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Aaron Coleman on John Phillip Reid
Michael Ramsey

At Law & Liberty, Aaron Coleman (University of the Cumberlands -- History): John Phillip Reid's Constitutional Achievement. From the introduction: 

John Phillip Reid, prolific scholar of early American constitutional and legal history, passed away on April 6, 2022, at 91. Spending his entire career at NYU Law, Reid established himself as one of the most erudite and penetrating minds in the field of American constitutional and legal history.

... His work on the constitutional dimensions of the Revolution challenged both the progressive interpretation, which viewed the conflict through the lens of socio-economic conflict, and the ideological school, which connected the American arguments to the republican intellectual tradition. Both schools, he believed, failed to grasp the essence of the era’s thinking. The American Revolution, he concluded, was concerned predominantly with the nature of the British constitution. By supplying the forgotten constitutional context to the modern historical debate, Reid’s scholarship left an indelible mark on our understanding of the Revolution. His passing offers a chance to remember his often unappreciated work.

Reid first made his case for the constitutional nature of the American Revolution in a series of lengthy law review articles and works comparing the “conditions of the law in Ireland and Massachusetts” and the concepts of representation and liberty at the time of the Revolution. His full-throated correction, however, came in his magnum opus, the four-volume, Constitutional History of the American Revolution (1988-1993). Each volume concentrated on one aspect of English constitutionalism: The Authority of Rights; The Authority to Tax; The Authority to Legislate; and The Authority of Law. In 1995, he produced a surprisingly slim, single-volume abridged edition. The collection remains, and probably will remain, the single most important constitutional analysis of the Revolution. It deserves a far wider readership than it has received and should be considered the equal of and, in some ways, a necessary correction to Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.  

Perhaps the most crucial element of Reid’s work was his disentanglement of the constitutional from the ideological. Much of what the “intellectual school” labeled republicanism, he argued, came “straight out of the literature of the common law, from the writings of Sir Edward Coke, Sir Matthew Hale, and even Sir William Blackstone.” This common law mind, with its emphasis on the assumptions, customs, traditions, and values of the British constitution, shaped the Revolutionary debate and centered it on “constitutional anxieties.” Reid’s emphasis on the constitutional dimensions of the debate stood in stark contrast with the ideological school’s construction of a “comprehensive system of thought in which constitutionalism was one contributing element of the contemporary world view.” Essentially, the ideological school made constitutionalism a supplement to the larger ideological argument rather than the primary motivator. This is not to say that Reid dismissed the findings of “intellectual school”—indeed, he often praised their work—but he saw it as his goal to correct, sharpen, and refocus those arguments to bring actual constitutionalism back into the story.