HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES
FORMATION OF THE GOVERNMENT
THE surrender of Cornwallis in America was followed by a Whig victory in Parliament. On the 27th of February, 1782, this resolution was carried in the House of Commons : -
That it is the opinion of this House that a further prosecution of offensive war against America would, under present circumstances, be the means of weakening the efforts of this country against her European enemies, and tend to increase the mutual enmity so fatal to the interests both of Great Britain and America.
One month later the Tory ministry fell, and the English allies of the American army came into power in the home country. In some ways the English Whigs were more consistent and more revolutionary than those who had fought under the Continental flag. They curbed the power of the king and the House of Lords, made the House of Commons supreme, and laid the foundations for a much more truly democratic government than this country has yet enjoyed. One reason for this is to be found in the existence in England of a powerful landed interest which was in such sharp antagonism to the rising industrial capitalists that the latter felt keenly the need of continuous curbing of their opponents.
No such condition existed in America. Here the antagonism of classes was rather between the industrial
and mercantile creditors on the coast and the farmer debtors of the interior. These latter were apt to make an alliance with the wageworkers of the larger cities, although these were too little developed to play an important part. Consequently the richer class in the colonies did not feel the need of any democratic measures in order to secure allies from the poorer classes in a fight against a crown and landed nobility, as was the case in England.
We see the effect of this condition in the character of the state governments formed during the Revolution. Practically all of these were supposed to be modeled after the British government. But there was an important difference. Since the colonists had left England the crown and the House of Lords had ceased to hold a dominant position in the English government, and their importance was decreased still further by the parliamentary conflict which was being waged simultaneously with the Revolutionary War in America.
In the state governments which were formed during the war to take the place of the old colonial establishments, the second chamber, corresponding to the House of Lords, was given equal power with the lower House. Moreover, this upper House, instead of being representative of a particular form of property relation, and that a declining one, was made representative of property alone, through very high property requirements for membership and suffrage. Property qualifications for voting were characteristic of all the state constitutions adopted during the Revolution, with the single exception of Pennsylvania. This would seem to show that all the fine talk about the rights of men and "taxation without
representation" and "all men are created equal" was intended only to secure popular support with which to pull some very hot chestnuts out of the fire for the ruling class of the colonies.
The nature of these state governments gives an idea of the political forms desired by ruling class interests at the time of the Revolution. The national government was too filmy a thing to tell any story clearly. And yet it is possible that this very indefiniteness tells an equally clear story, for it corresponded very closely to the lack of a general industrial life. There were very few interests common to all the colonies, and these few were not of a kind to overcome the immediate separatist ones.
At the outbreak of the war there was, of course, no central government. For the revolutionary forces its place was taken by the conspiratory "Committees of Correspondence." From these sprang the "Continental Congress," which took to itself more and more power as the Revolution continued.1
It was this body that controlled the movements of the army, gave Washington his
commission, declared independence, made alliances with France, Spain, and
Holland, borrowed money and pledged the credit of the combined colonies for its
repayment, issued an inconvertible currency, granted letters of marque and
reprisal, built a navy, and carried on peace negotiations when the war was ended.
Yet this body had no legal existence, no definite powers, none of the things
which are supposed to be the essential foundation of a legislative body until the
war was over, its important work completed, and its
1. John Fiske, "The Critical Period of American History," pp. 92-93.
life about to end. The Articles of Confederation, which for the first time provided these things, were not adopted by the various states until 1781, and by that time the Continental Congress, to which those articles for the first time gave a legal sanction, had ceased to play any important function.
Just as the Confederation was born, however, it was saved from the calamity of complete insignificance by being made a property holder. One of the obstacles to all efforts looking toward even so loose a union as that of the Confederation had been the possession by several of the states of great tracts of western land. This land was claimed under old royal grants, all of which were drawn before anything was known about the internal geography of the country, and several of which read "from sea to sea." Some of the smaller states, Maryland in particular, insisted that these lands must be surrendered as a prelude to any plan of confederation. This was at last agreed to, and Maryland made possible the formation of the Confederation in 1781. This action ultimately assured the existence of a national government. The Confederation now had a territory to govern outside the boundaries of the federated states. This territory, although thinly populated, was almost as large as all the thirteen original states. Finally, when Manasseh Cutler appeared before the Continental Congress with a proposition to purchase large tracts of this land, and it began to appear not simply in the light of a territory to be governed, but also as a source of income, Congress roused from its lethargy to almost its only important action since it had been legally constituted, - the passing of the Ordinance of 1787.
This ordinance providing for the organization and government of the great territory between the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Great Lakes, and the Alleghenies contains some remarkable provisions. There is, of course, the famous one upon which the thirteenth amendment to the national constitution was afterward based, providing that "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." But there is also a complete "bill of rights," providing for religious liberty, the right of habeas corpus, and trial by jury, representative government, bail for all save capital offenses, moderate fines, no cruel and unusual punishments, and also for the foundation of a public school system. This latter provision was to be little heeded until a movement of the working class should force this issue upon the people. These provisions, however, when contrasted with the proceedings of the constitutional convention, show that the Continental Congress had become much more of a popular body than was the one that wrote the present fundamental law of the United States.
During the time of the Revolution, in spite of this one very important action by the Continental Congress, the real governing power in the country had been the group of individuals who were in the midst of events and were making history rather than recording its results in legislation. These were the men who best incarnated the spirit of the rising social class. They were willing that the work of legislation, like the work of fighting in the ranks, should be done by others, providing their
hands were upon the levers that moved the social machinery.1
The American Revolution, like most wars, was fought by those who had least interest in its outcome. The workers and "embattled farmers," who as "minutemen" at Concord "fired the shot heard round the world," and left the imprint of their bleeding feet at Valley Forge and Yorktown, found themselves at the close of the war hopelessly indebted to the mercantile and financial class of the coast cities. The Continental currency, with which the government had paid for supplies, had now become valueless in the hands of the producers of wealth. One hundred and twelve million dollars had been thus extorted from the people. Taxes were most inequitably distributed, the poll tax being one of the most common methods of taxation. In Massachusetts it was proposed to collect over five million dollars by this method from 90,000 taxpayers. The fisheries were almost wiped out during the war and only slowly revived with the coming of peace .2
McMaster says of Vermont: "One half of the community was totally bankrupt, the
other half plunged in the depths of poverty." Of another state he says: "It was
then the fashion of New Hampshire, as indeed it was everywhere, to lock men up in
jail the moment they were so unfortunate as to owe their fellows a six
1. Woodrow Wilson, "History of the American People," Vol. III, p. 22 "The common affairs of the country had therefore to be conducted as the revolution had in fact been conducted, - not by the authority or the resolutions of the Congress, but by the extraordinary activity, enterprise, and influence of a few of the leading men in the States who had union and harmonious common effort at heart."
2. American State Papers, "Commerce and Navigation," Vol. I, pp. 6-21.
pence or shilling. Had this law been rigorously executed in the autumn of 1785, it is probable that not far from two thirds of the community would have been in the prisons."
The burden of debt had been multiplied by the depreciation of currency, and the attempt to collect it in specie. To again quote McMaster: "Civil actions were multiplied to a degree that seems scarcely credible. The lawyers were overwhelmed with cases. The courts could not try half that came before them." 1
The wealthy citizens who had sent their money to war that it might breed and multiply found their bonds would be of little value unless taxes could be squeezed from the workers. The Confederacy had no power to levy taxes, or to collect money in any way save by the sale of lands and bonds and the issuance of paper money. There were no purchasers for any of these commodities.
The manufacturers who had revolted against British tariffs were now looking for a national government to assist them with tariff legislation. The Revolution, by almost completely stopping importations, had acted on the budding manufacturers like a prohibitive tariff. Moreover, the exigencies of war created an abnormal demand for certain articles, and the Continental Congress devoted no small portion of its energies to efforts to encourage domestic manufactures. The moment the war ended, on the other hand, there was a flood of importations. British manufacturers, especially, were accused of "dumping" goods upon the market at less than London prices for the especial purpose of preventing the1 McMaster, "History of the People of the United States," Vol. I, p. 302.
growth of American manufactures. We are not surprised to learn that "By no class of the community was the formation of the new government, and its general adoption by the states, more zealously urged than by the friends of American manufactures."1
The paramount interest of the time was commercial, and it was fitting that commerce should play the largest part in the formation of the new government. Commerce demanded a powerful central government. No other could afford protection in foreign ports, provide for uniform regulations throughout the country, make and enforce commercial treaties, and maintain the general conditions essential to profitable trading. As Fisher Ames said in the first Congress : -
"I conceive, sir, that the present constitution was dictated by commercial necessity, more than any other cause. The want of an efficient government to secure the manufacturing interests, and to advance our commerce, was long seen by men of judgment, and pointed out by patriots solicitous to promote the general welfare."2
All of these interests were confined to the New England and Middle states. Unless
a class could be found in the South that was also interested in a centralized
government, there could be little hope of forming a union. In the North the
farmers were opposed to a central government and the merchants were its friends.
In the South the reverse was true. There the great planters, who were the social
rulers, favored the formation of the union. The
1. Bishop, "History of American Manufactures," Vol. I, p. 422.
2. Annals of Congress, Vol. I, p. 230. See also "History of Suffolk County, Massachusetts," Vol. II, p. 84; and W. C. Webster, "General History of Commerce," p. 341.
explanation of this is found in the fact that the planters of the South did their own exporting, but did it through English merchants. The latter were driving a profitable trade through their control of importations and the channels of export. The merchants were growing rich and the planters poor. The latter saw a possibility of relief in an internal commerce and in the development of domestic shipping with the opening of the West Indian trade through commercial treaties.1 To collect debts, public and private, to levy a tariff for the benefit of "infant industries," to protect the fisheries and pay bounties to the fishers, to assist the Southern planter in marketing his crops, and to secure commercial treaties and guard commercial interests in all parts of the world a centralized government was needed. Those who desired such a government were, numerically speaking, an insignificant minority of the population, but, once more, they were the class whose interests were bound up with progress toward a higher social stage. In advancing their interests this wealthy class of planters, merchants, and manufacturers was really building for future progress.
The wageworking, farming, and debtor class naturally had no desire for a strong central government. These desired above all relief from the crushing burden of debt. They sought this relief in new issues of paper money, in "stay laws" postponing the collection of debts, and in restrictions on the powers of the courts. In regard to government they cried out for economy and low taxes. The ever recurring populistic feud between frontier1. McMaster, "History of the People of the United States," Vol. I, pp. 272-293.
debtors and coast creditors made its appearance. The former were in an overwhelming majority, but they lacked cohesion, collective energy, and intelligence, - in short, class consciousness.
It was in Massachusetts that the struggle became especially violent. The populistic debtors elected a legislature pledged to carry out their program. When the legislature met, influences were brought to bear upon it by the creditor class of Boston that caused its members to break their pledges. Angered at this anarchistic defeat of the popular will, the farmers began to defy and intimidate the courts. As almost invariably happens, when a working class rises, collectivist ideas found expression. General Knox, then Secretary of War, who was sent by the Continental Congress to investigate the situation, reported that "Their creed is that the property of the United States has been protected from the confiscation of Britain by the joint exertions of all, and therefore ought to be the common property of all." 1
When the courts attempted to force the collection of debts from those who had nothing, the desperate debtors rallied to arms under the leadership of Daniel Shays, a veteran of the Revolution, and captured some of the smaller cities. Although there was no money in the treasury of Massachusetts with which to carry on the functions of government, yet the militia was called out to shoot down these starving veterans of the Revolution, and the wealthy merchants and bankers of Boston advanced the money with which to pay the troops 21. Irving, "Life of Washington," Vol. IV, p. 451,
2. McMaster, "History of the People of the United States," Vol. I, pp. 318-319; G. R. Minot, "History of the Insurrection in Massachusetts in 1786."
There was a similar situation in Rhode Island, with the difference that in this state the debtors were able to seize the legislature and force it to do their will. The result was something very like civil war, with the debtors trying to force their creditors to accept the paper money that had been issued. Here, also, we find the collectivist idea, coupled with a crude sort of state socialism which, as populism, became familiar on the western prairies more than a century later.
A convention of all the towns in Providence county met at Smithfield to consult upon further measures of hostility toward the merchants, whom they accused of exporting specie, and thus causing the distresses of the State. A plan of `State trade' was proposed, to be submitted to the General Assembly, and the Governor was requested to call a special session for that purpose. The plan was for the State to provide vessels and import goods on its own account, under direction of a committee of the legislature ; that produce, lumber, and labor, as well as money, should be received in payment of taxes, and thus furnish cargoes in return for which specie and goods could be obtained. Interest certificates were no longer to be received in payment of duties, but the private importers were to be compelled to pay them in money. The act making notes of hand negotiable was to be repealed, and the statute of limitation shortened to two years.1
These uprisings gave the final jar that was necessary to solidify the forces
working for a national government.
1 S. G. Arnold, "History of the State of Rhode Island," Vol. II, p. 524.
Until the threat arose of the capture of two or more states by the masses, there were many even of the wealthy classes who were inclined to think that their interests might be best furthered by several separate states.
"But the rebellion of Shays broke out. In an instant public opinion changed completely. Stern patriots, who, while all went well, talked of the dangers of baneful aristocracies, soon learned to talk of the dangers of baneful democracies."1
There are few things more striking than this complete change of front by the budding capitalists of Revolutionary times in obedience to material class interests. In 1776 they were all for paper money, restriction of the power of the courts, "natural rights," and the whole string of democratic principles. By 1786 they had rejected all these principles and were defending most of the positions of the English government of King George, while the prerevolutionary principles were left for debtridden farmers and workingmen. It is at least interesting to learn that the ruling class had even the same demagogues to secure popular support, and that Sam Adams was now an ardent defender of the creditor class.2The framing of the Constitution under these conditions took on much of the character of a secret conspiratory coup d'etat, such as most historians congratulate America on having escaped. The little group of individuals who best represented the ruling class, and who had dominated throughout the Revolution, were, to
1. McMaster, "History of the People of the United States," Vol. I, p. 391
2 J. K. Hosmer, "Sam Adams, The Man of the Town-Meeting," p. 51.
a large extent, losing their control. They now set about recapturing it through a secret counter-revolution.
The first step was an invitation from Washington to visit him at his home at Mt. Vernon, extended to commissioners appointed by Maryland and Virginia to consider methods of regulating commerce in Chesapeake Bay. These men arranged for a commercial convention at Annapolis, September 11, 1786, and an address was issued which carefully wove in with the local questions general hints of the need for wider national arrangements. This whole matter is set forth in a report of the French minister, Otto, to his chief, Count Vergennes, and as he was more nearly an impartial observer than almost any one else who has reported these events, it might be well to let him tell the story. He says, writing October 10, 1786: "Although there are no nobles in America, there is a class of men, denominated gentlemen, who, by reason of their wealth, their talents, their education, their families, or the offices they hold, aspire to a preeminence which the people refuse to grant them ; and although many of these men have betrayed the interests of their order to gain popularity, there reigns among them a connection so much the more intimate as they almost all of them dread the efforts of the people to despoil them of their possessions, and, moreover, they are creditors, and therefore interested in strengthening the government and watching over the execution of the laws. . . By proposing a new organization of the general government all minds would have been revolted ; circumstances ruinous to the commerce of America have happily arisen to furnish the reformers with a pretext for introducing innovations.
The authors of this proposition (the Annapolis convention) had no hope nor even desire to see the success of this assembly of commissioners which was only intended to prepare a question more important than that of commerce. The measures were so well taken that at the end of September no more than five states were represented in Annapolis, and the commissioners from the northern states tarried several days at New York in order to retard their arrival. The states which assembled after having waited nearly three weeks separated under the pretext that they were insufficient in numbers to enter on the business, and to justify this dissolution they addressed to the different legislatures and to Congress a report.1
All this scheme is exposed and its character admitted by Madison in papers
written by him and discovered after his death. Delegates to this convention
purposely remained away in pursuance of a conspiracy to prevent the action for
which it was ostensibly called. It was then possible to go to the Continental
Congress with the plea that the commercial arrangements for which it was
pretended these two gatherings had been called, were so pressing that a larger
body must be convened. The Continental Congress then passed a resolution in
February, 1787, saying that it was expedient that a convention of delegates from
the several states be held in Philadelphia in May "for the sole and express
purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation, and reporting to Congress
1 Quoted in H. J. Ford, "The Rise and Growth of American Politics," PP. 40-43. See also Morse, "Life of Hamilton," Vol. I, pp. 212-213; H. Von Holst, "Constitutional History of the United States," Vol. I, pp. 50-51; T. Watson, "Life and Times of Thomas Jefferson," p. 292; Schouler, "History of the United States," Vol. I, pp. 32-33.
the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall, when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the states, render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the union."
This was the only form of legality in the calling of the body that formulated the fundamental law of the United States; and no sooner had that body assembled than it proceeded to break this one link which was supposed to give it a legal sanction. It absolutely disregarded the conditions of its existence as fixed by Congress, and proceeded to formulate an entirely new government, and never bothered to report to the Congress to which it was supposed to be subordinate. After this one short appearance in public, the conspirators again took to darkness. They observed the most elaborate precautions to preserve the secrecy of their deliberations. They forbade the keeping of any notes, and refused to give out any information as to their actions. In spite of this rule James Madison took copious notes, which were published almost a half century later. These notes are almost our only source of information concerning the proceedings, as the only other person who kept notes left the convention in disgust before it had completed its work. As Madison was one of the most conservative members of the convention and the one most responsible for its conspiratory character, we may be sure that if any bias is to be found in his report, it will not be in the direction of the unpopular side.
Nevertheless, these debates, as reported, afford ample evidence that the constitutional convention was little more than a committee of the merchants, manufacturers,
bankers, and planters, met to arrange a government that would promote their interests. Only twelve states were represented at the beginning, and one of these dropped out before the end. Of sixty-five delegates elected only fifty-five were ever present, and but thirty-nine signed the final report. Throughout the discussions the utmost contempt for the mass of the people was displayed. Madison and Hamilton, who had most to do with the formation of the constitution, were in favor of placing power as far as possible from the people and giving property especial representation. The attitude of the convention is shown by an expression used by Ellsworth of Connecticut in opposing any action restricting slavery. "Let us not intermeddle," he said. "As population increases poor laborers will be so plenty as to render slaves useless."1
It has been pointed out that with the return of peace the wealthy classes,
including those who had remained Loyalists during the actual fight, returned to
power.2 The merchants of Boston, frightened at Shays'
Rebellion3 the manufacturers of Pennsylvania, anxious for
protection,4 and wishing to restrict the growing power of the western
districts,5 the commercial classes of the South, desiring a central
government for the settlement of disputes concerning navigable rivers, - all of
these were opposed to democracy. All were anxious to secure
1. J. Allen Smith, "The Spirit of American Government," pp. 27-39.
2 "Memorial History of Boston," Justin Winsor (editor), Vol. IV, PP. 74-75.
3. J. L. Bishop, "History of American Manufacturers," Vol. II, p. 14.
4. M. Farrand, "Compromises of the Constitution," American Historical Review, p. 482, April, 1904.
5. William C. Webster, "General History of Commerce," p. 341.
privileges against attack by the discontented debtors, frontiersmen, farmers, and wageworkers.
It was from these classes, inspired by these motives, that the delegates were drawn that framed the constitution. "There is no doubt that the new constitution was framed primarily in the interest of the industrial and commercial classes, and was finally ratified largely as a result of their active and intelligent work in its behalf."
Having formulated a constitution, the next step was to secure something that would at least have the appearance of a popular acceptance of the document. Since fully two thirds of the population were opposed to any such adoption, and remained so long after it had become a law, it might have appeared that the framers of the constitution had an impossible task upon their hands. Fortunately for them it was not necessary to take a popular vote. The referendum had not yet been accepted as a principle of political action, and the statement of the Declaration of Independence that "all governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed" had been relegated to the limbo of political platitudes.
The work of imposing the constitution upon the country was further lightened by the fact that at least three fourths of those who would to-day constitute the electorate were then disfranchised. Moreover, the disfranchised ones were just those who were almost unanimous against the constitution. Property qualifications shut out the working class of the cities and the debtors of the back country. Out of a population of 3,000,000 not more than 120,000 were entitled to even vote for those who were to constitute the state conventions that were to consider the constitution.
The delegates to these conventions were generally elected on the same basis as the members of the various state legislatures. This again gave an increased advantage to the defenders of the constitution, as the states had been districted with the definite object in view of discriminating against the back-country districts.
In a monograph on "The Geographical Distribution of the Vote of the Thirteen States on the Federal Constitution," by Orin G. Libby, the economic interest back of the delegates to each of the state conventions is carefully investigated. The result shows a recognition of class interests almost marvelous when we consider the generally undeveloped industrial condition of the time. The frontiersmen, the farmers, the debtors, the people who lived in the country and possessed little property, were almost solidly against the constitution. The merchants, the money lenders, the lawyers, the great landowners, and the planters, and those directly under their influence chose delegates who voted for the constitution.
In spite of gerrymandering and disfranchisement, in spite of the marvelous special pleading of Hamilton and Madison, whose political pamphlets in advocacy of the constitution were destined to become the classic commentaries on that document ; in spite of the tremendous influence of its powerful friends, it was long before a sufficient number of the states would indorse it to make possible a further step. Many of those who did indorse it qualified that indorsement with a provision for a "bill of rights," and this was provided for at the first session of Congress. Otherwise there would have been no guarantee of freedom of speech, assemblage, and press, or of trial by jury, or freedom of contract, or of any of those
things which constitutions, even at that time, were supposed to be established mainly to secure.
Rhode Island refused even this qualified indorsement. Although the Articles of Confederation provided for unanimous action before any law should be binding, yet steps were taken to organize the new government as soon as ten states had given their agreement, and finally Rhode Island was threatened with force to compel its consent.
To sum up: the organic law of this nation was formulated in secret session by a body called into existence through a conspiratory trick, and was forced upon a disfranchised people by means of a dishonest apportionment in order that the interests of a small body of wealthy rulers might be served. This should not blind us to the fact that this small ruling class really represented progress, that a unified government was essential to that industrial and social growth which has made this country possible. It also should not blind us to the fact that there was nothing particularly sacred about the origin of this government which should render any attempt to change it sacrilegious.