Merrill Jensen: “The New Nation; A History of the United States During the Confederation 1781 – 1789”
Jensen begins his work by looking at the factors behind the American Revolution, and the objectives of those who advocated for it. As can be expected in any similar situation, while there is reasonable commonality amongst many of the advocates of revolution regarding that which they are against, there is relatively little that binds what the revolutionaries are for. He also examines the war effort, and the various factions behind it. Needless to say, the facts are far different than the myth; realpolitik as opposed to fable.
He introduces the primary issue: for many, “independence” meant political independence of the several states from Britain and in most ways from each other; for many others, it meant independence from Britain in order to form a local central and national government.
The currents of national government did not begin to flow with the debates during the Constitutional Convention and the back-and-forth of the debates thereafter; before the Declaration of Independence was signed, there were many who wanted such an outcome. This struggle was not the result of a (not-quite-true) few bad years under the Articles of Confederation, but the perpetual and relentless efforts of a sub-set of the revolutionaries.
NB: Jensen uses the term “federalist” in the proper manner – not in the manner it has been co-opted, but in the more consistent meaning of the term.
The high water mark for the true federalists was probably the ratification of the Articles of Confederation. However, both before and (obviously) after this event, the nationalists often had control. Ultimately, of course, with the Constitution, they succeeded in their objectives.
The Articles of Confederation embodied their conviction that the greatest political gain of the Revolution was the independence of the several states. These men were the “federalists” of the Confederation period. Opposed to them was a group of men who, on the whole, had been reluctant revolutionists. Most of them believed that the new nation should have a central government with power to coerce the state governments and their citizens. This group got control of Congress in 1781 and held it until the end of the war. These men were the "nationalists" of the Confederation period. They were convinced that their best hope of achieving the government they wanted was the continuance of the war. Beyond this they believed, as did the “federalists,” that the means used to pay the national debt would in large measure determine the extent of the power of the central government. (Page 4, emphasis added)
In any case, upon the end of the war, the nationalist leaders returned home and the federalists, along with the states, were once again in the controlling position. (Page 5) One reason that wars no longer end, it seems; a lesson lost on too many Americans today….
The Path to Peace
Before coming to the form of the new government, Jensen examines the path to the end of the war, and the negotiations for the peace treaty.
Offers for a peaceful settlement were made by the British early on in the war – first by the Howe brothers in 1776, and later by Lord North in 1778. The offers included “everything except the crucial thing – independence.” There were offers to mediate – by Spain, Austria, and Russia. In some cases, Britain rejected the offers; in others the Americans did so. The American victory at Yorktown changed everything – including the British government. (Page 7)
Before Yorktown, however, the nationalists in control of Congress were prepared to hand over the peace-making negotiations to the French, with only one certain demand – that, for independence:
Their new instructions required them to demand only independence. In all other matters they were to be subject to the guidance and control of the French.
Thus it was that in the dark days before Yorktown the fate of the United States was handed over to France by one group in Congress: the merchants of the middle states and their political allies. (Page 12)
All that mattered to the nationalists, it seems, was to be free from Britain in order to establish local coercive control. Jensen describes that, due to the efforts of John Jay and John Adams who held no illusions about so-called European altruism toward the United States, a far different outcome than the one realized was avoided.
The victory at Yorktown had a dramatic effect in London:
By the end of February 1782 a resolution was carried through the House of Commons declaring that any minister in favor of carrying on the war was an enemy of his country. (Page 12)
A month later, Lord North resigned.
In the meantime, with only Benjamin Franklin in Paris (John Jay had not arrived, and John Adams was still completing a loan from the Dutch), Franklin informally offered a list of terms – identified in two groups, as “necessary” and “desirable.” Included in the desirable group was the surrender of all of Canada to the United States! (Page 13)
There was much back and forth – recognition of independence before negotiations or not; return or compensation of damaged, lost, or stolen property on both sides; fishing rights in the northeast; private debts owed to British creditors; boundaries, especially between the United States and Canada (John Jay never pushed for Franklin’s Canadian wish); complete commercial reciprocity.
The treaty was finally signed in September 1783 – signed without consulting with or otherwise notifying the French beforehand, as the negotiators were instructed by Congress, but negotiated by Americans in Paris. (Page 18)
The First US Constitution
Jensen turns to an examination of the form of government contemplated and the Articles of Confederation – first written in 1776 but not adopted until March 1781:
This first Constitution of the United States lasted only eight years, but it has an importance that transcends its duration as a framework of government. (Page 19)
There is quite a backstory to the Articles, as there is to the revolution itself. All revolutionaries focused their antagonism on the centralizing policies of Great Britain. The commonality ended there, however. The more radical group wanted independence in fact; the more conservative group wanted to stay within the British Empire at almost any cost. Repeated and increasing aggressive acts by Britain convinced many of these more conservative revolutionaries to reconsider this view, although most held on to the desire for a strong, coercive central government. These differences would continue throughout the debates amongst the “patriots” regarding the form that the new government would take. (Page 19)
Jensen views this as important:
It is this continuity of conflict that gives coherence to the political history of the age of the American Revolution. Otherwise many men and events must be ignored, or their significance distorted, if they are fitted into a pattern that assumes a sharp break in history in 1776. (Page 19)
Independence for Me, Not for Thee
He describes two broad social groupings that set the stage for the continuing conflict within the United States regarding the new government – surprisingly similar to the conflict (although most are not aware of it) even today. On the one side was the business class looking to install- a coercive central government to do their bidding:
Along the narrow strip of tidewater from Georgia to New Hampshire lay most of the colonial cities. Dominating these cities were the colonial merchants…. These merchants were middlemen, they were bankers, and they were land speculators…. In the southern colonies the planters…who owned thousands of acres of land and hundreds of slaves formed the dominant social group. (Page 20)
On the other side was the ordinary American, the great majority of the population. These people…
…were small farmers owning their land, and for the most part they were voters in a society which insisted that only the propertied had any stake in a government whose chief purpose was the protection of property. Nevertheless these small farmers did not exercise power in proportion to either their numbers or their property. (Page 20)
This group suffered their own version of taxation without representation even within the colonies – the plantation owners and the merchants controlled the distribution of representatives in the local politics, and ensured a disproportionately small representation for the farmer class. (Page 20)
Such rule resulted in several rebellions in colonial history: Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, the Regulator movement in the Carolinas a century later, tenant farmer rebellions in New York and New Jersey. The focus of the social tension in colonial society was the “aristocratic control” of the colonial governments. For this type of control, the planters and merchants were in full accord with their British rulers. (Page 21)
It was due to the increasing intrusion by the British into the local rule of the aristocrats that social tension increased toward revolution:
During the years of peace, depression, and increasing British interference in colonial affairs after 1763, the conflict between rival social groups grew more butter. The governing classes naturally objected to British interference with their rule quite as much as they objected to farmer and artisan interference. But their constitutional arguments against Britain were of little effect, so they sought the help of farmers and artisans. The merchant aristocracy of the towns encouraged popular riots to give point to the constitutional theories about the right of self-government. Thus they were able to prevent the Stamp Act from going into effect. (Page 22, emphasis added)
The aristocrats did not pursue this course out of a desire for democracy – they were horrified by the concept – not because of fear of tyranny of the majority, but because it would cost control by the minority. Thus, the roots of the aristocrats’ desire for revolution were simple: independence from Britain in order to gain the entire benefit of the control over the majority in America. Some realized, ultimately too late, that they might not be in a position to bring their desired order out of the chaos of revolution.
The colonial aristocracies argued for the right of self-government in opposing Britain at the same time that they denied it at home, and in time were caught in a web spun from their own contradictions….As they were swept in the direction of independence they realized that one result might well be social revolution within the American states. Some realized it earlier than others and gave up all opposition to British measures, preferring the certainties of British rule to the uncertainties of a future in which farmers and artisans might speak with a far louder voice. (Page 23)
Gouverneur Morris warned as much in 1774: if the disputes with the British continued, the aristocracy would be run by a riotous mob. Morris never lost sight of the objective for a coercive, centralized government. (Page 23)
Many felt, independent from Britain or not, the states required a strong coercive government to regulate trade. James Duane, John Dickinson, and Robert Morris are mentioned in this context – fighting off independence for as long as they could, and when this proved no longer feasible, insisting on the creation of a strong central government. (Page 23)
It was from this faction, with Dickinson as chairman, that the first draft of the Articles came to be. This draft was presented to Congress in July 1776. (Page 23, 24)
It was a constitution with great possibilities for centralization, for it contained few limitations on the power of Congress and no guarantees of power to the states. (Page 24)
Note the date, and consider what this suggests in light of the supposed “independence” that was declared at the same time.
The Articles were debated for a month, then dropped. This was not taken up again until April of the following year. Ultimately and with significant modification, the Articles were completed and sent to the states for ratification in November 1777. This approved version left ultimate power in the states, with the central government holding specific and very limited powers. (Page 25)
Most states quickly ratified the Articles, with Maryland holding out the longest. Ultimately, her delegation approved in March 1781, and the United States had a central government with very limited power. (Page 26)