Social Backgrounds of Setting up a Stronger Central Government
By Li Qingyuan
In the year of 1783, when the British and the Americans signed the Treaty of Paris, which indicated that the Great Britain recognized the independence of the United States, the American people won the victory of the Revolution in the long run. But to make a nation, the Americans had to do more than win their independence.
Like many newborn countries, this country was in a chaotic state in the first few years. The period after the Revolutionary War was characterized by economic depression and political crisis for the reason that all of the thirteen states were loosely bound together only by the Articles of Confederation (written in 1777 by John Dickson and ratified in 1781). Each state remained sovereign and could do things in its own way. Meanwhile, The Articles of Confederation did not set up executive and judicial organizations to enforce laws. The only branch of the central government was a single-chamber Congress, where each state had one vote. The Congress had no power to tax or to regulate trade; its primary functions were foreign relations, Indian affair, and western lands. Unanimous consent was needed for amendment, which made reforms almost impossible. A news dispatch of August 29,1787 in Philadelphia showed the condition of that time: No state has ever built any roads or realigned any rivers, they are wanting to see if the Central Government will do such necessary work. The trade and manufacturing companies have stopped their business, they are waiting to see what kind of protection and rewards they can get from the national commercial regulations…. Bondholders have always been worrying that their bonds may become waste paper, but today they pin all their hopes on an open, stable new Government. Even the poor farmers and suppressed tenants hope that a new Government would liberate them, they are waiting to see if the government would protect them from the Indians when they are living on the frontiers. (Wilson 1986:257)
Now that the central government had no power to control business activities or directly levy taxes, it could not gain any money to pay its debts and officials. As there were no limits or judicial controls on the state congress, the states were quarrelling over a lot of affairs. In addition to the domestic problems, the young nation also had to bear problems brought about by foreign countries. In this chaotic condition, most Americans expected to establish a new government so that their rights and interests could be protected.
Grim Economic Situation of the 1780s
After the foundation of the United States, the most urgent problems that American people wanted to solve were the economic problems. The American Revolution had been a drain on manpower and material resources, and the restoration and development of economy became the most urgent task of the American people. However, this task was hard to fulfill because the Articles of Confederation did not grant the central government enough powers. Worst of all, the central government had no powers of taxation and trade regulation, so the domestic economy deteriorated.
The War of Independence saddled the young nation with an enormous debt. In 1784, the total federal debt was nearly $40 million. Of that sum, $8 million was owed to the French and Dutch governments. Of the domestic debt, government bonds, known as loan-office certificates, reached the amount of $11.5 million, certificates on interest indebtedness $3.1 million, and continental certificates $16.7 million. To pay the interest and principal of the debt, the Congress had twice proposed an amendment to the Articles granting them the power to lay a five percent duty on imports, but amendments required the consent of all thirteen states. The impost of 1781 failed due to Rhode Island’s resistance and the impost of 1783 was rejected by New York. Without steady revenue, the Congress could not pay the debt, pay the military expenditures, pay pensions to the officers, and even could not pay the interest of the debt.
Due to the delay and uncertainty of the payment, the value of the certificates depreciated significantly. The loan-office variety fell to as low as 20 cents on the dollar while the continental certificates fell to 10 cents. Most Americans who had received the certificates were farmers, storekeepers, small merchants, and veterans of modest wealth. They needed cash to run their business or farms, to feed a family, or just to survive. They often had to sell their certificates to speculators at a fraction of their face value. Suffering from such great losses led to an even harder living for these people.
Without a powerful national government to regulate trade, trade between the states was hindered by a multiplicity of restrictive state tariffs and commercial regulations. The state congresses had the power to make their own laws and collect taxes. Localism made them set barriers to goods from other states, thus trade between states could not develop. For instance, in 1781, New York state decided to levy heavy taxes on agricultural products imported from New Jersey and Connecticut. New Jersey immediately took vindictive measures to impose a tax of $1800 per year on the beacons of New York ports located in its territory. Each state wanted to protect its own economic interests, thus very common were such conflicts between states.
The futility of enacting mercantile legislation within a confederated polity was also demonstrated with regard to the navigation laws. For a long time, the Great Britain dumped its low-cost goods upon the American market and bought raw materials and farm products from the southern states of the United States with a very low price. In order to change the unfavorable trade balance, many states did their best to take some measures. In 1784, northern legislatures began penalizing British shipping by laying additional duties upon goods imported in British bottoms. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York doubled tariffs on goods arriving in British ships while Rhode Island tripled them. However, none of these laws proved effective. Apparently, British shippers could go to nearby states and use them as bases for distributing European goods and for obtaining American produce. Under the Confederation, navigation laws were fruitless.
To make matters worse, the currency was in a confused condition at that time. “In 1784 the entire coin of the land, except coppers, was the product of foreign mints. English guineas, crowns, shillings and pence were still paid over the counters of shops and taverns, and with them were mingled many French and Spanish and some German coins…. The value of the gold pieces expressed in dollars was pretty much the same the country over. But the dollar and the silver pieces regarded as fractions of a dollar had no less than five different values”(McMaster, Vol.1,1891:190-191). Furthermore, the massively unfavorable trade balance with foreign countries was fast draining the hard money out of the United States. In an effort to relieve the situation but with the result of making it much worse, several of the states began to issue paper money; and this was in addition to the enormous quantities of paper which had been printed during the Revolution and which was now worth but a small fraction of its face value. The expanding currency and consequent depreciation in the value of money had immediately resulted in a corresponding rise of prices. With hard money in short supply, wages fell, and unemployment rose in the cities. Farmers frequently had problems in paying their property taxes, resulting in foreclosure sales and much human misery.
In short, the economic situation of the 1780s was chaotic and terrible. Most Americans witnessed a Confederation government incapable of controlling the money supply, of paying debts, or of regulating and encouraging foreign and domestic commerce. Little wonder that these people recognized the grim necessity for setting up a stronger central government.
Political Crisis of the 1780s
Under the Articles of Confederation, on paper, the Congress had power to regulate foreign affairs, war, and to appoint military officers, control Indian affairs, borrow money, determine the value of coin, and issue bills of credit. In reality, however, the Articles gave the Congress no power to enforce its requests to the states for money or troops. The Congress could pass laws but could not force the states to comply with them. Each state kept its sovereign independence and controlled over all of its internal affairs, and seldom accepted any orders from the central government. Thus, the central government commanded little respect and was not able to accomplish much. As the central government was severely limited in its powers and could not control well the individual states, the domestic political situation was perilous.
1. Foreign Threats and Violations to the Confederation
The Confederation Congress commanded so little, and had so little power over the states and therefore over foreign policy, that other nations either ignored the young United States or ran roughshod over their interests with little fear of retaliation. The Great Britain was unwilling to secede from America and maintained a number of forts in the Northwest boundary of the United States. In order to suppress the newborn country politically and economically, it blockaded the coastlines of the United States with its strong fleet, and forbade American people to trade with the West Indies. Meanwhile, it supplied Indians and encouraged them to raid the frontier settlement. France did not establish truly equal and friendly relationship with the United States, either. After the American Revolution, it only opened several harbors in West Indies and allowed the U.S. ships with small cargo carrying capacity to pass. In the meantime, France blockaded some important river mouths so that it could monopolize the market. Spain also glared at the United States like a tiger eyeing its prey. It occupied the West of Mississippi as well as West and East Florida. Furthermore, it closed the Mississippi river at the mouth in 1784 to forbid the U.S. ships to pass through New Orleans. Like Britain, Spain supplied Indians in the Southwest and encouraged the states in the Southwest out of American land. Faced with foreign threats and violations, however, the Confederation Congress could not effectively mount defensive or offensive military operations under its own authority, the Congress could not levy troops, or impose and collect taxes to support such operations.
Relevantly, the Confederation Congress did not have the military power to back up diplomatic demands. For instance, when Spain closed the port of New Orleans to American commerce in 1784, the Congress sent John Jay to Madrid to achieve terms to open Mississippi to Americans. Instead, Jay signed an agreement that ignored the problem of the Mississippi in exchange for commercial advantages benefiting the Northeast (the Jay-Gardoqui Treaty). The Congress rejected the treaty, and the issue smoldered for ten years. The Congress also claimed lands in the West still occupied by the British and Spanish but could not have challenged those nations for control of the land. High seas freedom was important to many of the states, both those with shipping interests such as Massachusetts and those with agricultural, and hence export, interests such as Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, but the Confederation could not threaten the British over their high-handed unilateralism regarding the high seas.
2. Domestic Dissatisfaction and Rebellions
The greatest weakness of the federal government under the Articles of Confederation was its inability to regulate trade and levy taxes. Sometimes the states refused to give the government the money it needed, and they engaged in tariff wars with one another, almost paralyzing interstate commerce. The government could not pay off the debts it had incurred during the Revolution, including paying soldiers who had fought in the war and citizens who had provided supplies to the cause. As economy could not develop and the country could not be defended, the American people gradually lost confidence in their government.
Most American people became more and more dissatisfied with the present system, and wanted eagerly to change the present situation. They clearly showed their common opinion: because of the lack of regulation and protection, the American industry and commerce were dying out. They were pitiful for the Congress’s inability to have full powers to handle the domestic problems, and they hoped that the states would endow the Congress such powers. For example, as centers of industry, commerce and shipping, cities like Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and Boston were very earnest in the construction of a new government. They all handed in their petitions to the Congress. The petition of Baltimore described the decline of the domestic industry and commerce when each state did things in its own way. It said, “We hope that our country could get rid of the commercial shackles that have fettered it for so many years, so that it could find and get true profits, and gain actual economic independence”(Sources and Documents of the United States Constitution, Second Series, 1492-1810: 175). The petition of New York stated how they had hoped to see the prosperity of their country, but foreign discrimination and restrictive state tariffs had smashed their dreams. They struggled in vain, and had always been expecting a new government, which would have enough power to stop this increasing misery and protect the domestic industry and commerce. Petitioners from Philadelphia and Boston asked the government to protect their shipbuilding industry. They complained that the shipbuilding industry here had declined severely, and called on the government to notice that after the Revolution, England had made laws to forbid American shipbuilders to build ships for English customers. To rejuvenate the shipbuilding industry, protection from the federal government was essential.
In the army, the dissatisfied feeling was spreading. Because the economic situation quickly deteriorated after the American Revolution, the soldiers’ salaries were in arrears. Most of their families were bogged down in debts, so their indignant feeling ran high. They wanted eagerly to change the present situation and demanded the democratization in the political life. However, the central government had no power to solve the problems. In March 1783, when Washington’s troops were stationed in Newburgh by the Hudson River, the discontented soldiers drafted Newburgh Address to express their desire for good living condition and democracy, and considered military action against the Confederation Congress. Soon Newburgh Address spread all over the troops and stimulated soldiers’ rebellious mood. The government was scared, and began to dismiss troops a month later. On a hot June day, more than 8000 former Revolutionary War soldiers stationed in Pennsylvania revolted. Carrying muskets, they marched into the Philadelphia statehouse where the Congress was meeting. They threatened to hold the members hostage until they were paid back wages. When the Congress asked Pennsylvania to send a detachment of militia to protect them, the state refused, and the humiliated Congress temporarily relocated. In the end, General Washington had to take advantage of his high prestige among the army to disintegrate the rebellion.
In 1786, nearly 2000 debtor farmers in western Massachusetts were threatened with foreclosure of their mortgaged property. The state legislature had voted to pay off the state’s Revolutionary War debt in three years; between 1783 and 1786, taxes on land rose more than 60 percent. Desperate farmers demanded a cut in property taxes and adoption of state laws to postpone farm foreclosures. The lower house of the state legislature passed relief measures in 1786, but creditors persuaded the upper house to reject the package.
When lower courts started to seize the property of farmers and throw some debtors into prison, an uprising broke out. Led by Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War veteran, western Massachusetts farmers marched first for Worcester where they closed the courthouse and destroyed the tax documents, then turned west to Springfield where they broke into the jail to free imprisoned debtors. They required the government to abolish all unreasonable policies. Scared by this violent revolt, James Baldwin, governor of Massachusetts, ordered the state army to put down the revolt. The rebellion was routed in January 1787. Shays escaped to Vermont and was later pardoned. Others were not so fortunate; 150 were captured and several were sentenced to death.
Shays’ Rebellion pushed the sense of crisis to the climax. It impelled the government and politicians to pay more attention to the economic depression and political crisis. Many national leaders believed that the new republic’s survival was at risk. The only solution, many prominent figures were convinced, was to create an effective central government led by a strong chief executive.
Efforts to Bring about Constitutional Reform
Even before Shays’ Rebellion, prominent Americans were thinking of means to strengthen the Articles of Confederation. One group among them that wanted a powerful Confederation was composed of nationalists. These men-military officers, diplomats, delegates to Congress, and federal financiers and bureaucrats-had served the Confederation during the war and had acquired a national perspective and outlook. In their thinking, there was a self-evident need for central control over the disposition of western lands, tariff and commercial policies, and dealings with foreign states.
These prominent Americans made many speeches or wrote articles to call for reform. They warned that if the political mechanism of this country remained unchanged, the Union would break up. A very famous nationalist and known as “Father of the Constitution”, James Madison advocated a strong central government and called for reform of the Articles on more than one occasion. He wrote in a newspaper: It is true that our present mechanism has no supporters, and it isn’t worth supporting. If it can’t get strong support, it will collapse…. Now it seems that most people would rather choose to split the confederation and form three smaller but stronger governments. This idea has already been expressed in newspapers. (Smith 1986:233)
Nationalists were not the only group seeking the creation of a stronger central government. They had many allies who had a similar goal of reforming the present system. For example, in most states there were creditors-men who had lent money to governments or private individuals. They wanted high taxes so that they could redeem their loans quickly and at face value. In order to do this, they wanted to diminish the power of state legislatures, which were often influenced by hard-pressed farmers. Shays’ Rebellion strengthened the determination of nationalists and their allies to create a stronger central government. They wanted a government that could raise a powerful army both to put down domestic insurrections and to confront foreign threats.
By means of the efforts of the prominent Americans and their allies, a meeting convened at Annapolis, Maryland in 1786 to discuss possible steps to strengthen the national government and to alter the Articles of Confederation. When only five states sent delegates to the Annapolis Convention, the nationalists planned a new and broader meeting. They asked the Congress and the states to approve a convention at Philadelphia in 1787. Its task would be to devise a stronger national government. Hence, the U.S. Constitutional Legislation began. The Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia on May 14,1787 turned a new leaf in American history. This convention hammered out a document defining distinct powers for the central government capable of forcing the individual states to take unified steps and really controlling the fate of the United States.
In general, it was the grim economic situations and political crises in the 1780s that compelled the American people to make a right choice to set up a stronger central government. Although the United States won a great victory in the Revolution, its debts could not be paid, economy could not develop, the people’s living standard could not be improved, and the country could not be defended. The chaotic domestic situation and foreign threats impelled this newborn country to take measures. “Wise measures” as Washington suggested included reform in: government structure, allocation of powers and rights, legal system, etc.. These measures later saved the new regime.
1. Boller, P.F. & Ronald Story. A More Perfect Union: Documents in U.S. History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992.
2. Bo, Wang. A Guide to American Historical Documents: From Colonial Times to the 19th Century. Beijing: Peking University Press, 2002.
3. McMaster, John Bach. A history of the People of the United States. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1891.
4. Smith, James Morton. Jefferson and Madison. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1986.
5. Wilson, Samuel Eliot. The Oxford History of the American People. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1986.
Li Qingyuan, (1971-), male, a college teacher in Sichuan Agricultural University, China, Master of Arts.
Mailing address: English Department of Sichuan Agricultural University, Ya’an, Sichuan, China. 625014. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org