Seems like a pretty dumb question. The United States won independence; isn’t that clear?
I have often wondered about the meaning of the term “independence” in this context. Independence for whom? For the average colonist, what really changed fundamentally? And as time went on, what was different in life for the average Yankee having a pint in Boston vs. the average Brit having one in London? Both have been and continue to be victims of inflation and regulation; both have been subject to being duped and dragged into the same wars for empire.
Who won? To address this issue I will offer excerpts from Merrill Jensen’s book, The New Nation: A History of the United States During the Confederation. This post will likely be my last in a series of posts covering this book.
Independence: Different Strokes for Different Folks
I offer a reminder of what I have previously written regarding this time in American history and the actors present on the stage:
The story we learn of the American Revolution is one of tea parties, Paul Revere, taxation without representation, all men created equal, Patriots against Loyalists, heroes without self-interest.
The reality, for those interested and willing to dig a little deeper, is a little different – most easily understood if one accepts that the men of the revolutionary generation were not saints. They were men with different interests, different reasons for desiring independence, and different interpretations of what independence meant for them and for their fellow travelers on the continent.
Believe it or not, many of the key players saw revolution as an opportunity to secure political advantage for themselves in place of the crown. Shocking, I know….
George Mason of Virginia summarized this conflict amongst revolutionaries well, in 1782:
… “posterity will reflect with indignation that this fatal lust of sovereignty, which lost Great Britain her western world, which covered our country with desolation and blood, should even during the contest against it, be revived among ourselves, and fostered by the very men who were appointed to oppose it!” (Page 409, emphasis added)
Mason is, of course, referring to many of the revered “founders”; as his description is accurate, one can only describe such men as scoundrels.
Confronting the Myth of the Confederation
With that as introduction, let’s begin. Believe it or not, the accepted story of the Confederation Period (economic chaos, confusion, etc.) is myth, designed to give justification to the centralization brought on by the coup at Philadelphia in 1787.
At the time of Independence and military victory over Britain, and amongst a vast majority of the American people, there was a new spirit:
…politicians seldom predicted anything but catastrophe. The American people, unlike their political leaders, had a spirited faith in the future, a faith that, far more than the rhetoric of the politicians, gives us some conception of the fruits of independence. (Page 87)
Jensen goes on to describe countless ways by which this spirit was manifest. The vast majority of the people experienced little if any economic chaos or calamity in their daily activities – at least not any that could be attributable to the lack of a coercive central state. They had a new land to tame, new relationships to build, and new avenues through which to conduct trade.
From Jensen’s conclusion:
The foregoing pages indicate that the Confederation Period was one of great significance, but not the kind that tradition has led us to believe. The “critical period” idea was the result of an uncritical acceptance of the arguments of the victorious party in a long political battle, of a failure to face the fact that partisan propaganda is not history but only historical evidence. (Page 422)
Here Jensen is referring to the “long political battle” between the federalists (wrongly labeled “anti-federalists”) that saw in the revolution the independence of the individual states, with state sovereignty and no independent income for a national congress, and the nationalists (wrongly labeled “federalists”) who wanted a strong and coercive central government with an independent income.
These nationalists swore that economic recovery was impossible without centralized control, and that chaos was the only result of state legislation. (Page 245)
Of course, the same nationalists also swore during the war that Britain could not be defeated absent the granting by the states of significant coercive power to a central government. This assertion proved equally false, as the war was won before any such development occurred.
This argument regarding the economy and trade has been generally accepted ever since the 1780s by most writers. A few facts stand in the way of this myth:
First of all is the fact that such arguments were used to strengthen the central government before the post-war depression began. Secondly is the fact that recovery was well on the way before any centralized control had been achieved. (Page 246)
Contemporary opinion did not support such a gloomy outlook. (Page 255)
The vast majority of the population was agrarian, and from this group came many of the federalists. The nationalists came from the merchant and large landowner class. The nationalist version of the Confederation is well known and exploited: the economy under the Articles was in shambles. As to the federalists, the small agrarian farmers:
…their needs, wants and problems seldom found their way into the documents from which history is written. (Page 177)
The sources were the product of a minority in society…the dominant note was sounded by American merchants and business men who lived mostly in the seaport towns...They were the middlemen who made fortunes and had influence in the American states out of all proportion to their numbers. (Page 178)
This is true always and everywhere throughout history – those choosing to live in relative anarchy – a state of little if any centralized monopoly control – inherently have little reason to document their own story. Such records are developed for the benefit of control and to create the desired historical narrative.
To be sure, there were men who veered from one camp to the other; there were also some others supporting some form of monarchy or dictatorship. In all cases, these were comprised of relatively insignificant minorities. The primary conflict was between the two above-mentioned groups.
The nationalists were looking for relief from the threat of democracy – they were clearly outnumbered. This was not because of fear of the tyranny of the majority, but because they wanted to ensure the possibility of a tyranny by the minority.
The significant victory for the nationalists was achieved with the ratification of the Constitution, and the victory has continually been solidified since that day until the present. The narrative was created for the benefit of the victors: the chaos during the Confederation Period needed a strong central government in order to bring order.
Yet both the war and the post-war period under the Articles offer a much richer and more diverse history – and one not at all supportive of the official narrative.
What emerges instead is a much more complex and important story in which several themes are interwoven. It was a period of what we would call post-war demobilization, of sudden economic change, dislocation, and expansion, and of a fundamental conflict over the nature of the Constitution of the United States. (Page 422)
Under the Articles – including the period before ratification and while the war was ongoing and the risk of losing the war were high – the several states confronted and overcame many problems.
It was not for the sake of resolving problems that in reality were well on the way to being resolved that the nationalists wanted to centralize power, but for the gains afforded to the political class by the actual centralization of power.
Regarding trade after Independence – one of the issues pointed to as requiring a strong central government – many more avenues were opened to America than were closed. While trade with and through Britain was obviously impaired, trade with every other economy was no longer impaired due to America being limited by policies favorable to British merchants. American ship-owners and merchants were free to trade with French, Dutch, Spanish and any other country (even China) without hindrance from Britain.
No one at the time or since then has ever presented an adequate balance sheet of the advantages and disadvantages of membership in the Empire. (Page 156)
The issue was not the lack of opportunities to trade. The issue then, just as it remains today, was for the corporately connected to be in a position to dictate the rules of trade through government action; this could be accomplished much more efficiently through a central government than through thirteen separate state governments.
Issues of trade with Britain were finally resolved with the conclusion of the war treaties, and certainly by the end of 1783:
Hardest hit by the new rules were the New England ship-owners and fisherman. Their screams of anguish have shrilled so loudly through the pages of history ever since, that it has not been recorded that the rest of the United States was little harmed by such rules, and that the country as a whole enjoyed the new freedom to trade and sell outside the British Empire. (Page 164)
An interesting point is raised by Jensen, perhaps pointing to a Hamiltonian connection:
West India planters were even more bitter than American ship-owners. (Page 164)
In any case, the remaining portion of British North America could not provide sufficient supplies or markets for the West Indies (and in fact required supplies from the former American colonies), leaving an opening for American ship-owners; further, such ship-owners were well versed in the art of smuggling or otherwise finding ways around British restrictions.
While the British shippers complained bitterly about such actions, the Dutch took a different view. Smuggling and the like also affected the colonies of the Dutch Indies; instead of fighting this, the Dutch chose to provide financing! (Page 168)
Most of the ports of the world were open, not closed, to American citizens. Reciprocity and equal treatment of all United States citizens was the rule in the tonnage and tariff acts of the states, not trade barriers. (Page 423)
…the period was one of extraordinary economic growth. Merchants owned more ships at the end of the 1780s than they had at the beginning of the Revolution and they carried a greater share of American produce. By 1790 the export of agricultural produce was double what it had been before the war. (Page 423)
…there is no evidence of stagnation or decay in the 1780s. Instead the story is one of a newly free people who seized upon every means to improve and enrich themselves in a nation which they believed had a golden destiny. (Page 424)
Further concerns were raised about the regulation of trade between the newly independent states:
No idea is more firmly planted in American history than the idea that one of the most difficult problems during the Confederation was that of barriers to trade between state and state. (Page 337)
There is little factual basis for the ancient tale repeated so faithfully by writers who follow in one another’s footsteps without examining the evidence. The supporters of centralized power used the few discriminatory laws as an argument for a new government, but they ignored the laws which disproved their case…. The adoption of the Constitution of 1787 made no change in the economic relations between New York and her neighbors except that duties were thereafter collected by the national government…. Trade “barriers,” contrary to the tradition, were the exception rather than the rule. (Page 339, 340 emphasis added)
Thus the picture by the end of 1787 is not the conventional one of interstate trade barriers, but a novel one of reciprocity between state and state. (Page 342)
Nowhere was this debate better illustrated than in regards to the national debt. Yet, even during the period under Confederation, solutions were developed and implemented.
The debt was fantastically low compared with the national debt of today…and the nation had vast untouched natural resources with which to pay it. Multitudes of accounts had to be reduced to simple forms so that they could be paid, and this the Confederation government managed to do. …one state after another assumed portions of the national debt owing to its citizens. Thus the traditional story is so out of context as to be virtually meaningless. (Page 423, emphasis added)
As to the economic condition during the time under the Articles as well as the ability of the various states to service their debts:
The income of state governments is a partial index to economic conditions. All too few figures are available, but these show that many of the states were working their way out of the financial difficulties resulting from the war. (Page 304)
Further, the available figures of the debt owed by the United States government demonstrate that, under the Articles, substantial progress was made in reducing or otherwise liquidating this debt. (Page 382)
…not only did some of the states assume the national debt owing to their citizens, but others went into the open market and bought up depreciated securities. (Page 398)
For both nationalists and federalists, the issue of control over the debt was the issue of sovereignty in government:
Both the nationalists and federalists believed that national payment of the war debt would mean supremacy of the central government over the states; that state payment would mean the retention of ultimate power in the hands of the states. (Page 400)
This is not to say all was peace and harmony – different factions had different desires from government. But there is nothing new here. Yet overall, the myth of a decaying economy was only created for the benefit of the history books – one used to justify the co-opting of the revolution from the states.
As one examines the evidence for the expansion of American commerce and business enterprise after the Revolution, the simple picture of economic depression as a cause of the movement for a stronger central government begins to disappear. (Page 194)
Disputes Between States
Additional concerns were raised regarding the effective resolution of disputes between the states:
Before 1776 those afraid of independence predicted that there would be civil war between state and state… (Page 337)
This occurred, of course, four score and seven years later, under the document that was put in place in part to supposedly deal with just this issue.
Jensen indicates that these concerns were not without merit – for example regarding disagreements over borders between Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Yet all these problems were settled during the years that followed. The Articles of Confederation provided a method for arbitrating such disputes. (Page 337)
Under the Articles it seems peaceful methods were developed and utilized to resolve such conflicts. When coercion was not available to the central government, peaceful settlement was possible; when coercion was available to the central government, it was utilized.
The most vocal group whose interests transcended state boundaries in the new nation were those known as “public creditors.” (Page 344)
There was no bigger advocate for this crony class that Robert Morris, falsely described at the financier of the Revolution. This would be a rather difficult feat for someone who attained power only at the time the war was won, and who left office as the largest debtor to the United States government. His fellow countrymen were not confused about his character:
No attack on Morris was more extreme than that by William Lee who declared him a most dangerous man in America. He said that Morris was bankrupt at the beginning of the war, left the country bankrupt at the end of it, but that at the same time “amassed an immense fortune for himself….” (Page 367)
Laurens swore that men like Morris made “patriotism the stalking horse to their private interests” and hid behind Washington as they did so. (Page 368)
For the creditor class, decentralized power was the risk:
The revolutionary constitutions of the states placed final power in the legislatures and made the executive and judicial branches subservient to them. The members of the colonial aristocracy who became Patriots, and new men who gained economic power during the Revolution deplored this fact…. These men were the nationalists of the 1780s.
On the other hand the men who were the true federalists believed that the greatest gain of the Revolution was the independence of the several states and the creation of a central government subservient to them. …the states could be best governed without the intervention of a powerful central government. (Page 424)
These “true federalists” saw some need to enhance certain powers of the central government, but only within the structure of the Articles of Confederation. The nationalists had a different scheme in mind. A critical figure was Washington, shaken out of retirement and into politics due to Shays’ Rebellion. (Page 250)
It is not appropriate to examine the period under the Articles only through the lens of the “failures” – some real, but mostly myth. There were many successes – certainly for those who believed in the kind of central government provided for by the Articles – in other words, for those in favor of a weak central government, one dependent on the states.
The “weakness” of the central government under the Confederation was the weakness of any government that must achieve its ends by persuasion rather than by coercion. There was a large group of the citizens of the new nation who believed in persuasion; a smaller but equally powerful group believed in a central government with coercive authority. The triumph of the latter group in the face of the achievements of the Confederation government was a victory of a dynamic minority with a positive program. (Page 348)
This leads to Jensen’s conclusion on the fateful years 1787-1789:
The federalists tried to strengthen the Articles of Confederation; the nationalists tried to create a new constitution by means of a convention, and thus avoid the method of change prescribed by the Articles of Confederation. The movement to strengthen the Articles failed on the verge of success; the movement to call a convention succeeded on the verge of failure. (Page 428)
Unfortunately for us.