[This is the second in a series concerning the history of American “republicanism.” For the previous post, go here.]
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When the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in May, 1775, fighting had already broken out between British troops and colonial militia. So, the body that had originally been supposed to work out a peaceful settlement of the dispute with Great Britain now had to assert and defend the rights of the American colonies. A crucial part of this process was the organization of governments on the central and colonial levels.
The constitutions written by the new American states usually were brief outlines, with details to be filled in later by the legislatures. Seven included separate bills of rights, while others scattered such provisions throughout the document. All of the thirteen original states except Pennsylvania and Georgia provided for bicameral legislatures; the two exceptions, with their unicameral legislative bodies, were deemed to have the most “democratic” (or “radical”) constitutions. The impact of the pre-Revolutionary struggles with royal governors seemed to require that governors in the new states be closely watched by executive councils or other bodies elected by, and usually composed of, members of the legislatures. Finally, the state constitutions specified simple property requirements for voting.
Given the decade-long debate with Parliament over the question of sovereignty, some Americans were reluctant to create any sort of general government, but there was a war to be won, as well as several pressing issues among the states. So, while necessity required some kind of general government, pre-Revolutionary disputes and the ideology of republicanism dictated that it would be a loose union, a sort of “League of Nations” of sovereign republics. The first American national constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was submitted to the states in 1777, but disputes over rival state land claims prevented ratification until 1781.
The Articles government reflected “lessons” the colonists thought they had learned between 1763 and 1776, when they had struggled with royal governors who, they believed, were working hand in glove with King George III to impose a “tyranny” on North America. State representation in the Confederation Congress could be between two and seven delegates, but each state had only one vote, thus enforcing a kind of “congressional equality,” regardless of differences in geographical extent, population, or wealth among the states. Taxes, such as they were, were to be levied under a requisition system, based upon an estimate of the value of land and improvements in each state, but the Congress could not compel the states to contribute anything.
Under the Articles of Confederation, states retained their sovereignty and were to exercise their powers in conjunction with a weak central government. In deciding upon the powers of the Congress, the states once again applied “lessons” they believed they had learned during the Revolutionary era. Congress was granted the same powers the colonies had conceded to Parliament before the Revolution—over foreign affairs, war and peace, coining money, and the postal service, for example. But, the Articles retained in the hands of the states the crucial powers the colonies had denied Parliament, taxation and the regulation of trade.
Furthermore, nine of thirteen states had to approve measures allowing Congress to exercise any of its powers, and amendments to the Articles had to be approved unanimously. The government under the Articles had no single executive. While there was a “president” of Congress, he was simply the presiding officer. Measures approved by Congress were to be executed by a series of congressional committees, for war, foreign affairs, finance, and so forth. Finally, there was no permanent national court system.
Because we know what happened at the Philadelphia Convention in the summer of 1787 and because the new form of government created there has lasted, with amendments, to the present day, it is awfully easy to dismiss the Articles of Confederation as weak and ineffectual. It should be remembered, though, that the government of the Articles presided over the American victory in the Revolutionary War. Moreover, Congress under the Articles created the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which both resolved the sticky issue of rival state land claims and established a “colonial policy” that has provided for the admission of new states to the Union, and placed them on an equal footing with the older states, ever since.
Still, the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention tossed aside the Articles of Confederation and replaced them with a much stronger, more centralized form of government under the new Constitution. Why? A brief answer to this important question is that the Philadelphia Convention believed that the Articles of Confederation had created the wrong sort of republic.
A number of factors brought the “Young Men of the Revolution” to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. With independence won, they looked about the postwar world, did not like what they saw, and blamed everything on the perceived weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation. Some of their criticisms were on the mark, but others were not. In fact, it could be argued that things that led them to fear most strongly for the future of their nation were the products, not of the Articles, but of the ideology of republicanism.
Both the Congress and state governments had resorted to printing presses to finance the war. Together, they issued $400,000,000 in paper currency. By 1781, $167 of congressional paper money was worth only $1 in gold and silver, and depreciation of bills in the states was almost as bad. The result was inflation, which hurt creditors, wage earners, and those on fixed incomes, while allowing many of the farmers and merchants who were most active in the economy to profit, because they bought and sold rapidly.
A key element of republicanism, equality, sparked protests from resentful aspirants to the middle class, who blamed those above them in society for avaricious conduct. Yet, despite this growing insistence on equality, inequality was greater after the Revolution than it had been before. In other words, the simple, independent “yeoman farmer” populating the bucolic dreams of Thomas Jefferson and other “good republicans” was already an endangered species. To many Americans, it seemed that wealth, and not more “republican,” qualities, had become the main criterion for labeling or distinguishing people.
In their quest to enjoy the fruits of republican equality, according to this view, too many were rushing past natural distinctions essential to order in society. This was clearest in looking at state legislatures, where, according to critics, “democracy” had debased the quality of legislators. Legislative bodies were now made up of less educated men of humbler, more rural origins, who were, for example, more willing to listen to demands from debtors for the issuance of paper money.
The Congress was almost bankrupt. Once the war was over, many Americans saw no need for a general government, but, if they had to have one, they were determined to see that it did not have enough money to work any mischief. Congress tried in 1781 and again in 1783 to amend the Articles of Confederation so that the general government could levy a 5% levy on imports, and thus have a guaranteed source of income, but, each time, the amendment failed to secure the necessary unanimous approval.
It was also clear that the new nation lacked the respect of the great powers, even wartime allies like France and Spain. Moreover, the former mother country, Great Britain, refused to surrender her western military posts, as required by the Treaty of Paris ending the war, or to enter into a commercial treaty with the United States. In fact, one influential British writer, Lord Sheffield, in a work entitled Observations on American Commerce (1784), argued that it would be useless to make a commercial treaty with the former colonies because the Congress was too weak to force the states to abide by it.
The motives of the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention have been the subject of controversy and debate since the summer of 1787. Simplifying a complicated issue, consider that a number of the most famous of the so-called “Founding Fathers” (for example, Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison) had served during the Revolutionary War in the Continental Army or the Continental Congress, or had represented “the United States in Congress assembled” abroad. In an era when even “good republicans” considered themselves New Yorkers, Virginians, Pennsylvanians, or Georgians, our “Founding Fathers” had a conception of the “common good” that transcended state boundaries and took in all Americans, wherever they lived.
By 1786, a number of these “continental-minded” Americans had proposed a general convention to strengthen the Articles of Confederation, but only a few states had responded, and the Congress tried to ignore their proposal. At this point, however, circumstances, in the form of Shays’ Rebellion (1786-1787), intervened. This was an uprising in western Massachusetts by debt-ridden farmers demanding the issuance of more paper money and passage of laws to prevent court-ordered foreclosures on their farms. Although the Massachusetts state government easily dispersed the rebels, Shays’ Rebellion was a conservative republican’s nightmare. Moreover, the Congress, which had just learned that New York had rejected the 1783 impost request, caved in to pressure for a convention in Philadelphia and asked the states to send delegates. All but one state (Rhode Island) did so.
The members of the Philadelphia Convention had learned different “lessons” from the 1780s than had the architects of the Articles of Confederation from the 1760s and 1770s, as a reading of the new Constitution suggests. The document produced by the Convention strengthened the central government, granting it the powers to tax and to regulate trade denied to Congress under the Articles, and limiting the powers of the states in significant ways. Then, too, the Constitution created a strong President, but, since the delegates were well aware that the Convention’s presiding officer, George Washington, would be the first President, this was not a matter of concern. To ensure that the new government would remain a republic, the Constitution included an elaborate system of separation of powers and checks and balances, including the creation of a national judiciary system, headed by a “supreme court.”
Legend has it that the senior delegate at Philadelphia, the almost mythical Benjamin Franklin, was approached as the Convention was breaking up by a woman who asked him what form of government the new Constitution provided. Franklin is supposed to have replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.” Critics of the new Constitution doubted it had created a republic. Some states, like Georgia, desired a stronger central authority to provide protection against Spaniards and Native American tribes, and were willing to ratify the new government almost without debate; others, like the crucial states of Virginia and New York, were enjoying life under the Articles of Confederation, doubted the proposed new government’s republican credentials, and were reluctant to approve it.
It was to secure the vote of New York that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay penned the Federalist Papers. By June 1788, the required nine states had ratified the Constitution, and the wheels had begun to turn that would lead to elections that fall. Still, many Americans probably did not believe that the new government would be a republic. Moreover, even those who supported the Constitution of 1787 could not be certain that they could “keep” the republic it supposedly had created.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: