] Squire, Peverill. “Member Career Opportunities and the Internal Organization of Legislatures.” Journal of Politics, Vol. 50, No. 3 (1988): 716-44.