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Such has been the history of the United States and its people. By 1850,
indeed, one-half of the population of the United States was living
west of the Alleghany Mountains, and at the present time approximately
seventy per cent are to be found in the West.

The importance of the Ordinance of 1787 was hardly overstated by Webster
in his famous debate with Hayne when he said: "We are accustomed to
praise the lawgivers of antiquity; we help to perpetuate the fame of
Solon and Lycurgus; but I doubt whether one single law of any lawgiver,
ancient or modern, has produced effects of more distinct, marked and
lasting character than the Ordinance of 1787." While improved means
of communication and many other material ties have served to hold the
States of the Union together, the political bond was supplied by the
Ordinance of 1787, which inaugurated the American colonial system.


John Fiske summed up the prevailing impression of the government of
the Confederation in the title to his volume, "The Critical Period of
American History." "The period of five years," says Fiske, "following
the peace of 1783 was the most critical moment in all the history of the
American people. The dangers from which we were saved in 1788 were even
greater than were the dangers from which we were saved in 1865." Perhaps
the plight of the Confederation was not so desperate as he would have
us believe, but it was desperate enough. Two incidents occurring between
the signing of the preliminary terms of peace and the definitive
treaty reveal the danger in which the country stood. The main body
of continental troops made up of militiamen and short-term
volunteers - always prone to mutinous conduct - was collected at Newburg
on the Hudson, watching the British in New York. Word might come at any
day that the treaty had been signed, and the army did not wish to be
disbanded until certain matters had been settled primarily the question
of their pay. The officers had been promised half-pay for life, but
nothing definite had been done toward carrying out the promise. The
soldiers had no such hope to encourage them, and their pay was sadly in
arrears. In December, 1782, the officers at Newburg drew up an address
in behalf of themselves and their men and sent it to Congress. Therein
they made the threat, thinly veiled, of taking matters into their own
hands unless their grievances were redressed.

There is reason to suppose that back of this movement - or at least in
sympathy with it - were some of the strongest men in civil as in military
life, who, while not fomenting insurrection, were willing to bring
pressure to bear on Congress and the States. Congress was unable
or unwilling to act, and in March, 1783, a second paper, this time
anonymous, was circulated urging the men not to disband until the
question of pay had been settled and recommending a meeting of officers
on the following day. If Washington's influence was not counted upon,
it was at least hoped that he would not interfere; but as soon as he
learned of what had been done he issued general orders calling for
a meeting of officers on a later day, thus superseding the
irregular meeting that had been suggested. On the day appointed the
Commander-in-Chief appeared and spoke with so much warmth and feeling
that his "little address... drew tears from many of the officers." He
inveighed against the unsigned paper and against the methods that were
talked of, for they would mean the disgrace of the army, and he appealed
to the patriotism of the officers, promising his best efforts in
their behalf. The effect was so strong that, when Washington withdrew,
resolutions were adopted unanimously expressing their loyalty and their
faith in the justice of Congress and denouncing the anonymous circular.

The general apprehension was not diminished by another incident in June.
Some eighty troops of the Pennsylvania line in camp at Lancaster marched
to Philadelphia and drew up before the State House, where Congress was
sitting. Their purpose was to demand better treatment and the payment of
what was owed to them. So far it was an orderly demonstration, although
not in keeping with military regulations; in fact the men had broken
away from camp under the lead of noncommissioned officers. But when
they had been stimulated by drink the disorder became serious. The
humiliating feature of the situation was that Congress could do nothing,
even in self-protection. They appealed, to the Pennsylvania authorities
and, when assistance was refused, the members of Congress in alarm fled
in the night and three days later gathered in the college building in

Congress became the butt of many jokes, but men could not hide the
chagrin they felt that their Government was so weak. The feeling
deepened into shame when the helplessness of Congress was displayed
before the world. Weeks and even months passed before a quorum could be
obtained to ratify the treaty recognizing the independence of the United
States and establishing peace. Even after the treaty was supposed to
be in force the States disregarded its provisions and Congress could do
nothing more than utter ineffective protests. But, most humiliating of
all, the British maintained their military posts within the northwestern
territory ceded to the United States, and Congress could only request
them to retire. The Americans' pride was hurt and their pockets were
touched as well, for an important issue at stake was the control of the
lucrative fur trade. So resentment grew into anger; but the British held
on, and the United States was powerless to make them withdraw. To make
matters worse, the Confederation, for want of power to levy taxes, was
facing bankruptcy, and Congress was unable to devise ways and means to
avert a crisis.

The Second Continental Congress had come into existence in 1775. It was
made up of delegations from the various colonies, appointed in more or
less irregular ways, and had no more authority than it might assume and
the various colonies were willing to concede; yet it was the central
body under which the Revolution had been inaugurated and carried through
to a successful conclusion. Had this Congress grappled firmly with the
financial problem and forced through a system of direct taxation, the
subsequent woes of the Confederation might have been mitigated
and perhaps averted. In their enthusiasm over the Declaration of
Independence the people - by whom is meant the articulate class
consisting largely of the governing and commercial elements - would
probably have accepted such a usurpation of authority. But with their
lack of experience it is not surprising that the delegates to Congress
did not appreciate the necessity of such radical action and so were
unwilling to take the responsibility for it. They counted upon the
goodwill and support of their constituents, which simmered down to a
reliance upon voluntary grants from the States in response to appeals
from Congress. These desultory grants proved to be so unsatisfactory
that, in 1781, even before the Articles of Confederation had been
ratified, Congress asked for a grant of additional power to levy a duty
of five per cent ad valorem upon all goods imported into the United
States, the revenue from which was to be applied to the discharge of
the principal and interest on debts "contracted... for supporting
the present war." Twelve States agreed, but Rhode Island, after some
hesitation, finally rejected the measure in November, 1782.

The Articles of Confederation authorized a system of requisitions
apportioned among the "several States in proportion to the value of all
land within each State." But, as there was no power vested in Congress
to force the States to comply, the situation was in no way improved when
the Articles were ratified and put into operation. In fact, matters grew
worse as Congress itself steadily lost ground in popular estimation,
until it had become little better than a laughing-stock, and with the
ending of the war its requests were more honored in the breach than in
the observance. In 1782 Congress asked for $8,000,000 and the following
year for $2,000,000 more, but by the end of 1783 less than $1,500,000
had been paid in.

In the same year, 1783, Congress made another attempt to remedy the
financial situation by proposing the so-called Revenue Amendment,
according to which a specific duty was to be laid upon certain articles
and a general duty of five per cent ad valorem upon all other goods,
to be in operation for twenty-five years. In addition to this it was
proposed that for the same period of time $1,500,000 annually should
be raised by requisitions, and the definite amount for each State was
specified until "the rule of the Confederation" could be carried into
practice: It was then proposed that the article providing for the
proportion of requisitions should be changed so as to be based not upon
land values but upon population, in estimating which slaves should be
counted at three-fifths of their number. In the course of three years
thereafter only two States accepted the proposals in full, seven agreed
to them in part, and four failed to act at all. Congress in despair then
made a further representation to the States upon the critical condition
of the finances and accompanied this with an urgent appeal, which
resulted in all the States except New York agreeing to the proposed
impost. But the refusal of one State was sufficient to block the
whole measure, and there was no further hope for a treasury that was
practically bankrupt. In five years Congress had received less than two
and one-half million dollars from requisitions, and for the fourteen
months ending January 1, 1786, the income was at the rate of less
than $375,000 a year, which was not enough, as a committee of Congress
reported, "for the bare maintenance of the Federal Government on the
most economical establishment and in time of profound peace." In fact,
the income was not sufficient even to meet the interest on the foreign

In the absence of other means of obtaining funds Congress had resorted
early to the unfortunate expedient of issuing paper money based solely
on the good faith of the States to redeem it. This fiat money held its
value for some little time; then it began to shrink and, once started
on the downward path, its fall was rapid. Congress tried to meet the
emergency by issuing paper in increasing quantities until the inevitable
happened: the paper money ceased to have any value and practically
disappeared from circulation. Jefferson said that by the end of 1781
one thousand dollars of Continental scrip was worth about one dollar in

The States had already issued paper money of their own, and their
experience ought to have taught them a lesson, but with the coming of
hard times after the war, they once more proposed by issuing paper to
relieve the "scarcity of money" which was commonly supposed to be one
of the principal evils of the day. In 1785 and 1786 paper money parties
appeared in almost all the States. In some of these the conservative
element was strong enough to prevent action, but in others the movement
had to run its fatal course. The futility of what they were doing should
have been revealed to all concerned by proposals seriously made that the
paper money which was issued should depreciate at a regular rate each
year until it should finally disappear.

The experience of Rhode Island is not to be regarded as typical of
what was happening throughout the country but is, indeed, rather to be
considered as exceptional. Yet it attracted widespread attention and
revealed to anxious observers the dangers to which the country was
subject if the existing condition of affairs were allowed to continue.
The machinery of the State Government was captured by the paper-money
party in the spring election of 1786. The results were disappointing to
the adherents of the paper-money cause, for when the money was issued
depreciation began at once, and those who tried to pay their bills
discovered that a heavy discount was demanded. In response to indignant
demands the legislature of Rhode Island passed an act to force the
acceptance of paper money under penalty and thereupon tradesmen refused
to make any sales at all some closed their shops, and others tried to
carry on business by exchange of wares. The farmers then retaliated by
refusing to sell their produce to the shopkeepers, and general confusion
and acute distress followed. It was mainly a quarrel between the farmers
and the merchants, but it easily grew into a division between town and
country, and there followed a whole series of town meetings and county
conventions. The old line of cleavage was fairly well represented by the
excommunication of a member of St. John's Episcopal Church of Providence
for tendering bank notes, and the expulsion of a member of the Society
of the Cincinnati for a similar cause.

The contest culminated in the case of Trevett vs. Weeden, 1786, which is
memorable in the judicial annals of the United States. The legislature,
not being satisfied with ordinary methods of enforcement, had provided
for the summary trial of offenders without a jury before a court whose
judges were removable by the Assembly and were therefore supposedly
subservient to its wishes. In the case in question the Superior Court
boldly declared the enforcing act to be unconstitutional, and for their
contumacious behavior the judges were summoned before the legislature.
They escaped punishment, but only one of them was reelected to office.

Meanwhile disorders of a more serious sort, which startled the whole
country, occurred in Massachusetts. It is doubtful if a satisfactory
explanation ever will be found, at least one which will be universally
accepted, as to the causes and origin of Shays' Rebellion in 1786. Some
historians maintain that the uprising resulted primarily from a scarcity
of money, from a shortage in the circulating medium; that, while the
eastern counties were keeping up their foreign trade sufficiently at
least to bring in enough metallic currency to relieve the stringency and
could also use various forms of credit, the western counties had no
such remedy. Others are inclined to think that the difficulties of the
farmers in western Massachusetts were caused largely by the return to
normal conditions after the extraordinarily good times between 1776 and
1780, and that it was the discomfort attending the process that drove
them to revolt. Another explanation reminds one of present-day charges
against undue influence of high financial circles, when it is
insinuated and even directly charged that the rebellion was fostered
by conservative interests who were trying to create a public opinion in
favor of a more strongly organized government.

Whatever other causes there may have been, the immediate source of
trouble was the enforced payment of indebtedness, which to a large
extent had been allowed to remain in abeyance during the war. This
postponement of settlement had not been merely for humanitarian reasons;
it would have been the height of folly to collect when the currency was
greatly depreciated. But conditions were supposed to have been restored
to normal with the cessation of hostilities, and creditors were
generally inclined to demand payment. These demands, coinciding with
the heavy taxes, drove the people of western Massachusetts into revolt.
Feeling ran high against lawyers who prosecuted suits for creditors, and
this antagonism was easily transferred to the courts in which the suits
were brought. The rebellion in Massachusetts accordingly took the form
of a demonstration against the courts. A paper was carried from town
to town in the County of Worcester, in which the signers promised to
do their utmost "to prevent the sitting of the Inferior Court of Common
Pleas for the county, or of any other court that should attempt to take
property by distress."

The Massachusetts Legislature adjourned in July, 1786, without remedying
the trouble and also without authorizing an issue of paper money which
the hardpressed debtors were demanding. In the months following mobs
prevented the courts from sitting in various towns. A special session of
the legislature was then called by the Governor but, when that special
session had adjourned on the 18th of November, it might just as well
have never met. It had attempted to remedy various grievances and had
made concessions to the malcontents, but it had also passed measures to
strengthen the hands of the Governor. This only seemed to inflame the
rioters, and the disorders increased. After the lower courts a move
was made against the State Supreme Court, and plans were laid for a
concerted movement against the cities in the eastern part of the State.
Civil war seemed imminent. The insurgents were led by Daniel Shays, an
officer in the army of the Revolution, and the party of law and order
was represented by Governor James Bowdoin, who raised some four thousand
troops and placed them under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln.

The time of year was unfortunate for the insurgents, especially as
December was unusually cold and there was a heavy snowfall. Shays could
not provide stores and equipment and was unable to maintain discipline.
A threatened attack on Cambridge came to naught for, when preparations
were made to protect the city, the rebels began a disorderly retreat,
and in the intense cold and deep snow they suffered severely, and many
died from exposure. The center of interest then shifted to Springfield,
where the insurgents were attempting to seize the United States arsenal.
The local militia had already repelled the first attacks, and
the appearance of General Lincoln with his troops completed the
demoralization of Shays' army. The insurgents retreated, but Lincoln
pursued relentlessly and broke them up into small bands, which then
wandered about the country preying upon the unfortunate inhabitants.
When spring came, most of them had been subdued or had taken refuge in
the neighboring States.

Shays' Rebellion was fairly easily suppressed, even though it required
the shedding of some blood. But it was the possibility of further
outbreaks that destroyed men's peace of mind. There were similar
disturbances in other States; and there the Massachusetts insurgents
found sympathy, support, and finally a refuge. When the worst was over,
and Governor Bowdoin applied to the neighboring States for help in
capturing the last of the refugees, Rhode Island and Vermont failed to
respond to the extent that might have been expected of them. The danger,
therefore, of the insurrection spreading was a cause of deep concern.
This feeling was increased by the impotence of Congress. The Government
had sufficient excuse for intervention after the attack upon the
national arsenal in Springfield. Congress, indeed, began to raise
troops but did not dare to admit its purpose and offered as a pretext
an expedition against the Northwestern Indians. The rebellion was over
before any assistance could be given. The inefficiency of Congress and
its lack of influence were evident. Like the disorders in Rhode Island,
Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts helped to bring about a reaction and
strengthened the conservative movement for reform.

These untoward happenings, however, were only symptoms: the causes
of the trouble lay far deeper. This fact was recognized even in Rhode
Island, for at least one of the conventions had passed resolutions
declaring that, in considering the condition of the whole country, what
particularly concerned them was the condition of trade. Paradoxical as
it may seem, the trade and commerce of the country were already on the
upward grade and prosperity was actually returning. But prosperity
is usually a process of slow growth and is seldom recognized by the
community at large until it is well established. Farsighted men forecast
the coming of good times in advance of the rest of the community, and
prosper accordingly. The majority of the people know that prosperity has
come only when it is unmistakably present, and some are not aware of it
until it has begun to go. If that be true in our day, much more was it
true in the eighteenth century, when means of communication were so poor
that it took days for a message to go from Boston to New York and
weeks for news to get from Boston to Charleston. It was a period of
adjustment, and as we look back after the event we can see that the
American people were adapting themselves with remarkable skill to the
new conditions. But that was not so evident to the men who were feeling
the pinch of hard times, and when all the attendant circumstances,
some of which have been described, are taken into account, it is not
surprising that commercial depression should be one of the strongest
influences in, and the immediate occasion of, bringing men to the point
of willingness to attempt some radical changes.

The fact needs to be reiterated that the people of the United States
were largely dependent upon agriculture and other forms of extractive
industry, and that markets for the disposal of their goods were an
absolute necessity. Some of the States, especially New England and
the Middle States, were interested in the carrying trade, but all were
concerned in obtaining markets. On account of jealousy interstate trade
continued a precarious existence and by no means sufficed to dispose of
the surplus products, so that foreign markets were necessary. The people
were especially concerned for the establishment of the old trade with
the West India Islands, which had been the mainstay of their prosperity
in colonial times; and after the British Government, in 1783, restricted
that trade to British vessels, many people in the United States were
attributing hard times to British malignancy. The only action which
seemed possible was to force Great Britain in particular, but other
foreign countries as well, to make such trade agreements as the
prosperity of the United States demanded. The only hope seemed to lie
in a commercial policy of reprisal which would force other countries
to open their markets to American goods. Retaliation was the dominating
idea in the foreign policy of the time. So in 1784 Congress made a new
recommendation to the States, prefacing it with an assertion of the
importance of commerce, saying: "The fortune of every Citizen is
interested in the success thereof; for it is the constant source of
wealth and incentive to industry; and the value of our produce and our
land must ever rise or fall in proportion to the prosperous or adverse
state of trade."

And after declaring that Great Britain had "adopted regulations
destructive of our commerce with her West India Islands," it was further
asserted: "Unless the United States in Congress assembled shall be
vested with powers competent to the protection of commerce, they can
never command reciprocal advantages in trade." It was therefore
proposed to give to Congress for fifteen years the power to prohibit the
importation or exportation of goods at American ports except in vessels
owned by the people of the United States or by the subjects of foreign
governments having treaties of commerce with the United States. This
was simply a request for authorization to adopt navigation acts. But the
individual States were too much concerned with their own interests and
did not or would not appreciate the rights of the other States or the
interests of the Union as a whole. And so the commercial amendment of
1784 suffered the fate of all other amendments proposed to the Articles
of Confederation. In fact only two States accepted it.

It usually happens that some minor occurrence, almost unnoticed at the
time, leads directly to the most important consequences. And an incident
in domestic affairs started the chain of events in the United States
that ended in the reform of the Federal Government. The rivalry and
jealousy among the States had brought matters to such a pass that either
Congress must be vested with adequate powers or the Confederation must
collapse. But the Articles of Confederation provided no remedy, and it
had been found that amendments to that instrument could not be obtained.
It was necessary, therefore, to proceed in some extra-legal fashion.
The Articles of Confederation specifically forbade treaties or alliances
between the States unless approved by Congress. Yet Virginia and
Maryland, in 1785, had come to a working agreement regarding the use
of the Potomac River, which was the boundary line between them.

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Online LibraryMax FarrandThe Fathers of the Constitution; a chronicle of the establishment of the Union → online text (page 5 of 13)