In libertarian circles – both those of the minarchist variety and those of the anarchist variety – the time in the US under the Articles of Confederation are considered to have offered a better political environment than what came after. This certainly sounds good to me, but beyond ignorantly smiling approvingly I have little knowledge of the period.
In order to understand this period better, I will work through a book by Merrill Jensen, “The New Nation: A History of the United States During the Confederation 1781 – 1789.”
Who is Merrill Jensen?
Merrill Monroe Jensen (1905–1980) was an American historian whose research and writing focused on the ratification of the United States Constitution. His historical interpretations are generally considered to be of the "Progressive School" of American history, the most famous exponent of which was Charles A. Beard.
His early scholarship challenged the "consensus" interpretation of the Constitutional ratification process, arguing that the Articles of Confederation were a better expression of genuine democratic values than was the Constitution. The replacement of the Articles with the Constitution, Jensen argued, created a system of government that minimized the influence of radical democracy rooted in local politics. From his reading of the documentary evidence, he identified deep ideological conflicts among Americans at the time of the ratification.
From the forward, by Richard Morris:
Merrill Jensen’s The New Nation has assumed its rightful place as a classic. When it first appeared it was welcomed by the historical profession as a brilliant refutation of the traditional picture of the years preceding 1787. (Page vii)
Jensen went after the traditional view that the period under the Confederation was chaotic had “no value as either history or example,” and that the weak economic condition of the 1780s was not sufficient reason to explain or justify the supplanting of the relatively weak federal system in favor of a strong central government. (Page vii)
Jensen refers to those who favored the decentralized system properly as “federalists” (contrary to the popular usage) as opposed to the “nationalists” or centralists. (Page vii)
Jensen notes that the post-Constitutional debate regarding the power afforded the central government did not start with the Constitution, and certainly not with Hamilton and Jefferson: “for they had been the very core of constitutional debate ever since the Declaration of Independence, and even before it, for that matter.” The debate continued in the decades that followed, with Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun on either side of the argument – and each switching sides over time. (Page xiii)
He notes that Jefferson – who was, when not in office, the champion of a decentralized system – justified his purchase of Louisiana by “constitutional theories that even Hamilton hardly dared use.” (Page xiii)
Jensen points out that advocates of ever-larger monopoly government, including world government, point to the time under the Articles as a reason that further centralization is beneficial – the time falsely labeled as chaotic. (Page xiv)
Even if it can be granted that most appeals to the history of the Confederation have been sincere, let it also be said that they have seldom been infused with any knowledge of the period or its problems. The result has been the drawing of lessons the past does not have to teach. (Page xvi)
The main culprit of this false history, in Jensen’s eyes, is John Fiske and his book The Critical Period of American History, “a book of vast influence but of no value as either history or example.” (Page xvi)
The picture is one of stagnation, ineptitude, bankruptcy, corruption, and disintegration. Such a picture is at worst false and at best grossly distorted…. We have too long ignored the fact that thoroughly patriotic Americans during the 1780s did not believe there was chaos and emphatically denied that their supposed rescuers were patriotic. (Page xvii)
The question never was one of a new nation – that there was a new nation was never in debate. The issue was if the new nation should have a federal or a national government. (Page xviii)
It is this story that Jensen tells, and the history I hope to understand.