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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

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The Promise and the Difficulties of America

The rise of a young republic composed of thirteen states, each governed by officials popularly elected under constitutions drafted by “the plain people,” was the most significant feature of the eighteenth century. The majority of the patriots whose labors and sacrifices had made this possible naturally looked upon their work and pronounced it good. Those Americans, however, who peered beneath the surface of things, saw that the Declaration of Independence, even if splendidly phrased, and paper constitutions, drawn by finest enthusiasm “uninstructed by experience,” could not alone make the republic great and prosperous or even free. All around them they saw chaos in finance and in industry and perils for the immediate future.

The Weakness of the Articles of Confederation.—The government under the Articles of Confederation had neither the strength nor the resources necessary to cope with the problems of reconstruction left by the war. The sole organ of government was a Congress composed of from two to seven members from each state chosen as the legislature might direct and paid by the state. In determining all questions, each state had one vote—Delaware thus enjoying the same weight as Virginia. There was no president to enforce the laws. Congress was given power to select a committee of thirteen—one from each state—to act as an executive body when it was not in session; but this device, on being tried out, proved a failure. There was no system of national courts to which citizens and states could appeal for the protection of their rights or through which they could compel obedience to law. The two great powers of government, military and financial, were withheld. Congress, it is true, could authorize expenditures but had to rely upon the states for the payment of contributions to meet its bills. It could also order the establishment of an army, but it could only request the states to supply their respective quotas of soldiers. It could not lay taxes nor bring any pressure to bear upon a single citizen in the whole country. It could act only through the medium of the state governments.

Financial and Commercial Disorders.—In the field of public finance, the disorders were pronounced. The huge debt incurred during the war was still outstanding. Congress was unable to pay either the interest or the principal. Public creditors were in despair, as the market value of their bonds sank to twenty-five or even ten cents on the dollar. The current bills of Congress were unpaid. As some one complained, there was not enough money in the treasury to buy pen and ink with which to record the transactions of the shadow legislature. The currency was in utter chaos. Millions of dollars in notes issued by Congress had become mere trash worth a cent or two on the dollar. There was no other expression of contempt so forceful as the popular saying: “not worth a Continental.” To make matters worse, several of the states were pouring new streams of paper money from the press. Almost the only good money in circulation consisted of English, French, and Spanish coins, and the public was even defrauded by them because money changers were busy clipping and filing away the metal. Foreign commerce was unsettled. The entire British system of trade discrimination was turned against the Americans, and Congress, having no power to regulate foreign commerce, was unable to retaliate or to negotiate treaties which it could enforce. Domestic commerce was impeded by the jealousies of the states, which erected tariff barriers against their neighbors. The condition of the currency made the exchange of money and goods extremely difficult, and, as if to increase the confusion, backward states enacted laws hindering the prompt collection of debts within their borders—an evil which nothing but a national system of courts could cure.

Congress in Disrepute.—With treaties set at naught by the states, the laws unenforced, the treasury empty, and the public credit gone, the Congress of the United States fell into utter disrepute. It called upon the states to pay their quotas of money into the treasury, only to be treated with contempt. Even its own members looked upon it as a solemn futility. Some of the ablest men refused to accept election to it, and many who did take the doubtful honor failed to attend the sessions. Again and again it was impossible to secure a quorum for the transaction of business.

Troubles of the State Governments.—The state governments, free to pursue their own course with no interference from without, had almost as many difficulties as the Congress. They too were loaded with revolutionary debts calling for heavy taxes upon an already restive population. Oppressed by their financial burdens and discouraged by the fall in prices which followed the return of peace, the farmers of several states joined in a concerted effort and compelled their legislatures to issue large sums of paper money. The currency fell in value, but nevertheless it was forced on unwilling creditors to square old accounts.

In every part of the country legislative action fluctuated violently. Laws were made one year only to be repealed the next and reënacted the third year. Lands were sold by one legislature and the sales were canceled by its successor. Uncertainty and distrust were the natural consequences. Men of substance longed for some power that would forbid states to issue bills of credit, to make paper money legal tender in payment of debts, or to impair the obligation of contracts. Men heavily in debt, on the other hand, urged even more drastic action against creditors.

So great did the discontent of the farmers in New Hampshire become in 1786 that a mob surrounded the legislature, demanding a repeal of the taxes and the issuance of paper money. It was with difficulty that an armed rebellion was avoided. In Massachusetts the malcontents, under the leadership of Daniel Shays, a captain in the Revolutionary army, organized that same year open resistance to the government of the state. Shays and his followers protested against the conduct of creditors in foreclosing mortgages upon the debt-burdened farmers, against the lawyers for increasing the costs of legal proceedings, against the senate of the state the members of which were apportioned among the towns on the basis of the amount of taxes paid, against heavy taxes, and against the refusal of the legislature to issue paper money. They seized the towns of Worcester and Springfield and broke up the courts of justice. All through the western part of the state the revolt spread, sending a shock of alarm to every center and section of the young republic. Only by the most vigorous action was Governor Bowdoin able to quell the uprising; and when that task was accomplished, the state government did not dare to execute any of the prisoners because they had so many sympathizers. Moreover, Bowdoin and several members of the legislature who had been most zealous in their attacks on the insurgents were defeated at the ensuing election. The need of national assistance for state governments in times of domestic violence was everywhere emphasized by men who were opposed to revolutionary acts.

Alarm over Dangers to the Republic.—Leading American citizens, watching the drift of affairs, were slowly driven to the conclusion that the new ship of state so proudly launched a few years before was careening into anarchy. “The facts of our peace and independence,” wrote a friend of Washington, “do not at present wear so promising an appearance as I had fondly painted in my mind. The prejudices, jealousies, and turbulence of the people at times almost stagger my confidence in our political establishments; and almost occasion me to think that they will show themselves unworthy of the noble prize for which we have contended.”

Washington himself was profoundly discouraged. On hearing of Shays’s rebellion, he exclaimed: “What, gracious God, is man that there should be such inconsistency and perfidiousness in his conduct! It is but the other day that we were shedding our blood to obtain the constitutions under which we now live—constitutions of our own choice and making—and now we are unsheathing our sword to overturn them.” The same year he burst out in a lament over rumors of restoring royal government. “I am told that even respectable characters speak of a monarchical government without horror. From thinking proceeds speaking. Hence to acting is often but a single step. But how irresistible and tremendous! What a triumph for our enemies to verify their predictions! What a triumph for the advocates of despotism to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves!”

Congress Attempts Some Reforms.—The Congress was not indifferent to the events that disturbed Washington. On the contrary it put forth many efforts to check tendencies so dangerous to finance, commerce, industries, and the Confederation itself. In 1781, even before the treaty of peace was signed, the Congress, having found out how futile were its taxing powers, carried a resolution of amendment to the Articles of Confederation, authorizing the levy of a moderate duty on imports. Yet this mild measure was rejected by the states. Two years later the Congress prepared another amendment sanctioning the levy of duties on imports, to be collected this time by state officers and applied to the payment of the public debt. This more limited proposal, designed to save public credit, likewise failed. In 1786, the Congress made a third appeal to the states for help, declaring that they had been so irregular and so negligent in paying their quotas that further reliance upon that mode of raising revenues was dishonorable and dangerous.

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