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The Publicola Debate and the Role of the French Revolution in American Constitutional Thought

Abstract This article analyzes the Publicola controversy, an early American debate that exposed lingering questions about the nature of American constitutionalism. The debate ignited when a young John Quincy Adams wrote a series of public letters that took direct aim at Thomas Paine’s Rights of... Full description

1st Person: Zink, James R.
Source: in American Political Thought Vol. 4, No. 4 (2015), p. 557-587
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Type of Publication: Article
Language: English
Published: 2015
Online: Volltext
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520 |a Abstract This article analyzes the Publicola controversy, an early American debate that exposed lingering questions about the nature of American constitutionalism. The debate ignited when a young John Quincy Adams wrote a series of public letters that took direct aim at Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, the definitive Anglo-American panegyric to the French Revolution. Writing under the pseudonym "Publicola," Adams offered an extensive critique of Paine’s understanding of America’s contributions to constitutional theory. These letters in turn inspired a number of rebuttals, and the ensuing debate quickly transformed from a disagreement over the character of the French Revolution into a struggle to define America’s fledgling constitutional order. The Publicola controversy offers a valuable window into a delicate and formative early stage of American constitutional development and highlights some persistent tensions in American constitutionalism that we struggle to reconcile even today. 
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