The Constitution as counterrevolution: a tribute to the Anti-Federalists.
The standard American myth celebrates the Constitution as the triumphant culmination of the American Revolution. This is largely untrue and misleading.
The alleged "critical period" between the end of the Revolution and the Constitution's adoption was not dominated by economic depression, political turmoil, and international peril, jeopardizing the independent survival of the American experiment in liberty. Those who assembled at the Philadelphia Convention to write a new Constitution were not disinterested demigods, nor did they intend to establish a federal system of divided government powers. The Constitution did not have the support of most Americans. And finally, rather than representing the culmination of the previous Revolution, the Constitution represented a reactionary counter revolution against its central principles.
The American Revolution, like all great social upheavals, was brought off by a disparate coalition of competing viewpoints and conflicting interests. At one end of the Revolutionary coalition stood the American radicals-men such as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Jefferson.
Although by no means in unanimous agreement, the radicals objected to excessive state power in general and not simply to British rule in particular. Spearheading the Revolution's opening stages, they were responsible for the truly revolutionary alterations in the internal status quo: the abolition of slavery in the northern states, the separation of church and state in the southern states, the rooting out of remaining feudal privileges everywhere, and the adoption of new, republican state constitutions containing written bills of rights that severely hemmed in government power.
At the other end of the Revolutionary coalition were the American nationalists-an array of mercantile, creditor, and landed interests. The nationalists went along with independence but opposed the Revolution's libertarian thrust. They sought a strong American state with the hierarchical features of the 18th-century British state, only without the British.
The Revolution started out as a struggle against taxation. What passed among the newly independent American states for a central government, the Second Continental Congress, did not have access even to this usual state power. For revenue, Congress initially had to rely on requisitions from the state governments, which could not get away with very extensive taxation themselves.
Yet the military strategy adopted by Congress required large expenditures. Military conservatives such as George Washington induced Congress to focus the Revolutionary effort on a costly conventional force, the Continental Army, rather than the militias. By the 1781 Yorktown campaign, popular disgust at the army's continuing hand-to-mouth existence gave the nationalists uncontested control of Congress. They proceeded to implement a financial program that gave the central government much more power.
Already, the Revolution had taken an important step in this direction with the drafting of the Articles of Confederation, a written constitution. Here we encounter the first distortion in America's constitutional myth. The Articles left Congress not too weak, as defenders of the Constitution claim, but too strong: the Articles made the central government permanent; and an influential nationalist faction-land speculators-delayed ratification until Congress was given direct jurisdiction over the states' western lands. The Articles' only saving grace was that they failed to give Congress any authority to collect taxes or regulate trade.
At the time of the Articles' adoption, the most powerful nationalist in Congress was Robert Morris, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant. Congress appointed him head of the newly created Department of Finance, from which post he became a virtual financial dictator. The central government's functions were concentrated within his and other new executive departments, which Morris filled with his allies and partners.
The linch pin of Morris's financial system was the power of taxation. Only thus could the nationalists' desired centralization of power be consummated. An amendment to the Articles granting Congress the power to impose an import duty looked in 1782 like it would receive the required unanimous approval of the states, but tiny Rhode Island held out.
Morris and the nationalists made a last-ditch effort in March 1783 to coerce the states with the Continental Army, then encamped at Newburgh, New York. They encouraged a plot among Washington's officers, and a military coup loomed on the horizon. The radical suspicion of standing armies stood fully vindicated, for never has the United States been closer to succumbing to an American Caesar. At this point, however, Washington, although firmly endorsing nationalist goals, balked. His personal intervention caused the Newburgh conspiracy to disband.
Peace unraveled Morris's financial and military program. As the war wound down, the financial pressure on the national government, and the apparent need to grant taxing power to Congress, diminished. The nationalists lost control of Congress in late 1783, and Morris resigned his post after an incriminating investigation into his financial machinations. Congress wisely discharged most of what was left of the Continental Army.
Unfortunately, the war-induced nationalization of the Northwest lands had shifted the burden of policing that territory from the states to a national force. So Congress authorized a small frontier constabulary to be raised from the state militias for fixed periods. (The still-unceded Southwest territory got along fine without congressional attention.) Eastern land speculators, however, found the Northwest force insufficient to protect their vast claims from Indians, squatters, and foreign intrigue. They looked forward instead to a strong standing army.