Today’s lecture basically is
titled “A Union Without Power.”
In past years I’ve titled it,
“Powers — “Problems of the
Confederation,” and you’ll see why,
by the end of the lecture. On Tuesday I started to talk
about the larger question of the legacy of the Revolution and the
process of governance, and I started us off by talking
about the drafting of state constitutions and the drafting
of the Articles of Confederation.
And in a sense,
one uniting theme that ran through both parts of that
lecture was the ways in which the states and their rights and
their sovereignty were really at the center of things.
In a way, you could say that
that entire lecture was about the states, even though it was
about–really talking about a way to unify them.
Certainly, you can see that in
the content of the Articles themselves,
and the ways in which they were largely centered on defining and
limiting the amount of power that was given to the
Confederation Congress. Well, today what we’re going to
look at is the impact of that. We’re going to basically be
looking at how the Articles played out in the 1780s,
given the amount of power that they had,
or the amount of power that they didn’t have–
but one way or another we’re going to see what happened in
the 1780s. And as an introduction to that,
I want to talk for just a few minutes about some of the actual
debates in Congress about the Articles themselves–
some of the things that gave people in Congress pause when
the Articles were being written–
because, as you’ll see, this reveals a lot about the
mindset of the time regarding centralized power and state
power. And understanding that mindset
is going to explain some of what we’re going to see in the bulk
of today’s lecture, which is really going to be
looking at events that took place in the 1780s.
I’m also going to mention these
things right now that I’m going to talk about briefly because in
a couple of lectures from now when we begin talking about the
Constitution, you’re going to see them
basically all crop up again. So just a few minutes about the
debate over the Articles. Now one thing worth noting is
that even as Congress was trying to figure out some form of
union, even the people on the
committee appointed to draft the Articles of Confederation were
not entirely at ease with the idea of centralizing power in
that way. So this is just a random
comment, but it’s from Edward Rutledge of South Carolina,
and it’s a private letter that he wrote to a friend–
and he was actually on the Congressional committee that was
given the task of writing– coming up with something that
would be ultimately the Articles of Confederation.
So this is what Rutledge says
to his friend: “If the Plan now proposed
should be adopted nothing less than Ruin to some Colonies will
be the Consequence. The Idea of destroying all
Provincial Distinctions and making every thing of the most
minute kind bend to what they call the good of the whole,
is in other Terms to say that these Colonies must be subject
to the Government of the Eastern Provinces.
The Force of their Arms I hold
exceeding Cheap, but …
I dread their overruling
Influence in council. I dread their low Cunning,
and those leveling Principles which Men without Character and
without Fortune in general possess,
which are so captivating to the lower class of Mankind,
and which will occasion such a fluctuation of Property as to
introduce the greatest disorder. I am resolved to vest the
Congress with no more power than what is absolutely necessary …
for I am confident if
surrendered into the Hands of others a most pernicious use
will be made of it.” Okay.
So listen to some of what
Rutledge just said there. Okay.
He’s afraid that making
everything bend to the good of the whole is basically saying
the same thing as subjecting all of the colonies to the eastern
provinces– and by eastern provinces,
he means New England. He says, ‘Well,
as soon as we do sort of bend the minutest thing to the good
of the whole, New England is just going to
take over.’ That’s basically what he is
saying in that letter: I don’t want to be ruled by New
England. And then right after that he
says, “The Force of their Arms I hold exceeding
‘I’m not scared of them
militarily. We could beat them in a fight.
However, that low cunning those
kinds of people have, they will take over in
‘They’ll control Congress.
I don’t like the whole idea of
being governed by New England and because of that I’m not
entirely sure about this whole Articles of Confederation idea.’
So how’s that for spirit of
league of friendship? [laughs]
That guy is on the committee that’s actually drafting the
document, and he’s that suspicious about
regional prejudices, about New England trying to
take over. So that just gives you a little
bit of a sense of how uneasy people were with centralizing
power in any way on this sort of nationalesque kind of level,
particularly given their fears about giving up some of the
power and sovereignty that was held by their own independent
states. Now once Congress actually
began debating the Articles there were actually three main
controversies I’m going to bring up now,
and for obvious reasons–as I mention them–
because you’ll see why they all come up again as soon as we
begin talking about the Constitution.
These three things all helped
to slow down and complicate debate over the Articles,
so that even though they start talking about the Articles in
1776, there’s a reason why it takes
all the way until November of 1777 for Congress to decide that
they’re done with them. Okay.
So the first of these three
controversies not surprisingly– I bet I could even ask you to
guess them and you probably would guess them,
but the first one is representation–
surprise. Not a surprise at all.
The idea of representation
caused an extended debate over whether voting in Congress once
again should be based on population–
which is what the larger states want–
or one vote, one state–which is obviously
what the smaller states want. As James Wilson of Pennsylvania
put it, “It is strange that
annexing the name of ‘State’ to ten thousand men,
should give them an equal right with forty thousand.
This must be the effect of
magic, not of reason.” Okay.
That argument appears–almost
verbatim– but certainly that argument
appears again when once again we’re talking about
representation, centralized power,
the Constitution. Not surprisingly,
related to representation, the second controversial topic
I’m going to raise here is taxation.
There was an extended debate
over whether the common expenses of the war should be divided up
among the states on the basis of total population,
including slaves, or on the basis of the free
population only. So here we have taxation,
representation, and slavery all bound together
happily in one issue that obviously is going to be
controversial, and obviously is not going to
go away, and is going to come back the
very next occasion when they’re talking about representation and
centralized power. So representation,
taxation, and the third main controversy that slowed down the
passage of the Articles was the question of the West,
western territories. Not surprisingly,
there was a big division between large landed states with
extensive western land claims– states like Massachusetts,
Connecticut, New York, Virginia,
North Carolina– and small landless states like
Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey,
New Hampshire. Landless states saw the
Confederation Congress as a sort of successor to the Crown’s
property rights in the West. So in other words,
smaller states, landless states,
wanted Congress to take over vast western territorial plains
and then convert them into some kind of a common stock of land
whose sale could help discharge some of the national war debt.
So that’s what the smaller
states or the landless states want.
And the idea behind that–the
logic behind that– was that what was gained at
common expense– independence and control of
those western lands– should be used for common
benefit. Now obviously,
the states that owned western lands are going to feel really
differently about that whole issue,
but it’s not surprising that that would be a point of
So those are three central
concerns over the Articles: representation,
taxation, and the western lands.
Thanks to issues like those,
the Articles were debated from mid-1776 through November of
1777, when they finally were
completed and then submitted to the states for ratification.
The main reason why debate
stopped at that point in 1777 is not because everyone decided
those questions had been settled,
but because of the American victory at Saratoga.
So basically people realized if
the states weren’t united into one joint political entity at
that point, it would be almost impossible
for them to get foreign aid. They had to at least prove that
they could unite somehow if they were going to convince foreign
countries that it was worthwhile investing in whatever was
happening in America. So signing the Articles of
Confederation and then sending them off for ratification was a
way of giving added credence to the American cause in the eyes
of the world at a very strategic moment.
As Samuel Chase of Maryland
wrote right in the midst of the debate over the Articles,
“what contract will a foreign State make with us,
when we cannot agree among ourselves”–
which is a pretty good point. This basic reality led Congress
to complete the Articles, send it to the states.
The states ultimately–They
discussed them. Some came to a conclusion
quicker than others, and it was not until 1781 that
the Articles formally were put into effect.
Now I want to turn to what
happened once the Articles actually went into effect,
and as we set out into this discussion I want to take just a
moment here to defend the Articles just a little bit.
And I did this a little bit in
Tuesday’s lecture too, because as you’ll see–it’ll be
very clear by the end of this lecture why I’m doing this–
it’s very easy to listen to what happened in the 1780s and
conclude, ‘this is the most inadequate,
goofy form of government I can possibly imagine.’
Because all we’re going to see
in this lecture is one after another after another instance
of this government not working so well.
And it doesn’t help that you
have all of these really strident nationalists in this
time period– we’re going to hear from a
couple of them too– who throughout the 1780s,
and for some of them even in part of the 1770s,
felt really strongly that there needed to be a stronger
centralized government, and were really vocal in
expressing their doubts and expressing what they thought
really needed to happen. So Hamilton–Alexander Hamilton
is always griping about the weak government;
George Washington always griping about the weak
government. Added to the sort of bad PR for
the Articles of Confederation are the “Federalist”
essays, and I’ll talk about them in a
couple of lectures too, but, as we’ll see when we look
at them, the “Federalist”
essays are not objective; they’re written with an
agenda–I’ll go into this in more detail later–
but they are aimed at proving that the proposed Constitution
is absolutely necessary, and one of the ways in which
they did that was to just rip the Articles of Confederation to
To prove that the Constitution
was really necessary, one of the things the
“Federalist” essays really try to accomplish
is proving how horrible and incompetent and inadequate the
Articles of Confederation are. And if you believe that,
then you’re going to be even more likely to think:
‘oh, wow, if they’re so bad maybe
this Constitution actually really is–
we absolutely have to go for it.’
So it was part of a sort of
rhetorical strategy in the “Federalist”
essays to make the Articles look really bad–
not that they need a lot of help necessarily,
but they were really emphasizing that in the
So for a moment–all I’m trying
to say with this is, just consider that there are
all of these reasons why, for natural reasons,
for bad PR reasons, it’s natural for us to look at
the Articles and think of them as just a big mistake,
but of course the problem with that kind of reasoning is
It’s judging the Articles based
on what we know comes next. So we know, right down the pike
there’s that Constitution just waiting to happen;
so we know there’s a stronger government coming;
we know that it works because it’s still working.
So we know, in a sense,
the end of this particular story and knowing that,
it’s very hard for us to look at the Articles and give them–
they don’t get much respect–to give very much respect to the
Articles of Confederation. But that’s not quite fair to
judge those historical actors in that moment in that way,
because of course they don’t know what’s coming next.
They’re acting in the moment.
They’re acting based on lessons
they’ve just learned, with the knowledge of the
moment. So I think rather–even after
everything I say in today’s lecture–
rather than condemning the Articles as a kind of broken or
faulty or sad system of government,
we should instead really understand them in the context
of the time, and really understand the ways
in which they represent precisely what should have been
the first attempt at a national government based on the fears
and assumptions that prevailed in the United States at that
time. As I talked about on Tuesday,
there were natural fears about a strong centralized national
government– and of course there were,
given the Revolution has just happened.
And given that people could
look back on the Revolution and say, ‘Well, okay.
We know that the Continental
Congress had problems but we won’–
people had some reason to assume: ‘well,
that worked basically, so we’ll kind of assume that
some version of that will continue to work as long as we
have some kind of a sense of common purpose.’
And there is the problem,
and that is what we’re going to see today,
because the unhappy surprise of the 1780s was that once the war
was over, there was not all that much of
a sense of common purpose anymore.
So as I detail all of these
problems today with the Articles,
try to bear in mind that yes, they did not function as well
as people maybe hoped they would but that rather than a stupid
mistake, they were a logical first step
in a larger process of nation-making.
They made sense as a first step.
Now even before some of the
problems of the 1780s began to unfold,
there were already people who felt that the Continental
Congress had been frustratingly inadequate–
and we heard about some of these a couple of weeks back–
and not surprisingly, people who had been angry about
the Continental Congress are now irritated with the Confederation
Congress too. Often–or at least some of
these people had experienced in one way or another firsthand
frustrations because of what they viewed as the inadequacies
of these various congresses. So for example,
I mentioned I think actually in an earlier lecture that there
were some people at Washington’s headquarters during the war who
experienced firsthand how hard it was for Congress to get them
supplies and men, partly just because Congress
wasn’t functioning necessarily very well.
And so a lot of people at
Washington’s headquarters during the war end up being really
strong nationalists, and Hamilton and Washington
obviously are among that group. But there is a whole string of
other people as well who are all writing letters to each other
throughout the 1780s saying, ‘We’re dying.
It’s all going downhill.
We have fought the war.
We won. Now what’s happening?’
We’ll hear a Washington letter
along these lines in just a couple of minutes.
Other people who were unhappy
with the Confederation Congress were people who had attempted to
deal with foreign affairs during the Revolution,
and again on that front had seen how Congress had
dilly-dallied; it had failed to give
effective, efficient concrete instructions.
And John Jay was one of those
people who distrusted what was– ever was going to happen with
the Articles because he’d seen what happened with a similar
congress during the Revolution. Some other people had been
actual members of the Continental Congress and found
themselves frustrated at some point about getting things
implemented. And James Madison falls into
that category. And obviously I’m just naming a
few random instances here. There are many other people who
felt this way. These men perceived what seemed
to them like a supreme irony. It would be the ideals and
principles of the Revolution that would tear apart the new
nation that the Revolution had created.
So in their mind,
all of these fears about state sovereignty,
about concerns about centralized power,
about tyranny, about protecting property,
about protecting liberties–all of those things might actually
lead people to be so distrustful of a government,
that maybe it would bring the entire experiment in government
crashing down almost before it had had a chance to begin.
Now what was it that so upset
these men about the 1780s? So let’s turn to some of the
events of the 1780s and see. Now for one thing right off the
cuff, the state of foreign relations in the 1780s seemed
alarming to them, particularly regarding Great
Britain. Despite the fact that Americans
had won the war– that they had negotiated a
treaty with Britain that had clear terms in it–
Britain was still putting up barriers and hurdles and
basically not being very cooperative.
So throughout the 1780s they
largely refused to cooperate with aspects of the Treaty of
Paris. So for example,
although they had agreed to abandon their posts in the
western territories, they just didn’t.
We’re still here.’ They also implemented a number
of different trade restrictions. Some of them were implemented
not just towards the United States,
but America for example found itself suddenly unable to import
machine tools to build manufacturing institutions,
to build factories in America. Suddenly America found itself
unable to import these things. There were other places who
also were not being able to take these things from Britain,
but now that suddenly America’s out of the British imperial
system, they don’t have access to
things that they once had access to before,
and Britain is certainly not being cooperative on that front.
Along similar lines,
the French and the Spanish were also proving difficult,
doing things like attempting to exercise control over the
Mississippi, to control shipping,
holding back attempts by Americans to expand throughout
the area. So just on the foreign affairs
front alone, things don’t look really
thrilling and it’s not at all clear what this Congress is
going to be able to do about it. And you can hear the impact of
these kinds of developments in a letter that Washington wrote to
a friend, and this is as early as 1784:
“The disinclination of the individual States to yield
competent powers to Congress for the Foederal Government,
their unreasonable jealousy of that body &
of one another– & the disposition which
seems to pervade each, of being all-wise &
all-powerful within itself, will, if there is not a change
in the system, be our downfal as a nation.–
This is as clear to me as the A, B, C.”
It’s as clear as the
alphabet–but that’s a weird Washingtonian version of it.
“This is as clear to me as
the A, B, C; & I think we have opposed
Great Britain, & have arrived at the
present state of peace & independency,
to very little purpose, if we cannot conquer our own
prejudices. The powers of Europe begin to
see this, & our newly acquired friends the
British, are already … acting upon this ground;
& wisely too, if we are determined to
persevere in our folly. They know that individual
opposition to their measures is futile,
and boast that we are not sufficiently united as a Nation
to give a general one!– Is not the indignity alone,
of this declaration … sufficient to stimulate us to
vest more extensive & adequate powers in the
sovereign of these United States?”
That’s one passage of a stream
of letters of this sort that are being sent back and forth
throughout the 1780s, so of course they’re being sent
from one nationalist guy to another nationalist guy,
so they are sort of preaching to the choir.
Right? ‘This is horrible.
Yes, it’s horrible.
It’s really horrible.
Yes, it’s really horrible.’
They all agree with each other but they all strike that kind of
a tone. So that’s just in the world of
foreign affairs. Domestically,
things seemed equally alarming. The Confederation Congress
could not even manage to consistently summon a quorum of
states so that they could conduct business.
Typical of many complaining
letters of the period is one by Rufus King of New York in 1785,
and he wrote to a friend: “We have only five states
represented. Pennsylvania and Connecticut
are expected — when they are here we can form a House.”
We’re going to be almost able
to actually do something as soon as Pennsylvania and Connecticut
get here. Thank you very much.
Again, not a lot of excitement
and power and energy being vested in this Congress.
Why were there so few delegates
even bothering to attend Congress?
Well, for one thing,
as I sort of hinted in the last lecture,
people were much more interested in what was going on
in their own states, so a lot of people just
remained at home. Centralized issues that
affected other states very often seemed to people to be of
secondary importance to concerns in their own state.
And an extreme example of what
I’m talking about here– a sort of good example of
people being more concerned with their own state than with
anything national in scope– took place in Vermont beginning
in 1777 and continuing through the 1780s.
for a long period of time, New York and New Hampshire both
claimed possession of the territory that eventually would
become the state of Vermont. Well, in 1777 residents of that
territory led by Ethan Allen declared their independence from
New York and New Hampshire. So the Revolution is inspiring
in many ways, and here you can see the power
of the Revolution: ‘We’re declaring our
independence!’ So they declare themselves,
quote, “the Independent Republic of Vermont.”
We are now the Independent
Republic of Vermont; so there.
And they actually begin to
write up their own constitution–and you can really
see the influence of revolutionary events.
the governor of New York became concerned about this because to
him, part of his state was trying to
secede and this was not a good thing,
so he pleaded with New York’s congressional delegates to
please do something, like maybe declare that that
territory belongs to New York and get the other states to
agree with this so this problem will go away.
New York’s governor,
as well as a number of other people,
became more concerned when they heard that Ethan Allen was
supposedly negotiating in one way or another with the British
to abandon Vermont’s claims to independence if the British
would recognize their separate status,
Supposedly, we have a territory
declaring itself an independent republic and then negotiating
with the British in the middle of the war.
‘Accept us as a republic and we
won’t fight for independence.’ It’s a little alarming.
So among all of the reasons why
that’s unacceptable and alarming,
one major reason is, it obviously represents the
dismemberment of potentially two states.
New York and New Hampshire.
So what does the Congress do?
As a delegate from Maryland
wrote home to his state governor,
he had been called back to Congress because of the supposed
crisis of Vermont but, quote, “we have business
enough on our hands without carving out more at this
time.” So this guy is basically
saying, ‘Please. We have enough to do.
I don’t care about this whole
thing, this Vermont thing. What a pain.
Why don’t they just sort of
deal with it up there wherever it’s happening?’
Vermont, seeing something of a
lack of action on the national front,
became a little more aggressive, began to annex to
their republic some towns in New Hampshire.
There were a little–a few
little skirmishes with New York in 1781 on the border,
and then ominously, everything got very quiet on
the border between Vermont and Canada.
So people again are thinking,
‘are these guys somehow negotiating with the British?
Is there some weird thing
happening between these guys and the British, and now people are
sort of skirmishing about borders in New York?’
Well, Congress kind of panicked
at this point, because you add all of this up
and it seems scary, strange, and potentially
threatening. So they made some sort of a
vague counter-deal with Vermont that’s like, ‘okay,
okay, okay, we’ll sort of think about this whole statehood
thing.’ Vermont certainly held back
from talking with the British and then Congress failed to
follow through at all, so nothing happened.
Yorktown and the seeming end of
the war came in 1781, the British lost interest in
Vermont, Congress lost interest in
Vermont, and Vermont remained in this kind of limbo,
unknowing what it was. Is it an independent republic?
Is it part of New York?
Is it part of New Hampshire?
Is it a state?
Is it not a state?
And this persisted throughout
the entire 1780s, this weird limbo for the people
of Vermont, nobody really quite deciding what was going on.
A similar problem took place
when part of North Carolina attempted to secede from the
state of North Carolina and declared itself the state of
Franklin; we are now the state of
I just love the fact that the Revolution is inspiring all
these people to declare themselves independent states.
So in 1784, basically the way
that this works is, you have people living on the
western territories, the western edge of lands that
belong to North Carolina, and they hear that North
Carolina–to contribute to the paying back of war debts–
is going to give up these western lands to the Congress.
I’ve already talked about that
being discussed. So these people in these
western territories say, ‘Oh, great.
Well, if the lands are being
given up to Congress, then we’re kind of
independent.’ So they petition Congress and
say, ‘Fine. Then we are now the independent
state of Franklin. Recognize us as a new state.’
And they begin drafting their
own constitution, I think in 1785.
We’re an independent state and
now we’re going to have a new republican constitution.
Some western territories of
Virginia discussed joining the state of Franklin.
There was some discussion of
the Cherokee being accepted into the state of Franklin.
So we have a little brewing new
state happening here in North Carolina.
The problem is North Carolina
took back their cession of western lands.
There was a whole flurry of
controversy about this issue, and were other states giving up
their land? Yes, no, we don’t know–so
North Carolina said, ‘Well, forget it,
whatever. We’re not–You’re not getting
the land.’ This now left the people of the
state of Franklin in a state of limbo, and they petitioned to
Congress and asked, ‘Well, please give us
statehood. We don’t know what’s happening
with all this land stuff but hey, we’re here drafting a
constitution. Give us statehood.’
And ultimately Congress didn’t
really act concerning the state of Franklin,
and it’s North Carolina that ultimately dealt with the
question and suppressed the problem.
There’s a–When I was poking
around, researching this this morning,
I found some book– I think it’s called something
like The Lost State of Franklin–
and it’s like the lost city of Atlantis.
The lost state of Franklin had
this little tiny moment of almost existing and then
“poof,” it was put out.
So faced by the seeming
dismemberment of states, faced by at least discussion of
a state joining the British during the war,
Congress has not–we have not seen a lot of action here on the
part of the Congress. Now in these cases,
Congress, just couldn’t muster the interest or the energy to
act on behalf of these individual states.
In other cases,
Congress actually did respond, but it had no power to do
anything other than observe and report and advise.
So for example,
during the early 1780s there was a boundary dispute between
Pennsylvania and New York, and the Congress actually
appointed a committee to investigate the issue,
and the committee actually reported a decision about where
they thought the boundary should fall.
So there is a case in which
Congress acts and says, ‘Okay.
This is where the boundary
should be.’ End of controversy,
you would think, but of course no.
Because in 1784,
despite the fact that Congress had supposedly decided the
issue, Pennsylvania sent someone to
New York to investigate the issue,
and this is the letter of introduction sent to introduce
this Pennsylvanian agent to New York’s governor.
Quote: “it becomes our
Duty to be prepared in the best manner we can,
for opposing attempts that threaten the Honor,
the Peace & the wellfare of
This is a vaguely threatening
letter. So Congress has done what it
thinks it’s supposed to do, but it has no power to enforce
it. It’s just said,
‘Yeah, we think the boundary is here,’ and Pennsylvania
basically says, ‘We don’t really care.
We’re going to go to New York
and fight it out with them and figure out where the boundary
is.’ So here it’s almost as though
Congress has not acted. Their ruling is almost
irrelevant here. So clearly we’re seeing some of
the problems inherent in Congress just not being able to
enforce decisions. With no central control of
finance, no effective way for Congress
to overcome state rivalries, interstate commerce,
all these things are sort of brewing up.
Logically, interstate commerce
between states becomes a big issue in the 1780s.
I’m not going to go into it in
great detail here, but we will be seeing soon that
ultimately it’s problems of interstate trade and
complications between dozens of separate sort of systems set up
between different states to trade that ultimately really
helps lead to what becomes the Constitutional Convention.
Again, things that are sort
of–You can hearken right back to the Revolution.
People are worried about
shipping and control of shipping, customs duties,
control of trade. It makes sense that states
would be feeling sensitive about surrendering any control for
those sorts of things to some kind of a centralized power.
So again, logically enough
that’s going to continue to be an issue,
and ultimately becomes a big enough issue that it leads to a
series of steps that gets us to the Constitutional Convention.
So we’ve seen so far a little
cluster of different kinds of problems affiliated with the
Articles of Confederation. Many of these came into play in
what was essentially– for many at the time at
least–a low point for the Confederation Congress,
that took place in September of 1786,
and that’s Shays’ Rebellion. It’s a controversy that ended
up being a great PR tool for extreme nationalists who really
wanted to reform the Articles of Confederation.
In September of 1786,
farmers in Massachusetts began to protest about the fact that
their property was being seized because they were unable to pay
off their debts and were unable to pay state taxes.
And at first,
many of these Massachusetts farmers protested in kind of a
traditional way, and we’ve seen these ways
before. They wrote petitions.
Then when they didn’t feel like
their petitions were being listened to, they staged sort of
ritualistic demonstrations. When these didn’t work,
however, the farmers began to murmur that their petitions were
not being respected by their government,
that they were being forced against their will to pay unfair
taxes. Sound familiar?
These are Revolution-era
complaints that are coming back; it just happens to be against
the government of Massachusetts. So here you see people in
Massachusetts– these farmers–are making a
pretty strong statement about how they think government should
work and about the importance of popular sovereignty.
So feeling that they’re being
repressed and disrespected– their liberty is under attack,
their property under attack, their political voice being
ignored– these farmers began to take
more drastic action. Now, a large number of these
protestors were led by a revolutionary war officer named
Daniel Shays. And Daniel Shays actually was
followed by roughly 1,100 debt-ridden farmers.
Shays and his followers
criticized their creditors and merchants in general as a rising
aristocracy bent on depriving them of their liberties.
They marched on the courts of
Massachusetts and ultimately closed them, demanding that the
state legislature respond to their demands.
In response to these
actions–these upset farmers closing down the courts–
the Confederation Congress called out 800 Massachusetts
militiamen to suppress the revolt.
The problem is,
the militia refused to act because they sympathized with
the farmers. Okay, bad plan, didn’t work.
So now the local militia is
entirely disregarding a request for national defense from what’s
acting as the national government at the time.
Congress next responded by
requesting roughly half a million dollars from the states
to raise a special force of men to crush the rebellion.
And only Virginia responded,
little Virginia. ‘Okay.
We’ll contribute a little bit of money.’
No one else responded.
Congress could not even raise
money to suppress an internal rebellion.
So New England is moving into
becoming up in arms, and Congress is trying twice
now to do something and can’t. In the end, a number of the
established elite in Massachusetts–
lawyers, particularly merchants, wealthy merchants–
were forced to come up with their own solution.
So many of the wealthiest
merchants in Massachusetts, and some of these lawyers,
raised their own money and created their own private army
to suppress the rebellion of several thousand men.
So they funded their own army
to suppress the rebellion. Now, with the history of the
Revolution as hindsight, what do you think would happen
when these rebellious farmers feel that a hostile army is
descending on them to steal their liberties and crush–
You’re already laughing.
they’re going to just fold and go home.
They became more rebellious. Right?
Now they’re staging guerrilla
raids against prominent merchants and office holders,
trying to overthrow what they saw as the oppressive government
of the state, and ultimately there were
several battles between the private army and the
Massachusetts farmers. About fifty of the farmers were
wounded or killed, a few dozen of the private
armed force men were wounded or killed as well.
And all of this trouble ended
in roughly 1787 when an economic upturn made some of the farmers’
debts easier to pay, and many of the farmers began
to see that surrounding states were not particularly thrilled
with the idea of Massachusetts going up in arms.
So some of these farmers fled,
rather than face whatever they feared the consequences might
be. They went some of them to the
north, some of them to the west. This is my favorite random
factoid about Shays’ Rebellion. Guess where Daniel Shays went?
He fled Massachusetts.
He went to the independent
republic of Vermont. [laughter]
If I were writing the story, I would have made him go to the
independent republic of Vermont. Okay.
So Shays’ Rebellion shook a lot
of people, but it was really upsetting to
people who had doubts about the powers of the Confederation
government because it seemed to throw a really harsh light on
the Congress and how defenseless it was to maintain order.
And this was not the only
uprising or the only potential uprising even in this period
that particularly these nationalists found so upsetting.
I’m going to mention only two
here– two potential military
uprisings–and in this case, both of these took place as the
Continental Army was beginning to disband.
One of them ends up becoming
known as the Newburgh Conspiracy because it takes place in
Newburgh, New York. And the Newburgh Conspiracy
consisted of a group of disgruntled Army officers who
got tired of waiting for Congress to grant them their
pensions– because of course Congress has
no way to grant them their pensions.
So in 1783 they formed a plan
that they would refuse to disband as an army unless they
were granted their pensions. So there’s the vague threat of
a coup basically from this group of officers in Newburgh.
‘We’re going to stay here and
we’re going to remain a little army unless you give us our
pensions and if you don’t, then we’ll see what happens.’
What ultimately stopped this?
Again not the Congress.
a little George Washington moment.
George Washington personally
stopped the Newburgh Conspiracy, and this shows you the real
power of George Washington. He goes to Newburgh.
It’s like: ‘Oh, boy.
I’ve got to go deal with the
officers at Newburgh. This is looking ugly.’
He goes in person and he stands
up to address the assembled officers who are getting ready
to potentially stage a coup and he’s trying to plead with them,
‘please don’t do this, this is not in–
for the good of the country.’ But before he even really has a
chance to argue anything, he reaches in his pocket to get
out his glasses so that he can read something that he’s written
and he says– as he is great–another example
of great sort of theater on the part of George Washington.
He takes the glasses out and as
he puts them on he says, ‘Excuse me, gentlemen,
but I’ve grown not only gray but blind in the service of my
country,’ and the officers start to cry.
[laughs] We’re sorry.’
End of Newburgh Conspiracy. [laughter]
It was just the magic of George Washington’s glasses.
That was it.
The man knew how to stage a
So that does actually fold the
Newburgh Conspiracy. There is another sort of mini,
semi-revolt that takes place in 1783 involving Pennsylvania
soldiers. Congress disbands this
particular group of Pennsylvania soldiers in 1783 and sends them
home with no payment of any kind.
We can’t pay you right now.
We’ll get back to you.’
This does not thrill these
particular soldiers. They hear that they’ve been
dismissed from the Army. They hear that nothing’s going
to get done about their pay. A few hundred of them marched
to Philadelphia and barricaded members of the Confederation
Congress in the state house, sticking their bayonets through
the windows and making threatening gestures.
[laughter] ‘Pay us, now.’
So this was not thrilling to
the Confederation Congress. There was kind of a standoff
where there’s armed guys with bayonets surrounding the state
house, and Confederation Congressmen
in the state house not knowing what to do.
This sort of sputters to a
close when several Congressmen walked outside and just left and
no one did anything to them. They were just like:
‘bye,’–and everyone realized okay, these guys actually really
don’t want to hurt us; they’re just making a point.
End of semi-coup,
slash, rebellion in Pennsylvania.
However, Congress was so thrown
by this that they decided Princeton might be a better
place to meet from then on, and so they temporarily moved
to Princeton, New Jersey, rather than stay in
Philadelphia because Philadelphia had just become
scary. It’s worth mentioning–I should
actually mention that both of these events really strongly
reinforced the prevailing Whig distrust of standing armies.
Look at what happens when you
have a standing army sitting around.
They can’t help themselves;
they’re always threatening to overturn the government.
So this reinforces fears of
standing armies for certain–for a while to come.
But certainly all of these
incidents are really fueling the fears and the anxieties and the
concerns of these extreme nationalists who already are
feeling that these Articles of Confederation are not strong
enough, and now look what’s happening
as the 1780s are unfolding. As Alexander Hamilton would
write in The Federalist No. 21–and again he’s writing
in The Federalist, which means he really wants
to make a point– he wrote: “Who can
determine what might have been the issue of Massachusetts’
convulsions, if the malcontents had been
headed by a Caesar or a Cromwell?
Who can predict what effect a
despotism, established in Massachusetts,
would have upon the liberties of New Hampshire or Rhode
Island, of Connecticut or New
York?” The problem to men like
Hamilton and other really strong nationalists was that Americans
seemed to be so focused on their individual interests,
on their states, on their homes,
that they had seemingly forgotten how to think about
themselves as Americans, as a united people.
This concept would be at the
core of the debate over the Constitution.
Would it be possible–if
somehow the states could agree that it was necessary to
strengthen their central government–
to devise some kind of government that would actually
be acceptable to all thirteen states?
Were there enough common bonds?
Could Americans only be defined
when pitted against enemies? Was there no American identity
in and of itself, and was it enough to really
hold people together in some kind of unified government?
And during the battle to ratify
the Constitution in 1788, Hamilton stated just that very
fact. He said the real question was
about who and what were Americans.
Speaking to the New York
ratifying convention, he said, “It has been
asserted, that the interests,
habits and manners of the Thirteen States are different;
and hence it is inferred, that no general free government
can suit them. This diversity of habits …
has been a favorite theme with
those who are disposed for a division of our empire;
and, like many other popular objections, seems to be founded
on fallacy. I acknowledge,
that the local interests of the states are in some degree
I guess so–“and that
there is some difference in their manners and habits:
But this I will presume to affirm;
that, from New Hampshire to Georgia,
the people of America are as uniform in their interests and
manners, as those of any country
established in Europe.” So basically Hamilton’s
arguing: we are a common people. When you compare us with
Europe, look at all of the similarities between us.
And we need a common government
to join us, an American government.
This is really the theme of the
nationalists who took the lead in moving the nation towards the
Constitutional Convention. Now before I conclude this
lecture, I do want to mention one thing.
I was going to mention it a
little earlier when I was talking about Shays’ Rebellion
and forgot, but I can’t resist adding it in
only because it’s another little Yale moment,
and I’m always looking for Yale moments in the Revolution,
and this is another one. It’s just a random little thing
that I found, but I thought it was
interesting. It makes me realize that to be
the President of Yale during the Revolution was no fun.
I think Ezra Stiles–This was
just–It couldn’t have been fun for Ezra Stiles.
This is actually from 17–early
in 1787 and what it–what I found was a letter from Stiles
to George Washington. And what the letter says is one
of my– actually two of my students or
one of my students– two of my students–okay,
two of my students just arrived here from Massachusetts,
and they were caught by Shays’ rebels who kept them there for a
while, but the students spied and they
saw how many men they were. Basically, these two Yale
students are on their way from Massachusetts here,
and they get caught by Shays’ rebels,
and while they’re there, they try and scope things out
and then they come back and they report to Stiles like:
‘okay, there’s roughly 2,500 men.’
They become little war
strategists. And Stiles writes to George
Washington and says: ‘Okay.
Let me give you the update on
the Shays’ rebels.’ And he has this whole letter
with numbers and he draws a little map: ‘here’s where I
think they are’– all from these Yale students
who got captured by Shays’ rebels.
I love that letter because it
means Shays’ Rebellion is not something that–
everyone knows about Shays’ Rebellion,
but the Yale connection with Shays’ Rebellion?
That was news to me,
and the fact that this particular one guy who–
student who estimates how many troops were there–
Stiles calls him “a young gentleman of solidity and good
information”– he’s the guy who I guess did
counting and estimating. So there were Yale students
informing George Washington about the nature of Shays’
Rebellion and how many men were involved.
The last thing that I’ll
mention before we run out of time here again was another
random document that I found, but I thought it was
interesting because I think we tend to think of the Shays’
rebels as crazy farmers with pitchforks.
‘I hate taxes!’
And the fact is,
these actually were people with principles and ideas.
They happened to be protesting,
but they weren’t crazy people with pitchforks.
And what I found was one of the
generals, one of the people sort of
leading the rebels, wrote a statement to
Massachusetts basically asking them to eliminate the private
army– but I wanted to read it to you
because it gives you a sense of some of the rationale and the
feelings behind some of these Shays’ rebels.
It’s dated January 25,1787:
“Head Quarters, West Springfield.”
Again, really gives you a sense
of how the rebels envision themselves.
“The body of the people
assembled in arms” —
which is they themselves–“adhering to
the first principles of natural self-preservation,–
do, in the most peremptory manner, demand …
That the troops in Springfield
lay down their arms … That their arms be deposited in
the public stores, under the care of the proper
officers, to be returned to the owners at
the termination of the present contests …
That the troops return to their
homes upon parole.” Signed, “Luke Day,
Captain Commandant of this division.”
That’s by one of the rebels.
So I read that only because it
kind of gets us past the crazy farmer guys with pitchfork
image– that these were people really
who had a sense of principle, and again a principle you can
just hear in the language that I read there,
inspired and driven by the Revolution that they had just
been through. In their mind it’s all part of
the same fight, but you can hear,
just in that language, if people are associating
what’s happening in the 1780s to what happened in the Revolution,
and if the Revolution is the story of government overturned,
again, you can see why these nationalists would have been so
disconcerted and so upset by what they saw unfolding in the
They’d already seen a pretty
major government get overturned with this kind of action during
the Revolution. Now we’ve instituted this
government and we see some of the same kind of behavior
happening again. So what we’re going to hear in
the next couple of lectures is people discussing what needs to
happen. Not everybody thinks that this
is the sign of a horrible, horrendous crisis but,
boy, the people who really felt that the Articles was a
problematic government were very loud,
and over time they become very united in thinking that there’s
a serious problem about the center of government in the new
nation. I will stop there.
I will see you on Tuesday.
Have a good weekend.