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 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.