HIST 116: The American Revolution

Lecture 21

 - A Union Without Power


In this lecture, Professor Freeman discusses the Articles of Confederation. Although they seem hopelessly weak in the long view of history, the Articles made perfect sense as a first stab at a national government by a people who deeply distrusted centralized power - a direct product of their recent experience of the British monarchy. Among the many issues that complicated the drafting of the Articles, three central issues included: how war debts to European nations would be divided among the states; whether western territories should be sold by the national government to pay for those debts; and how large and small states would compromise on representation. When a series of events - like Shays’ Rebellion - highlighted the weaknesses of the Articles, some Americans felt ready to consider a stronger national government.

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The American Revolution

HIST 116 - Lecture 21 - A Union Without Power

Chapter 1. Introduction: A Union without Power [00:00:00]

Professor Joanne Freeman: On to the lecture. Today’s lecture basically is titled “A Union Without Power.” In past years I’ve titled it, “Powers — “Problems of the Confederation,” and you’ll see why, by the end of the lecture. On Tuesday I started to talk about the larger question of the legacy of the Revolution and the process of governance, and I started us off by talking about the drafting of state constitutions and the drafting of the Articles of Confederation. And in a sense, one uniting theme that ran through both parts of that lecture was the ways in which the states and their rights and their sovereignty were really at the center of things. In a way, you could say that that entire lecture was about the states, even though it was about — really talking about a way to unify them. Certainly, you can see that in the content of the Articles themselves, and the ways in which they were largely centered on defining and limiting the amount of power that was given to the Confederation Congress.

Well, today what we’re going to look at is the impact of that. We’re going to basically be looking at how the Articles played out in the 1780s, given the amount of power that they had, or the amount of power that they didn’t have — but one way or another we’re going to see what happened in the 1780s. And as an introduction to that, I want to talk for just a few minutes about some of the actual debates in Congress about the Articles themselves — some of the things that gave people in Congress pause when the Articles were being written — because, as you’ll see, this reveals a lot about the mindset of the time regarding centralized power and state power. And understanding that mindset is going to explain some of what we’re going to see in the bulk of today’s lecture, which is really going to be looking at events that took place in the 1780s. I’m also going to mention these things right now that I’m going to talk about briefly because in a couple of lectures from now when we begin talking about the Constitution, you’re going to see them basically all crop up again.

Chapter 2. Representation, Taxation, Western Lands: Debates on the Articles of Confederation [00:02:13]

So just a few minutes about the debate over the Articles. Now one thing worth noting is that even as Congress was trying to figure out some form of union, even the people on the committee appointed to draft the Articles of Confederation were not entirely at ease with the idea of centralizing power in that way. So this is just a random comment, but it’s from Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, and it’s a private letter that he wrote to a friend — and he was actually on the Congressional committee that was given the task of writing — coming up with something that would be ultimately the Articles of Confederation. So this is what Rutledge says to his friend:

“If the Plan now proposed should be adopted nothing less than Ruin to some Colonies will be the Consequence [of it]. The Idea of destroying all Provincial Distinctions and making every thing of the most minute kind bend to what they call the good of the whole, is in other Terms to say that these Colonies must be subject to the Government of the Eastern Provinces. The Force of their Arms I hold exceeding Cheap, but … I dread their overruling Influence in council. I dread their low Cunning, and those leveling Principles which Men without Character and without Fortune in general possess, which are so captivating to the lower class of Mankind, and which will occasion such a fluctuation of Property as to introduce the greatest disorder. I am resolved to vest the Congress with no more power than what is absolutely necessary … for I am confident if surrendered into the Hands of others a most pernicious use will be made of it.”

Okay. So listen to some of what Rutledge just said there. Okay. He’s afraid that making everything bend to the good of the whole is basically saying the same thing as subjecting all of the colonies to the eastern provinces — and by eastern provinces, he means New England. He says, ‘Well, as soon as we do sort of bend the minutest thing to the good of the whole, New England is just going to take over.’ That’s basically what he is saying in that letter: I don’t want to be ruled by New England.

And then right after that he says, “The Force of their Arms I hold exceeding Cheap.” Okay. ‘I’m not scared of them militarily. We could beat them in a fight. However, that low cunning those kinds of people have, they will take over in councils.’ Right? ‘They’ll control Congress. I don’t like the whole idea of being governed by New England and because of that I’m not entirely sure about this whole Articles of Confederation idea.’ So how’s that for spirit of league of friendship? [laughs] That guy is on the committee that’s actually drafting the document, and he’s that suspicious about regional prejudices, about New England trying to take over. So that just gives you a little bit of a sense of how uneasy people were with centralizing power in any way on this sort of nationalesque kind of level, particularly given their fears about giving up some of the power and sovereignty that was held by their own independent states.

Now once Congress actually began debating the Articles there were actually three main controversies I’m going to bring up now, and for obvious reasons — as I mention them — because you’ll see why they all come up again as soon as we begin talking about the Constitution. These three things all helped to slow down and complicate debate over the Articles, so that even though they start talking about the Articles in 1776, there’s a reason why it takes all the way until November of 1777 for Congress to decide that they’re done with them.

Okay. So the first of these three controversies not surprisingly — I bet I could even ask you to guess them and you probably would guess them, but the first one is representation — surprise. Not a surprise at all. The idea of representation caused an extended debate over whether voting in Congress once again should be based on population — which is what the larger states want — or one vote, one state — which is obviously what the smaller states want. As James Wilson of Pennsylvania put it, “It is strange that annexing the name of ‘State’ to ten thousand men, should give them an equal right with forty thousand. This must be the effect of magic, not of reason.” Okay. That argument appears — almost verbatim — but certainly that argument appears again when once again we’re talking about representation, centralized power, the Constitution.

Not surprisingly, related to representation, the second controversial topic I’m going to raise here is taxation. There was an extended debate over whether the common expenses of the war should be divided up among the states on the basis of total population, including slaves, or on the basis of the free population only. So here we have taxation, representation, and slavery all bound together happily in one issue that obviously is going to be controversial, and obviously is not going to go away, and is going to come back the very next occasion when they’re talking about representation and centralized power.

So representation, taxation, and the third main controversy that slowed down the passage of the Articles was the question of the West, western territories. Not surprisingly, there was a big division between large landed states with extensive western land claims — states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Virginia, North Carolina — and small landless states like Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New Hampshire. Landless states saw the Confederation Congress as a sort of successor to the Crown’s property rights in the West.

So in other words, smaller states, landless states, wanted Congress to take over vast western territorial plains and then convert them into some kind of a common stock of land whose sale could help discharge some of the national war debt. So that’s what the smaller states or the landless states want. And the idea behind that — the logic behind that — was that what was gained at common expense — independence and control of those western lands — should be used for common benefit. Now obviously, the states that owned western lands are going to feel really differently about that whole issue, but it’s not surprising that that would be a point of controversy.

Okay. So those are three central concerns over the Articles: representation, taxation, and the western lands. Thanks to issues like those, the Articles were debated from mid-1776 through November of 1777, when they finally were completed and then submitted to the states for ratification. The main reason why debate stopped at that point in 1777 is not because everyone decided those questions had been settled, but because of the American victory at Saratoga. So basically people realized if the states weren’t united into one joint political entity at that point, it would be almost impossible for them to get foreign aid. They had to at least prove that they could unite somehow if they were going to convince foreign countries that it was worthwhile investing in whatever was happening in America.

So signing the Articles of Confederation and then sending them off for ratification was a way of giving added credence to the American cause in the eyes of the world at a very strategic moment. As Samuel Chase of Maryland wrote right in the midst of the debate over the Articles, “what contract will a foreign State make with us, when we cannot agree among ourselves” — which is a pretty good point. This basic reality led Congress to complete the Articles, send it to the states. The states ultimately — They discussed them. Some came to a conclusion quicker than others, and it was not until 1781 that the Articles formally were put into effect.

Chapter 3. The Immediate Effects of the Articles [00:10:04]

Now I want to turn to what happened once the Articles actually went into effect, and as we set out into this discussion I want to take just a moment here to defend the Articles just a little bit. And I did this a little bit in Tuesday’s lecture too, because as you’ll see — it’ll be very clear by the end of this lecture why I’m doing this — it’s very easy to listen to what happened in the 1780s and conclude, ‘this is the most inadequate, goofy form of government I can possibly imagine.’ Right? Because all we’re going to see in this lecture is one after another after another instance of this government not working so well.

And it doesn’t help that you have all of these really strident nationalists in this time period — we’re going to hear from a couple of them too — who throughout the 1780s, and for some of them even in part of the 1770s, felt really strongly that there needed to be a stronger centralized government, and were really vocal in expressing their doubts and expressing what they thought really needed to happen. So Hamilton — Alexander Hamilton is always griping about the weak government; George Washington always griping about the weak government.

Added to the sort of bad PR for the Articles of Confederation are the “Federalist” essays, and I’ll talk about them in a couple of lectures too, but, as we’ll see when we look at them, the “Federalist” essays are not objective; they’re written with an agenda — I’ll go into this in more detail later — but they are aimed at proving that the proposed Constitution is absolutely necessary, and one of the ways in which they did that was to just rip the Articles of Confederation to shreds. Right? To prove that the Constitution was really necessary, one of the things the “Federalist” essays really try to accomplish is proving how horrible and incompetent and inadequate the Articles of Confederation are. And if you believe that, then you’re going to be even more likely to think: ‘oh, wow, if they’re so bad maybe this Constitution actually really is — we absolutely have to go for it.’ So it was part of a sort of rhetorical strategy in the “Federalist” essays to make the Articles look really bad — not that they need a lot of help necessarily, but they were really emphasizing that in the “Federalist” essays.

So for a moment — all I’m trying to say with this is, just consider that there are all of these reasons why, for natural reasons, for bad PR reasons, it’s natural for us to look at the Articles and think of them as just a big mistake, but of course the problem with that kind of reasoning is presentism. Right? It’s judging the Articles based on what we know comes next. So we know, right down the pike there’s that Constitution just waiting to happen; so we know there’s a stronger government coming; we know that it works because it’s still working. So we know, in a sense, the end of this particular story and knowing that, it’s very hard for us to look at the Articles and give them — they don’t get much respect — to give very much respect to the Articles of Confederation. But that’s not quite fair to judge those historical actors in that moment in that way, because of course they don’t know what’s coming next. They’re acting in the moment. They’re acting based on lessons they’ve just learned, with the knowledge of the moment.

So I think rather — even after everything I say in today’s lecture — rather than condemning the Articles as a kind of broken or faulty or sad system of government, we should instead really understand them in the context of the time, and really understand the ways in which they represent precisely what should have been the first attempt at a national government based on the fears and assumptions that prevailed in the United States at that time. As I talked about on Tuesday, there were natural fears about a strong centralized national government — and of course there were, given the Revolution has just happened. And given that people could look back on the Revolution and say, ‘Well, okay. We know that the Continental Congress had problems but we won’ — people had some reason to assume: ‘well, that worked basically, so we’ll kind of assume that some version of that will continue to work as long as we have some kind of a sense of common purpose.’

And there is the problem, and that is what we’re going to see today, because the unhappy surprise of the 1780s was that once the war was over, there was not all that much of a sense of common purpose anymore. So as I detail all of these problems today with the Articles, try to bear in mind that yes, they did not function as well as people maybe hoped they would but that rather than a stupid mistake, they were a logical first step in a larger process of nation-making. They made sense as a first step.

Now even before some of the problems of the 1780s began to unfold, there were already people who felt that the Continental Congress had been frustratingly inadequate — and we heard about some of these a couple of weeks back — and not surprisingly, people who had been angry about the Continental Congress are now irritated with the Confederation Congress too. Often — or at least some of these people had experienced in one way or another firsthand frustrations because of what they viewed as the inadequacies of these various congresses.

So for example, I mentioned I think actually in an earlier lecture that there were some people at Washington’s headquarters during the war who experienced firsthand how hard it was for Congress to get them supplies and men, partly just because Congress wasn’t functioning necessarily very well. And so a lot of people at Washington’s headquarters during the war end up being really strong nationalists, and Hamilton and Washington obviously are among that group. But there is a whole string of other people as well who are all writing letters to each other throughout the 1780s saying, ‘We’re dying. It’s all going downhill. We have fought the war. We won. Now what’s happening?’ We’ll hear a Washington letter along these lines in just a couple of minutes.

Other people who were unhappy with the Confederation Congress were people who had attempted to deal with foreign affairs during the Revolution, and again on that front had seen how Congress had dilly-dallied; it had failed to give effective, efficient concrete instructions. And John Jay was one of those people who distrusted what was — ever was going to happen with the Articles because he’d seen what happened with a similar congress during the Revolution.

Some other people had been actual members of the Continental Congress and found themselves frustrated at some point about getting things implemented. And James Madison falls into that category. And obviously I’m just naming a few random instances here. There are many other people who felt this way. These men perceived what seemed to them like a supreme irony. It would be the ideals and principles of the Revolution that would tear apart the new nation that the Revolution had created. So in their mind, all of these fears about state sovereignty, about concerns about centralized power, about tyranny, about protecting property, about protecting liberties — all of those things might actually lead people to be so distrustful of a government, that maybe it would bring the entire experiment in government crashing down almost before it had had a chance to begin.

Chapter 4. Frail Foreign Relations, Weak Congress, Splitting States: Weaknesses in the Confederation in the 1780s [00:17:16]

Now what was it that so upset these men about the 1780s? So let’s turn to some of the events of the 1780s and see. Now for one thing right off the cuff, the state of foreign relations in the 1780s seemed alarming to them, particularly regarding Great Britain. Despite the fact that Americans had won the war — that they had negotiated a treaty with Britain that had clear terms in it — Britain was still putting up barriers and hurdles and basically not being very cooperative. So throughout the 1780s they largely refused to cooperate with aspects of the Treaty of Paris. So for example, although they had agreed to abandon their posts in the western territories, they just didn’t. ‘Sorry. [laughs] We’re still here.’ They also implemented a number of different trade restrictions. Some of them were implemented not just towards the United States, but America for example found itself suddenly unable to import machine tools to build manufacturing institutions, to build factories in America. Suddenly America found itself unable to import these things. There were other places who also were not being able to take these things from Britain, but now that suddenly America’s out of the British imperial system, they don’t have access to things that they once had access to before, and Britain is certainly not being cooperative on that front.

Along similar lines, the French and the Spanish were also proving difficult, doing things like attempting to exercise control over the Mississippi, to control shipping, holding back attempts by Americans to expand throughout the area. So just on the foreign affairs front alone, things don’t look really thrilling and it’s not at all clear what this Congress is going to be able to do about it. And you can hear the impact of these kinds of developments in a letter that Washington wrote to a friend, and this is as early as 1784:

“The disinclination of the individual States to yield competent powers to Congress for the Foederal Government, their unreasonable jealousy of that body & of one another — & the disposition which seems to pervade each, of being all-wise & all-powerful within itself, will, if there is not a change in the system, be our downfal [sic] as a nation. — This is as clear to me as the A, B, C.”

It’s as clear as the alphabet — but that’s a weird Washingtonian version of it.

“This is as clear to me as the A, B, C; & I think we have opposed Great Britain, & have arrived at the present state of peace & independency, to very little purpose, if we cannot conquer our own prejudices. The powers of Europe begin to see this, & our newly acquired friends the British, are already … acting upon this ground; & wisely too, if we are determined to persevere in our folly. They know that individual opposition to their measures is futile, and boast that we are not sufficiently united as a Nation to give a general one! — Is not the indignity alone, of this declaration … sufficient to stimulate us to vest more extensive & adequate powers in the sovereign of these United States?”

Okay. That’s one passage of a stream of letters of this sort that are being sent back and forth throughout the 1780s, so of course they’re being sent from one nationalist guy to another nationalist guy, so they are sort of preaching to the choir. Right? ‘This is horrible. Yes, it’s horrible. It’s really horrible. Yes, it’s really horrible.’ Thanks. [laughs] They all agree with each other but they all strike that kind of a tone.

So that’s just in the world of foreign affairs. Domestically, things seemed equally alarming. The Confederation Congress could not even manage to consistently summon a quorum of states so that they could conduct business. Typical of many complaining letters of the period is one by Rufus King of New York in 1785, and he wrote to a friend: “We have only five states represented. Pennsylvania and Connecticut are expected — when they are here we can form a House.” Oh, boy. We’re going to be almost able to actually do something as soon as Pennsylvania and Connecticut get here. Thank you very much. Again, not a lot of excitement and power and energy being vested in this Congress.

Why were there so few delegates even bothering to attend Congress? Well, for one thing, as I sort of hinted in the last lecture, people were much more interested in what was going on in their own states, so a lot of people just remained at home. Centralized issues that affected other states very often seemed to people to be of secondary importance to concerns in their own state. And an extreme example of what I’m talking about here — a sort of good example of people being more concerned with their own state than with anything national in scope — took place in Vermont beginning in 1777 and continuing through the 1780s. Now basically, for a long period of time, New York and New Hampshire both claimed possession of the territory that eventually would become the state of Vermont. Well, in 1777 residents of that territory led by Ethan Allen declared their independence from New York and New Hampshire. So the Revolution is inspiring in many ways, and here you can see the power of the Revolution: ‘We’re declaring our independence!’ So they declare themselves, quote, “the Independent Republic of Vermont.” We are now the Independent Republic of Vermont; so there. And they actually begin to write up their own constitution — and you can really see the influence of revolutionary events.

Naturally enough, the governor of New York became concerned about this because to him, part of his state was trying to secede and this was not a good thing, so he pleaded with New York’s congressional delegates to please do something, like maybe declare that that territory belongs to New York and get the other states to agree with this so this problem will go away. New York’s governor, as well as a number of other people, became more concerned when they heard that Ethan Allen was supposedly negotiating in one way or another with the British to abandon Vermont’s claims to independence if the British would recognize their separate status, supposedly. So — Okay. Supposedly, we have a territory declaring itself an independent republic and then negotiating with the British in the middle of the war. Right? ‘Accept us as a republic and we won’t fight for independence.’ It’s a little alarming.

So among all of the reasons why that’s unacceptable and alarming, one major reason is, it obviously represents the dismemberment of potentially two states. Right? New York and New Hampshire. So what does the Congress do? Nothing. As a delegate from Maryland wrote home to his state governor, he had been called back to Congress because of the supposed crisis of Vermont but, quote, “we have business enough on our hands without carving out more at this time.” So this guy is basically saying, ‘Please. We have enough to do. I don’t care about this whole thing, this Vermont thing. What a pain. Why don’t they just sort of deal with it up there wherever it’s happening?’

Vermont, seeing something of a lack of action on the national front, became a little more aggressive, began to annex to their republic some towns in New Hampshire. There were a little — a few little skirmishes with New York in 1781 on the border, and then ominously, everything got very quiet on the border between Vermont and Canada. Right? So people again are thinking, ‘are these guys somehow negotiating with the British? Is there some weird thing happening between these guys and the British, and now people are sort of skirmishing about borders in New York?’ Well, Congress kind of panicked at this point, because you add all of this up and it seems scary, strange, and potentially threatening. So they made some sort of a vague counter-deal with Vermont that’s like, ‘okay, okay, okay, we’ll sort of think about this whole statehood thing.’ Vermont certainly held back from talking with the British and then Congress failed to follow through at all, so nothing happened.

Yorktown and the seeming end of the war came in 1781, the British lost interest in Vermont, Congress lost interest in Vermont, and Vermont remained in this kind of limbo, unknowing what it was. Is it an independent republic? Is it part of New York? Is it part of New Hampshire? Is it a state? Is it not a state? And this persisted throughout the entire 1780s, this weird limbo for the people of Vermont, nobody really quite deciding what was going on.

A similar problem took place when part of North Carolina attempted to secede from the state of North Carolina and declared itself the state of Franklin; we are now the state of Franklin. [laughs] I just love the fact that the Revolution is inspiring all these people to declare themselves independent states. So in 1784, basically the way that this works is, you have people living on the western territories, the western edge of lands that belong to North Carolina, and they hear that North Carolina — to contribute to the paying back of war debts — is going to give up these western lands to the Congress. Right? I’ve already talked about that being discussed. So these people in these western territories say, ‘Oh, great. Well, if the lands are being given up to Congress, then we’re kind of independent.’ So they petition Congress and say, ‘Fine. Then we are now the independent state of Franklin. Recognize us as a new state.’ And they begin drafting their own constitution, I think in 1785. We’re an independent state and now we’re going to have a new republican constitution.

Some western territories of Virginia discussed joining the state of Franklin. There was some discussion of the Cherokee being accepted into the state of Franklin. Okay. So we have a little brewing new state happening here in North Carolina. The problem is North Carolina took back their cession of western lands. There was a whole flurry of controversy about this issue, and were other states giving up their land? Yes, no, we don’t know — so North Carolina said, ‘Well, forget it, whatever. We’re not — You’re not getting the land.’ This now left the people of the state of Franklin in a state of limbo, and they petitioned to Congress and asked, ‘Well, please give us statehood. We don’t know what’s happening with all this land stuff but hey, we’re here drafting a constitution. Give us statehood.’ And ultimately Congress didn’t really act concerning the state of Franklin, and it’s North Carolina that ultimately dealt with the question and suppressed the problem. There’s a — When I was poking around, researching this this morning, I found some book — I think it’s called something like The Lost State of Franklin — and it’s like the lost city of Atlantis. The lost state of Franklin had this little tiny moment of almost existing and then “poof,” it was put out.

Okay. So faced by the seeming dismemberment of states, faced by at least discussion of a state joining the British during the war, Congress has not — we have not seen a lot of action here on the part of the Congress. Now in these cases, Congress, just couldn’t muster the interest or the energy to act on behalf of these individual states. In other cases, Congress actually did respond, but it had no power to do anything other than observe and report and advise. So for example, during the early 1780s there was a boundary dispute between Pennsylvania and New York, and the Congress actually appointed a committee to investigate the issue, and the committee actually reported a decision about where they thought the boundary should fall. So there is a case in which Congress acts and says, ‘Okay. This is where the boundary should be.’

End of controversy, you would think, but of course no. Because in 1784, despite the fact that Congress had supposedly decided the issue, Pennsylvania sent someone to New York to investigate the issue, and this is the letter of introduction sent to introduce this Pennsylvanian agent to New York’s governor. Quote: “it becomes our Duty to be prepared in the best manner we can, for opposing attempts that threaten the Honor, the Peace & the wellfare [sic] of Pennsylvania.” Okay. This is a vaguely threatening letter. So Congress has done what it thinks it’s supposed to do, but it has no power to enforce it. It’s just said, ‘Yeah, we think the boundary is here,’ and Pennsylvania basically says, ‘We don’t really care. We’re going to go to New York and fight it out with them and figure out where the boundary is.’ So here it’s almost as though Congress has not acted. Their ruling is almost irrelevant here.

So clearly we’re seeing some of the problems inherent in Congress just not being able to enforce decisions. With no central control of finance, no effective way for Congress to overcome state rivalries, interstate commerce, all these things are sort of brewing up. Logically, interstate commerce between states becomes a big issue in the 1780s. I’m not going to go into it in great detail here, but we will be seeing soon that ultimately it’s problems of interstate trade and complications between dozens of separate sort of systems set up between different states to trade that ultimately really helps lead to what becomes the Constitutional Convention.

Again, things that are sort of — You can hearken right back to the Revolution. People are worried about shipping and control of shipping, customs duties, control of trade. It makes sense that states would be feeling sensitive about surrendering any control for those sorts of things to some kind of a centralized power. So again, logically enough that’s going to continue to be an issue, and ultimately becomes a big enough issue that it leads to a series of steps that gets us to the Constitutional Convention.

Chapter 5. Shays’s Rebellion and Newbough Conspiracy: Their Impacts on Thoughts for a Stronger, National Government [00:30:41]

Okay. So we’ve seen so far a little cluster of different kinds of problems affiliated with the Articles of Confederation. Many of these came into play in what was essentially — for many at the time at least — a low point for the Confederation Congress, that took place in September of 1786, and that’s Shays’ Rebellion. It’s a controversy that ended up being a great PR tool for extreme nationalists who really wanted to reform the Articles of Confederation. In September of 1786, farmers in Massachusetts began to protest about the fact that their property was being seized because they were unable to pay off their debts and were unable to pay state taxes. And at first, many of these Massachusetts farmers protested in kind of a traditional way, and we’ve seen these ways before. They wrote petitions. Then when they didn’t feel like their petitions were being listened to, they staged sort of ritualistic demonstrations. When these didn’t work, however, the farmers began to murmur that their petitions were not being respected by their government, that they were being forced against their will to pay unfair taxes. Sound familiar? Right? These are Revolution-era complaints that are coming back; it just happens to be against the government of Massachusetts.

So here you see people in Massachusetts — these farmers — are making a pretty strong statement about how they think government should work and about the importance of popular sovereignty. So feeling that they’re being repressed and disrespected — their liberty is under attack, their property under attack, their political voice being ignored — these farmers began to take more drastic action. Now, a large number of these protestors were led by a revolutionary war officer named Daniel Shays. And Daniel Shays actually was followed by roughly 1,100 debt-ridden farmers.

Shays and his followers criticized their creditors and merchants in general as a rising aristocracy bent on depriving them of their liberties. They marched on the courts of Massachusetts and ultimately closed them, demanding that the state legislature respond to their demands. In response to these actions — these upset farmers closing down the courts — the Confederation Congress called out 800 Massachusetts militiamen to suppress the revolt. The problem is, the militia refused to act because they sympathized with the farmers. Okay, bad plan, didn’t work. So now the local militia is entirely disregarding a request for national defense from what’s acting as the national government at the time.

Congress next responded by requesting roughly half a million dollars from the states to raise a special force of men to crush the rebellion. And only Virginia responded, little Virginia. ‘Okay. [laughs] We’ll contribute a little bit of money.’ No one else responded. Okay. Congress could not even raise money to suppress an internal rebellion. So New England is moving into becoming up in arms, and Congress is trying twice now to do something and can’t. In the end, a number of the established elite in Massachusetts — lawyers, particularly merchants, wealthy merchants — were forced to come up with their own solution.

So many of the wealthiest merchants in Massachusetts, and some of these lawyers, raised their own money and created their own private army to suppress the rebellion of several thousand men. So they funded their own army to suppress the rebellion. Now, with the history of the Revolution as hindsight, what do you think would happen when these rebellious farmers feel that a hostile army is descending on them to steal their liberties and crush — [laughter] Right? You’re already laughing. It’s like — yeah, they’re going to just fold and go home. No. [laughs] They became more rebellious. Right? Now they’re staging guerrilla raids against prominent merchants and office holders, trying to overthrow what they saw as the oppressive government of the state, and ultimately there were several battles between the private army and the Massachusetts farmers. About fifty of the farmers were wounded or killed, a few dozen of the private armed force men were wounded or killed as well.

And all of this trouble ended in roughly 1787 when an economic upturn made some of the farmers’ debts easier to pay, and many of the farmers began to see that surrounding states were not particularly thrilled with the idea of Massachusetts going up in arms. So some of these farmers fled, rather than face whatever they feared the consequences might be. They went some of them to the north, some of them to the west. This is my favorite random factoid about Shays’ Rebellion. Guess where Daniel Shays went? He fled Massachusetts. He went to the independent republic of Vermont. [laughter] If I were writing the story, I would have made him go to the independent republic of Vermont.

Okay. So Shays’ Rebellion shook a lot of people, but it was really upsetting to people who had doubts about the powers of the Confederation government because it seemed to throw a really harsh light on the Congress and how defenseless it was to maintain order.

And this was not the only uprising or the only potential uprising even in this period that particularly these nationalists found so upsetting. I’m going to mention only two here — two potential military uprisings — and in this case, both of these took place as the Continental Army was beginning to disband. One of them ends up becoming known as the Newburgh Conspiracy because it takes place in Newburgh, New York. And the Newburgh Conspiracy consisted of a group of disgruntled Army officers who got tired of waiting for Congress to grant them their pensions — because of course Congress has no way to grant them their pensions. So in 1783 they formed a plan that they would refuse to disband as an army unless they were granted their pensions. So there’s the vague threat of a coup basically from this group of officers in Newburgh. ‘We’re going to stay here and we’re going to remain a little army unless you give us our pensions and if you don’t, then we’ll see what happens.’

Okay. What ultimately stopped this? Again not the Congress. George Washington, a little George Washington moment. George Washington personally stopped the Newburgh Conspiracy, and this shows you the real power of George Washington. He goes to Newburgh. It’s like: ‘Oh, boy. I’ve got to go deal with the officers at Newburgh. This is looking ugly.’ He goes in person and he stands up to address the assembled officers who are getting ready to potentially stage a coup and he’s trying to plead with them, ‘please don’t do this, this is not in — for the good of the country.’ But before he even really has a chance to argue anything, he reaches in his pocket to get out his glasses so that he can read something that he’s written and he says — as he is great — another example of great sort of theater on the part of George Washington. He takes the glasses out and as he puts them on he says, ‘Excuse me, gentlemen, but I’ve grown not only gray but blind in the service of my country,’ and the officers start to cry. [laughter] ‘Oh. [laughs] We’re sorry.’ [laughs] End of Newburgh Conspiracy. [laughter] It was just the magic of George Washington’s glasses. That was it. The man knew how to stage a moment. Okay. So that does actually fold the Newburgh Conspiracy.

There is another sort of mini, semi-revolt that takes place in 1783 involving Pennsylvania soldiers. Congress disbands this particular group of Pennsylvania soldiers in 1783 and sends them home with no payment of any kind. ‘Sorry. We can’t pay you right now. We’ll get back to you.’ Okay. This does not thrill these particular soldiers. They hear that they’ve been dismissed from the Army. They hear that nothing’s going to get done about their pay. A few hundred of them marched to Philadelphia and barricaded members of the Confederation Congress in the state house, sticking their bayonets through the windows and making threatening gestures. [laughter] ‘Pay us, now.’ [laughs]

Okay. So this was not thrilling to the Confederation Congress. There was kind of a standoff where there’s armed guys with bayonets surrounding the state house, and Confederation Congressmen in the state house not knowing what to do. This sort of sputters to a close when several Congressmen walked outside and just left and no one did anything to them. They were just like: ‘bye,’ — and everyone realized okay, these guys actually really don’t want to hurt us; they’re just making a point. End of semi-coup, slash, rebellion in Pennsylvania. However, Congress was so thrown by this that they decided Princeton might be a better place to meet from then on, and so they temporarily moved to Princeton, New Jersey, rather than stay in Philadelphia because Philadelphia had just become scary.

It’s worth mentioning — I should actually mention that both of these events really strongly reinforced the prevailing Whig distrust of standing armies. Right? Look at what happens when you have a standing army sitting around. They can’t help themselves; they’re always threatening to overturn the government. So this reinforces fears of standing armies for certain — for a while to come. But certainly all of these incidents are really fueling the fears and the anxieties and the concerns of these extreme nationalists who already are feeling that these Articles of Confederation are not strong enough, and now look what’s happening as the 1780s are unfolding.

Chapter 6. How Can the States Be United? Debates on the National Constitution [00:40:03]

As Alexander Hamilton would write in The Federalist No. 21 — and again he’s writing in The Federalist, which means he really wants to make a point — he wrote: “Who can determine what might have been the issue of her [Massachusetts’] convulsions, if the malcontents had been headed by a Caesar or [by] a Cromwell? Who can predict what effect a despotism, established in Massachusetts, would have upon the liberties of New Hampshire or Rhode Island, of Connecticut or New York?” The problem to men like Hamilton and other really strong nationalists was that Americans seemed to be so focused on their individual interests, on their states, on their homes, that they had seemingly forgotten how to think about themselves as Americans, as a united people.

This concept would be at the core of the debate over the Constitution. Would it be possible — if somehow the states could agree that it was necessary to strengthen their central government — to devise some kind of government that would actually be acceptable to all thirteen states? Were there enough common bonds? Could Americans only be defined when pitted against enemies? Was there no American identity in and of itself, and was it enough to really hold people together in some kind of unified government?

And during the battle to ratify the Constitution in 1788, Hamilton stated just that very fact. He said the real question was about who and what were Americans. Speaking to the New York ratifying convention, he said, “It has been asserted, that the interests, habits and manners of the Thirteen States are different; and hence it is inferred, that no general free government can suit them. This diversity of habits … has been a favorite theme with those who are disposed for a division of our empire; and, like many other popular objections, seems to be founded on fallacy. I acknowledge, that the local interests of the states are in some degree various” — Yeah, thanks. I guess so — “and that there is some difference in their manners and habits: But this I will presume to affirm; that, from New Hampshire to Georgia, the people of America are as uniform in their interests and manners, as those of any [country] established in Europe.” So basically Hamilton’s arguing: we are a common people. When you compare us with Europe, look at all of the similarities between us. And we need a common government to join us, an American government. This is really the theme of the nationalists who took the lead in moving the nation towards the Constitutional Convention.

Now before I conclude this lecture, I do want to mention one thing. I was going to mention it a little earlier when I was talking about Shays’ Rebellion and forgot, but I can’t resist adding it in only because it’s another little Yale moment, and I’m always looking for Yale moments in the Revolution, and this is another one. It’s just a random little thing that I found, but I thought it was interesting. It makes me realize that to be the President of Yale during the Revolution was no fun. Right. I think Ezra Stiles — This was just — It couldn’t have been fun for Ezra Stiles. This is actually from 17 — early in 1787 and what it — what I found was a letter from Stiles to George Washington. And what the letter says is one of my — actually two of my students or one of my students — two of my students — okay, two of my students just arrived here from Massachusetts, and they were caught by Shays’ rebels who kept them there for a while, but the students spied and they saw how many men they were.

Basically, these two Yale students are on their way from Massachusetts here, and they get caught by Shays’ rebels, and while they’re there, they try and scope things out and then they come back and they report to Stiles like: ‘okay, there’s roughly 2,500 men.’ They become little war strategists. And Stiles writes to George Washington and says: ‘Okay. Let me give you the update on the Shays’ rebels.’ And he has this whole letter with numbers and he draws a little map: ‘here’s where I think they are’ — all from these Yale students who got captured by Shays’ rebels. I love that letter because it means Shays’ Rebellion is not something that — everyone knows about Shays’ Rebellion, but the Yale connection with Shays’ Rebellion? That was news to me, and the fact that this particular one guy who — student who estimates how many troops were there — Stiles calls him “a young gentleman of solidity and good information” — he’s the guy who I guess did counting and estimating. So there were Yale students informing George Washington about the nature of Shays’ Rebellion and how many men were involved.

The last thing that I’ll mention before we run out of time here again was another random document that I found, but I thought it was interesting because I think we tend to think of the Shays’ rebels as crazy farmers with pitchforks. ‘I hate taxes!’ And the fact is, these actually were people with principles and ideas. They happened to be protesting, but they weren’t crazy people with pitchforks. And what I found was one of the generals, one of the people sort of leading the rebels, wrote a statement to Massachusetts basically asking them to eliminate the private army — but I wanted to read it to you because it gives you a sense of some of the rationale and the feelings behind some of these Shays’ rebels.

It’s dated January 25, 1787: “Head Quarters, West Springfield.” Again, really gives you a sense of how the rebels envision themselves. “The body of the people assembled in arms” — which is they themselves — “adhering to the first principles of natural self-preservation, — do, in the most peremptory manner, demand … That the troops in Springfield lay down their arms … That their arms be deposited in the public stores, under the care of the proper officers, to be returned to the owners at the termination of the present contests … That the troops return to their homes [up]on parole.”

Signed, “Luke Day, [Captain] Commandant of this division.” Okay. That’s by one of the rebels.

So I read that only because it kind of gets us past the crazy farmer guys with pitchfork image — that these were people really who had a sense of principle, and again a principle you can just hear in the language that I read there, inspired and driven by the Revolution that they had just been through. In their mind it’s all part of the same fight, but you can hear, just in that language, if people are associating what’s happening in the 1780s to what happened in the Revolution, and if the Revolution is the story of government overturned, again, you can see why these nationalists would have been so disconcerted and so upset by what they saw unfolding in the 1780s. Right? They’d already seen a pretty major government get overturned with this kind of action during the Revolution. Now we’ve instituted this government and we see some of the same kind of behavior happening again.

So what we’re going to hear in the next couple of lectures is people discussing what needs to happen. Not everybody thinks that this is the sign of a horrible, horrendous crisis but, boy, the people who really felt that the Articles was a problematic government were very loud, and over time they become very united in thinking that there’s a serious problem about the center of government in the new nation. I will stop there. I will see you on Tuesday. Have a good weekend.

[end of transcript]

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