A funny thing about the U.S. Constitution is that it’s written down. Words might seem like an obvious feature of any constitution, but they’re notably missing from much of the constitution of Great Britain, the country from which the United States seceded. Historians have often assumed that the quirky American practice of putting constitutions into single documents has its origins in the corporate charters of the seventeenth-century trading companies that founded more than half of the thirteen original states. But, as historian Mary Sarah Bilder has written, it is surprisingly difficult to explain the change from corporate charter to modern constitution with precision and persuasive power.
This Article attempts to do just that, telling the story of a series of lawsuits that forced the Massachusetts Bay Company to treat its charter’s terms as Gospel. Relying on original research of thousands of primary sources from the United States and the United Kingdom spanning from 1607 through 1793, this Article presents an account of how a corporate charter evolved into a “Charter Constitution” in America while the British Constitution remained intangible.
This Article demonstrates that written words became a defining feature of American constitutionalism a century before the American Revolution, and that this distinction between the American and British understandings of constitutions contributed to American independence. The historical origins of American constitutionalism can also supply more depth to modern interpretive debates over whether text alone can provide meaningful limits on government power without reference to external traditions, modes of enforcement, or evolving practices.
* Assistant Professor of Law, Harvard Law School. For mentorship and advice throughout the research of this Article, I am immensely grateful to Emma Rothschild, Morton Horwitz, James Kloppenberg, and Ken Mack, as well as the research librarians of the Massachusetts Archives, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the National Archives in London. For thoughtful feedback and criticism, I thank Mary Bilder, Jud Campbell, David Ciepley, Andrew Crespo, Charlie Donahue, Dan Farbman, Michael Klarman, Anna Lvovsky, Daphna Renan, and Rebecca Scott, as well as participants in the Harvard Center for History and Economics Workshop, the Boston College Legal History Workshop, and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic Annual Conference. For financial support, I thank the Joint Center for History and Economics at Harvard University and the University of Cambridge as well as the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. For an incredibly thorough job checking every source in the Article and suggesting improvements to the text, I thank the editors of the Stanford Law Review.