Birth of a Nation

Much of what we are today we owe to the Constitution drafted 200 years ago to replace the original Articles of Confederation.

Suppose the Constitution had not been adopted. What would we be like?

Geographically, the original area east of the Mississippi might still be together, although I think it unlikely. Even before 1787, separatist movements agitated Vermont, Maine, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Almost certainly the United States would not include the West, although Texas-like revolutions might have created other English-speaking republics.

Politically, a weak eastern confederation and several independent nations in a balkanized West might well have had quite a different history. Doubtless there would have been wars, but nothing quite like the Civil War; and today parts of the old South might well be like South Africa. North America would not have had much voice in world affairs, and in particular, the First World War might have turned out differently, precluding both Lenin and Hitler but doubtless admitting other, unimagined horrors.

Economically, the great American common market would probably never have emerged, thereby minimizing capitalism, moderating industrialization, discouraging immigration, and perhaps perpetuating something of a colonial economy.

Morally, our political and economic liberalism, today a beacon for the world, would almost certainly have shone less brightly, if at all. The framers feared mercantilist state governments manipulating the economy and political rights for private advantages. Their horrible example was Rhode Island, where, for the year before the Philadelphia Convention at which the Constitution was hammered out, a populist legislature had been destroying liberty. First it printed paper money so its politically dominant farmers could defraud their creditors. When the paper quickly depreciated and merchants refused to accept it, the legislature made refusal a felony and established special courts with specially selected judges to force acceptance. For the hapless butcher or miller caught in this trap, punishment was jail and permanent loss of civil rights, especially the right to vote.

The framers believed such populism was spreading. First Rhode Island, then Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts which had the same goals, and then what? Virginia perhaps, where Patrick Henry sounded pretty much like the Rhode Islanders? Or Maryland with Sam Chase? Or North Carolina with Willie Jones? The framers visualized, correctly, I believe, a future of petty populist tyrannies in state governments. The Constitution they devised thus became the bulwark of civil and economic liberty against such abuse, not only for America but for the world.

This great achievement did not come easily. Looking back at, say, the year 1785, it seems astonishing that the Constitution was ever born. In that year, many states were controlled by people who were later Antifederalists, that is, partisans of provincial political establishments.

Furthermore, while the faction that later became Federalist had controlled Congress in the early 1780s, it had twice failed to institute its main reform-a national tariff to make the national government financially independent of the irresponsible states. Yet in two years, 1787-1788, the Constitution was written, ratified, and put into operation. The great historical question is: How did the framers and their political friends manage to bring about a permanent triumph for centralization and liberty?

Their way was paved in 1786 by the Annapolis Convention. Many people, including many who were later Antifederalists, believed that Congress ought to have more authority over interstate and foreign commerce. Five states responded to Virginia's appeal for delegates to a convention in Annapolis to consider commercial revisions of the Articles of Confederation. While five states were too few to propose any substantive reforms, the assembly did call for another convention in Philadelphia the next May to revise the Articles generally.

This time 12 states-all but Rhode Island-sent delegates. What made the difference between Annapolis and Philadelphia? The two great political issues of 1786.

One was a projected commercial treaty between Spain and the Confederation. It would have given American ships unlimited access to Spanish ports while closing the Mississippi (that is, charging exploitative tariffs) for a period of perhaps 20 years. These terms were highly advantageous to New England seamen and devastating to western farmers. Such a treaty couldn't pass under the Articles because five states could stop it. But the southern states were appalled and wanted commercial regulations that would put an end to such proposals forever. Virginia took the lead, therefore, to invite the other states to Philadelphia and to force Congress to endorse the convention.

The other political event was Shays' Rebellion-not much as rebellions go, but devastating to Americans who could not understand why voters would rise up against a republican government. Actually, the rebellion was easy to understand. In 1785 Massachusetts had raised taxes to pay off war debts, thereby causing many sheriff's sales among subsistence farmers in the west, who had no cash to pay taxes. So they tried to stop the sales. Their intent was generally misunderstood-George Washington, for example, even though the British were stirring up the rebellion. Regardless of the Shaysites' motivations, however, New England states were distressed enough to send delegates to Philadelphia.

The most remarkable feature of the 55 delegates who came to Philadelphia was that they were almost entirely of one political faction, the nationalists, soon to be called Federalists. They were men who, like Washington and Benjamin Franklin, wanted a strong central government for military and diplomatic reasons or who, like James Wilson (Pennsylvania) or Alexander Hamilton (New York), wanted it for commercial and trading reasons or who, like James Madison (Virginia) and Rufus King (Massachusetts), wanted it for reasons of domestic order in a liberal society.

If we were to have a constitutional convention today, both parties would be well represented. But in 1787 only nationalists came. Leaders of the provincials took no interest in the convention and, in a number of notable cases, rejected opportunities to attend. They were reluctant to legitimize a convention that they correctly believed was a gathering of nationalists. And they saw no danger in boycotting: amendment of the Articles required unanimity, and twice a national tariff had been vetoed by one state (first Rhode Island, then New York). Presumably at least one state would veto any serious amendment from Philadelphia. So it was safe for the provincials to stay home.

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