We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution
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We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution

August 26, 2019


>>Good afternoon everyone I would like to
well come to you to the McGowan Theater located in the National Archives building in Washington, DC. I am Doug Swanson visitor services manager for the National Archives Museum as
well as producer for the noontime lecture series. Before we begin today’s program I
would like to remind you of a couple other programs, on Thursday October 26 at 7 p.m.,
we will hold the second annual McGowan forum on ethics the challenge of big data. A panel
of writers, corporate leaders and government officials will discuss the ethical responsibility
of those who compile and track personal data. October 30th, noon, Joseph James will discuss
his book: Documents that change the way we live, and a book signing will follow that
program. To find out more about these please visit our website at WWW.archives.gov/calendar.
You will find printed materials about upcoming programs in the theater lobby. Our topic for
today is We Have not a Government, the Articles of Confederation and the road to the Constitution
by Dr. George William Van Cleve, the doctor is research professor in law and history at
the Seattle university of law school. He has a Ph.D. in history from the University of
Virginia and a J. D. from Harvard Law School. He is the author of We Have Not a Government,
and has written on the Constitution and slavery in an earlier book. He has also published
a dozen book chapters and law and history journal articles. He has taught as adjunct
faculty member at University of Virginia and for law schools he has previously been honored
as honorary visiting professor at University of Kent Canterbury UK. Please join me welcoming
Dr. George William Van Cleve to the National Archives. (APPLAUSE)>>Good afternoon. First of all, let me thank
you for coming today. I appreciate it. And I’d like to thank Doug Swanson for the kind
introduction. The National Archives is one of our nation’s most valuable institutions
I am honored to have a chance to talk with you here about my book We Have Not a Government.
Before I begin the talk I want to say just a few words of thanks to the folks who supported
me over the several years that it took to research and write this book. Particularly,
my wife Mary and my family whose love and support were really indispensable to the workufoff , Dr. Max Edling of the UK, and the late Richard Beeman, whose book book, Plain Honest Men, about the constitutional convention was
helpful to me in planning my book that you ‑‑ that I am going to talk about today. So, let
me start with a quick overview of the book. In 1783 the United States had just triumphed
in the Revolutionary War that victory was won under a central government formed by the
articles of confederation. I am going to call that government the confederation in the talk
today. The confederation was fairly popular then few people wanted to make major changes in it just four years later in 1787 the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention jettisoned the confederation
government for a radically different government under our current Constitution it was dramatically more powerful. Many people were shocked and unhappy when this happened. How and why
did that happen? My book answers those questions. On a personal note I started working on this
book a few years ago because of an argument between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison
that I just could not understand. It turns out in 1783 when Alexander Hamilton was in
congress he had been sent there he thought to try to get congress to authorize a national
convention to reform the Articles of Confederation. His main opponent was James Madison. And I
just could not understand why Hamilton and Madison who four years later were firm allies
in the ‑‑ creating the Constitutional Convention and Hamilton was enormously instrumental
in getting the convention authorized in New York, as my book discusses in detail, I could not
understand why these people had been complete opponents four years earlier. That was really
the reason I began the research for this book. One of the things that my book does is to
explain why that took place. Now, the conventional wisdom about politics in this period was it
was mostly economic class warfare, it pitted wealthy men against emerging popular state
movements seeking greater political and economic equality. In that view the 1787 constitution
was really a conservative counter revolution intended to suppress those popular movements.
My book argues instead that the post war period is best viewed as a tale of the failures of
the confederation. Often due to sectional conflicts, or state self interest. Which led
to a political crisis. Here is a quick preview of my answers about why the articles were
discarded. The period just after the Revolutionary War was a period of major political disruption,
it was a period of severe economic recession. It was a time of sharp sectional conflict.
And it was a time of considerable social unrest. The confederation and the 13‑state governments
faced extremely difficult challenges in responding to these major stresses on the United States.
The confederation became stalmated on many major issues that faced it during this period
it was unable to enforce its laws and treaties. many states did little better the 1787 constitution
was a direct response to these government failures. It was a success for people such
as George Washington who had been advocating major reforms since the end of the Revolutionary
War not a counter revolution. Please join me now in taking a closer look at this tumultuous
period. And today unfortunately my time is such that I will only be able to give some
illustrations of the kinds of issues that I discuss in my book. But I think it’s fair
to say that I cover pretty much the major ground in the book itself. So, the Articles
of Confederation let me talk a little bit about the articles to begin with for those
who are not that familiar with them. It was the first constitution for the United States.
They were adopted in 1781 toward the close of the Revolutionary War they created a central
government which was a loose affiliation of the 13 states. The articles provided central
government had very limited powers. Primarily over peace and war. They created a one house
congress. Each state had one equal vote in congress. There was no separate executive
as such ‑‑ such as a president that we have now. There was no separate judiciary.
Congress was really intended to be the governing body for the confederation. Confederation
fiscal and military legislation had to be adopted by a vote of at least 9 states remember
there were 13 states that means any one section of the country could probably block most fiscal
and military legislation if it was unhappy about it. Confederation had no tax powers.
Instead, if if it needed money it had to ask the states for it, congress would send each
state a bill called a requisition that required the state to pay its share of money to cover United States expenses such as Army. And the confederation have very very limited commerce powers. One final feature you should know about is any changes to its powers required the consent
of all 13 states. If any one state objected, the confederation could not receive new or
different powers. Now, in 1783 many people thought the confederation was the perfect
central government for a republic composed of a series of state republics. All in all
it was a government that intentionally protected popular liberty by making it virtually impossible
to create a tyrannical central government. Most Americans saw the British empire at the
time as the prime example of ‑‑ prime example of oppressive government they wanted
to avoid copying it at all costs and the confederation was the result. Now the confederation governed
the United States during the Revolutionary War. To many people it seemed the United States
had triumphed gloriously in the war. But if we look more closely at the war we can see victory had
been purchased at a very high price. The revolutionary was was costly in human and economic terms.
Historians estimate that in the war, 25 to 35,000 American soldiers died in battle in
prison of disease or wounds. By way of comparison that would be the equivalent of 3 million
Americans dying today. So, you can see that the war had a very large impact throughout
American society it caused widespread misery. By its end thousands of families were permanently disrupted by harsh its realities, including death, disability, rape, separations, flight and impoverishment. Some families lost more than one member in the war. Mary Jones wrote to her brother from South Carolina that both of her sons were killed by the British before
she was driven away she wrote: I was very much distressed. The war caused significant
infrastructure damage and major economic losses as well. Entire towns were burned by the British.
A British officer justified the burning of Fairfield Connecticut including its churches
as a way to cause quote: A general terror and dispondency, unquote. Roughly 100,000
British and American troops United States has about 3 million people at the time lived
off of farmer’s crops and goods sometimes paying for them but often plundering them.
America’s valuable export trade collapsed. At the end of the war the confederation was $40 million
in debt. In 1783 though most Americans thought that the war had been worth it after all the
United States was independent. And it had obtained massive new western territories from
Great Britain in the Paris peace treaty of 1783 Americans expected they would quickly
settle the west and become a Continental empire as one prominent leader wrote in a widely
read 1783 sermon: It is probable within a century from our independence the sun will
shine on 50 million of inhabitants of the United States. This will be a great a very
great nation equal to half of Europe. It quickly became clear however that these hopes would
be dashed as we will see in a few minutes. Worse yet the war was followed by a severe
economic recession. Most economic historians think it was the worst economic conditions until the great depression of 1929. Consumer prices over the next several years actually fell on a average more than 16% land prices and rents also fell
sharply. Thousands of people lost their jobs and homes as a result. Interest rates skyrocketed
exports remained very depressed throughout the 1780s one final economic fact you should know
state taxes went up sharply as a result of the war they were often three to five times
higher than pre‑war taxes. Most of the increased taxes were intended to pay war debt. Both
economic hardships caused by the recession and these large tax increases became sources of major social unrest during the mid 1780s. The war had important political effect it democratized society in a number of ways and split American leaders
views of what the future should hold for the government of the United States. By 1783
some leaders thought that the confederation had done a very good job running the war.
They didn’t see any real reason to make major changes in the confederation. They thought
tinkering would solve future problems I will called them federalists with a fall f because
they believed in the idea of federation that under lay the Articles of Confederation. They included men such as Samuel Adams, the famous Boston revolutionary. Congressmen such as Eldrige Jerry of Massachusetts, Arthur Lee and Richard
Henry Lee of Virginia. They believed giving the confederation additional powers, especially of taxation was unnecessary and dangerous. They feared central taxation would create a peace time
standing Army. As Richard Henry Lee said give the purse and the sword will follow. The Army
in turn would foster rule by aristocracy or new monarchy in these men’s view. That explains
why Massachusetts political leader Tristam Dalton wrote to congressman Jerry quote: Can it be supposed
that the people of the Northern states can ever admit without horror the idea of consequences
naturally flowing from a standing Army? He continues: If any of the United States acquiesce
in this scheme they are formed for slaves. So you can see they felt extremely strongly
that taxation would lead to standing Army and for that reason alone, it was essential
to oppose granting the central government power over taxation. Other leaders, however,
felt by 1783 the confederation had done a poor job conducting the war. They believed
and Hamilton would be an example they needed major reforms to be effective government.
I will call them nationalists this is the traditional terminology used they included
George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and many prominent military Veterans and merchants.
Washington, in particular, had strong feelings about the need for reform. He quote quote:
No man in the United States is or can be more deeply impressed with the necessity of
a reform in our present confederation than myself. For to the defect thereof and want
of powers in congress, may justly be ascribed the prolongation of the war. More than half
the perplexities I have experienced in the course of my command and the almost the whole of the
difficulties and distress of the army have their origin here. So, Washington really saw
the confederation government as having prolonged the war which meant more soldiers died and
more people had been pulled away from their families unnecessarily. He was very, very
unhappy with the confederation. From 1783 onward Washington and many nationalists were convinced if the confederation was not fundamentally reformed, given greater powers, such as taxation the union would eventually collapse. And understand
this is a critical point. Washington was firmly convinced by the end of the war, that unless
the government was made stronger, it was just a question of time until the United States
fell apart. If that happens smaller regional confederations would then form we know during
this period serious consideration was given to setting up smaller confederations because
they would be weaker in Washington’s view the United States would be invaded or the
small confederations would begin a Civil War against each other ‑‑ with each other
with the result that a dictatorship might be created. Federalists denied this danger
existed. Now, let’s turn to the confederation and the states and see how they dealt with
the post‑war problems they confronted in this turbulent political and economic climate
created by the war. The overarching problems with a the massive war dead $40 million at
the time. Everybody agreed that the debts needed to be paid but they disagreed how they
should be paid some people felt the requisition system would work other people wanted to sell
national lands and another group wanted to give the confederation tax power. As events
turned out, the confederation requisition system was a complete failure. The states
paid about 30% of the money that congress asked them to pay during the period from 1781
to 1787. As a result the confederation ran a deficit throughout that period and the national
debt grew throughout that period. So, the confederation requisition system wasn’t going
to work congress then asked the states to agree to give the confederation limited tax
powers. Power to impose a 5% import tax and agreement that each state would supply a fixed
amount of money to congress each year. For the next four years the states fought about
whether or not they were willing to give this power to congress. As it turned out, several
states were making money off of the fact that congress did not have tax power. New York
State in particular had its own import tax it was providing more than half the money
in the New York budget and a lot of it was being paid by people from Connecticut and
New Jersey New York loved a state import tax it would lose that tax. The New York
legislature refused over and over again to allow congress to be given any import tax
power. And very few of the states were willing to provide the supplemental taxes that congress
had asked for. I don’t have time today to talk about the fact it also was a complete
failure to try to sell the western lands that the United States had. The expectation that
that would work at the time was unrealistic to begin with but Native American resistance
among other things was significant part of the reason why very little money was raised
that way. But western migration continued during the time that this was going on. And
to give you an example of how massive this migration was by 1790 the frontier areas that now comprise the states of Kentucky and Tennessee ‑‑ alone had more than 100,000
residents they had a population nearly as large as the states of Rhode Island and Delaware
combined. So this is a massive movement of people that begins immediately
after the war. And some of this migration is legal and some of it is people squatting
on confederation lands and the confederation can’t do anything about it. The leaders in
the east are uniformly concerned about this western migration because they are losing
tax revenue to people who are never going to pay taxes in the west and they are concerned
these people are going to break off from the United States and become part of either the
British empire or the Spanish empire. Which is exactly what Britain and Spain want to
have happen. And the reason we know this is what they want to have happen is they are
providing covert military aid to Native Americans who are resisting westward expansion. So,
their first choice is to make sure that the United States can’t expand westward and failing
that, they want to do what the Spanish did that is to try to bribe American leaders so
they will become part of the Spanish empire. As I say, there is a western migration moving,
congress can’t agree what to do about it and can’t control it. Leaders are very concerned
about it. The British went be beyond just providing military aid they kept forts in
the west and allowed native American tribes to use them as military bases which was very,
very helpful. In fact, American Army leaders were convinced as long as the British kept
the forts the Native Americans would never honor a treaty with the United States they
could continue military resistance. This is all going on at the same time that the confederation
is going broke. The Spanish however I think have the cleverest plan for how to resist
American expansion. Here is what they do. 1784 they announce that they are closing the
Mississippi river you know just a small western river nobody particularly cares about they
are going to close it to Americans. Not to anybody else just Americans. Okay? And then
they do what I think was a really, really shrewd thing and they send Don Diego Garcia
to the United States with authority to negotiate a trade treaty. And the way the trade treaty
will work the United States will be able to sell fish and things like that to Spain
as long as it agrees that the Mississippi river will stay closed to Americans. So, Garcia
shows up, and New England congressmen think this is a great plan. They don’t want people
migrating west to begin with, they really want to sell fish to Spain, right? So for
them, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain from this plan. Meanwhile, Patrick
Henry, the governor of Virginia, most of the south realize if the Mississippi river remains
closed it’s pointless to expand to the southwest. Because you cannot run a profitable farm if
you cannot ship the products down the Mississippi river. So, this splits congress in two. And
congress holds a dozen separate votes that break down completely sectional lines over
the treaty and this impasse which finally takes place in 1786 is still occurring when
the Philadelphia convention meets and the river is still closed when the Philadelphia
convention meets and the confederation cannot do anything whatsoever about this. Okay? So,
to quickly summarize, the confederation ran into a series of major problems, and was really
unable to combat them either because of sectional conflict of which there were massive amounts
during this period or because state self interest. Meanwhile, in the states economic conditions
are such that there are massive popular demands for economic relief. And today I won’t have
time to go through this in detail suffice it to say there was tax relieve granted debt
relief granted several states printed paper money some of that became controversial because
it caused near riots in Rhode Island as least. But the states by and large granted economic
relief. The big exception was Massachusetts where the Massachusetts legislature just knew
better. It did not think that it needed to provide any economic relieve even though the
farmers were probably ‑‑ had probably the worst economic conditions of anyone in
the country, many of them Revolutionary War Veterans. So they decided that they were going
to block the courts from operating that became Shays’ Rebellion, which took place in 1786. They effectively shut down the Massachusetts court system. The government couldn’t collect taxes, Private creditors couldn’t collect debts and eventually the state sent troops in to quell
the rebellion. It wasn’t difficult to do but it really, really bothered the Massachusetts
conservatives up until then they believed in the legislature told people that the law
was X, that people were going to do X that’s what it meant to be part of a represent public
you obeyed the law. When they realized that if the government’s policies were unpopular
enough there might be armed rebellion they may not be able to do anything about it they
decided they needed a stronger central government. And so the Massachusetts legislature went
from opposing the Philadelphia convention to supporting the Philadelphia convention
in New England Shays’ Rebellion was popular. In the south they didn’t want a stronger confederation
but people were concerned western expansion was blocked and they were subjected to Native
American at being attacks. They supported a stronger central government but for completely
different reasons. Okay. Now, this sort of summarizes
where things stood at the time the Philadelphia convention began what I want to talk about
in the last part of the talk how the Constitution addresses the problems that the confederation
had. Okay? Because that’s really what the Constitution is intended to do first and foremost
intended to be a direct response to the failures that people thought characterized the confederation.
 Because at this point I should just say before I start talking about the Constitution
itself, there was a very, very long list of confederation failures to the point where
congressman Rufus King one of the opponents of the Philadelphia convention wrote to his
colleague Eldridge Jerry: The people generally throughout the confederation remark that we are at a
crisis. That’s, I think, a fair summary of the way people felt by the end of 1786 about
things. The main causes of failure was sectional conflicts, state self interest. And very
important to realize that this means the confederation could not have avoided its failures for the
kinds of reasons that are so popular in the United States today as explanations for political
gridlock. It would not have made any difference if the confederation had better leadership
or less partisanship it would not have made difference in they altered different policies
because when all was said and done the confederation’s deepest problem it could not enforce its own
laws and treaties. It completely lacked the ability to enforce its laws and since the
government’s ability to enforce its laws is essential attribute of sovereignty it’s fair
to conclude the confederation was not a sovereign government that was George Washington’s overarching basis for believing that the confederation reform was essential. They needed powers to be sovereign
or it would collapse. And it’s important to understand this wasn’t a matter of political
speculation Washington thought of it as the uniform lesson that you should draw from political
history if you did not have government that could exercise sovereignty it was just a question
of time until it would fall apart. As he wrote to John Jay in mid 1786 before Shays’ Rebellion
began: Experience taught us that men will not adopt and carry into execution measures
the best calculated for their own good without the intervention of a coercive power. I do
not conceive we can exist long as a nation without having lodged somewhere a power which
will pervade the whole union in as energetic a matter ‑‑ manner as the authority of
the different state governments extends over the several states. 
So, Washington’s ultimate critique of the confederation was simply that it did not have
the authority to enforce its own laws and treaties. And the book my book contains a
whole series of examples of the confederation’s inability to do this and the consequences
that that had. Okay. Now, the Philadelphia convention which acted nearly unanimously
made a bold proposal for effective national sovereign that would have full authority and
necessary resources to enforce its decisions over the objections of any individual state
or section the new government would possess independent powers over taxation, national
defense and commerce. The proposal also imposed major some said devastating new limits on
state powers they included a ban on state paper money, debt relief compared to the confederation the convention
called for the national government that was almost staggeringly powerful. The radical
nature of the convention proposal shocked at least some perhaps even many leaders. It
was an intersectional elite grand bargain. That is a bargain that resolved all major
out standing issues in one package. Except as part of such a grand bargain, it is very
likely that none of the major reforms sought by the country’s different sections would
have been adopted. Taxation wouldn’t have not been adopted commerce powers wouldn’t
have been adopted. After all the convention was held because piecemeal reforms had failed.
It would have been far less politically risky to propose a less powerful government. You
often read today that the convention the Constitution was a form of power grab and over reach. And
there is no question that the people who proposed the Constitution new perfectly well that what
they were doing was going to be as politically controversial as it was possible to be. The
question is: Why did they do that? Was an an arrogant power grab by wealthy men designed
to protect their property? I think it can also be seen as the convention’s collective
judgment that the political risk needed to be taken. And there were objective reasons
by 1787 that made it necessary. To Washington and other nationalists, and to many other
people as well, the dissolution of the union seemed imminent there was significant political
stresses at the time. State free writing expansion European empire efforts to impede and divide
Americans on trade, territory and other matters. Strong sectional jealousies flowing from severe
economic and political conflicts and increasingly bitter interstate issues over trade, taxes
paper money and debt. These mounting strains on unity and the confederation’s insolvency and persistent stalemates persuasively supported the belief that creating a national sovereign was imperative. Once
it decided to create a sovereign the convention needed to develop a proposal that could end stalemate government. Its solution was to provide broad power sharing the convention shared control of the government’s
powers by limiting equal state voting to the senate, and re-distributing house of representatives and presidential voting power among the states
according to population. That reallocation of voting strength made new distribution of national
political power a considerably more accurate reflection of the relative population and
hence of the wealth of the states. That had the important effect of increasing the influence
of the national majority will in the new government’s affairs which increased its legitimacy. Power
sharing had fundamental important effects made it politically possible to confer major
powers on the national government independent tax military and commerce powers. These new
substantive powers accommodated both north and Northern and southern sections top reform
priorities. As the book shows, in fact New England and the Mid‑Atlantic states were the ones
that wanted the commerce power the south feared and opposed the commerce power. The southern
states wanted the federal government to have tax authority and as we discussed earlier
many of the states north of them did not want the tax power. Power sharing allowed the avoidance
of sectional vetoes over the use of the new powers that existed under the Articles of
Confederation. It’s important to understand the new powers can be exercised by majority
vote you do not have the sectional veto that existed under the articles that required 9
states to support most significant proposals. The new power sharing arrangements with the
states and section wiliness to confer new powers on the central government were at the heart of ending stalemate government. Moreover, power sharing also politically and enabled the convention to create a workable path for the enforcement of national laws.
Law enforcement would occur directly against citizens in most cases that meant the new
government would not have to undertake the futile effort to compel obedience from states,
which had been debated six years and no one could figure out how to do enforcing against states without starting a civil war. So, the decision to move law enforcement,
federal laws to individual compliance, was fundamentally important to the federal government’s
ability to function as a sovereign. And that would not have happened that would not have
been agreed to by the convention without power sharing. Proposed constitution’s broad new
military powers with the changed path of law enforcement made the new government a national
sovereign with ample power to govern a continental empire. Washington had achieved his essential
reform goals. He had been a private citizen during this entire period he never stopped
believing that his experience from the war meant that the government needed to be strengthened
and really this is in a sense his vindication The Philadelphia convention reached some compromises concessions to persistent state
jealousy and state sovereignty claims for example under the proposed constitution neither
treaties nor constitutional amendments could be adopted without super majority consent.
The southern states for example received enough senate voting power to block any proposed treaty they
opposed such as the treaty with Spain. Each state received equal voting power in the senate it can’t be changed if any state objects. These compromises would cause significant costs that the country
would have to pay in the future. As I discuss in the book’s epilogue some of the compromises
are negatively affecting our government today. As an elite intersectional bargain it protected
elite property and wealth. Not just creditors right but property in slaves. Patrick Henry attacked the constitution at the Virginia ratifying convention,
it was argued the supporters had Imperial ambitions they were just like the British
Henry said. Henry said they believe quote some way or other we must be a great and mighty
empire we must have an Army and a Navy and a number of things. Unquote. Americans, Henry
argued traditionally believed the main object to government was to protect liberty. Now
he said: The American spirit assisted by the the ropes and chains of consolidation is
about to convert this country to a powerful and mighty empire. Though many people agreed
the failures of the confederation and the state caused American to question the balance liberty
and order. The Constitution was the result. The Constitution created a government that
could foster and protect western expansion. America’s drive westward had some tragic results
for slaves and Native Americans but the Constitution also created a government that was powerful
enough to protect the union ‑‑ excuse me ‑‑ under Abraham Lincoln’s guidance
when southern states insisted in 1860 they had a right to secede. TheThe confederation couldn’t have won the Civil War and ended slavery as the union did for enabling that victory, for freedom alone, we should cherish the Constitution. Even as we work to correct its flaws. Thank you. (APPLAUSE)
>>I will be happy to answer questions but I need to ask you if you would like to ask
a question you have to come to one of the microphones there is one here and one over
here the reason for this, this is being closed captioned and the caption people can’t do
the close caption work if they can’t hear you. So, anybody who would like to ask questions
feel free but please use the microphone. By the way I am happy to stay here as long as
you want to answer questions. Yes, sir?>>Thank you very much fascinating talk and
I  ‑‑ so many details to it I feel like I have to read your book.
>>Well, I hope that you will find that the book supplies all of the details that you
need>>Thank you. One point though that I didn’t
hear enough about just now was the issue of land ownership, land rights, and you said
there was massive recession. The usual result of recessions is that debt on farmland, et cetera,
is crashes the farmer’s ability to continue to own it. It’s bought at that point by you
know land has been consolidated into massive holdings by small amount of land owners. How
big is this problem ‑‑ I consider it a problem ‑‑ in a switch to the new Constitution?
>>I think you are right to describe the normal sort of economic process. Recession will cause
land prices to fall and they fell dramatically here. And there were places where you couldn’t
sell land for love or money. But the consolidation process that you are describing didn’t occur
because very often state governments granted economic relief of one kind or another. And
because people in some cases abandoned land and moved west. But the ‑‑ probably the
primary reason why that kind of consolidation doesn’t take place many of the major land
openers many of them have no cash to use to purchase property. And the states are providing
debt relief and tax relief in some cases land bank ‑‑ land bank loans to farmers to
pay taxes and debts. So, I think that the process that you describe is one that would
normally occur. It does not seem to have occurred here. What you see instead is enormous amounts
of unsold properties sitting on the market. Because nobody particularly wants to buy them.
And every time somebody heads west it gets that much harder to sell the property to anybody
else. Because most people thought there was better land west. And they weren’t going to
have to pay any taxes if they went there the people who moved to Kentucky the western district
of Virginia at the time they didn’t pay taxes they not only got fresh land they didn’t pay
Virginia taxes. So, if they were facing foreclosure or something like that a lot of cases people
said we are moving. So, but good question. Yes, sir?
>>Yes, let me ask you another question I want to thank you first very much for a very
interesting talk. I am not from United States I am from the Caribbean. How do you think although
in the talk you kind of went back and forth between the two ‑‑ I am talking confederation
and U.S. constitution right? And the factors that led into the essence of the United States
and North America right? How do you think that some of the inherent
problems that existed during the time of the confederation, right, continues at present
to haunt the Constitution. That’s the first question second question is obviously during
this time my part of the world the Caribbean plays a significant role. We know Haitians
came up and fought countries came up and fought et cetera, et cetera. But what became extraordinarily
apparent to the founding leaders at that point in time was how important trade was with the
Caribbean. You know, you think basically (inaudible) economic boycott right? How do you see all
of these things continue to play in ‑‑ with the notion for example Jefferson pointed
out that in 1783 don’t hold me I think 1783 Jefferson pointed out United States needed
empire ‑‑ not the empire hemisphere to itself. I am part of the hemisphere I am part
of the people who are he oppressed in the hemisphere (inaudible). But how do you see
these things playing out and what is going on at present. And do you see in the way going
back to all of the discussions to get ourselves to get United States out of debt thank you
very much.>> Well, those are great questions. And in
fairness to other people who want to answer questions, I am going to try to answer the
first question and you and I can talk about the second question later. If that’s all right.
On the first question, my book is an effort to provide people with the tools that they
can use to make their own judgments about how the conditions in 1780s compare to conditions
today. In other words, the book really has two purposes. One is to tell the story of
what happens in the 1780s but the other is to show people how to analyze conditions today
that seem to them to be similar. As a historian, my job is really to do the first of those
two things. And so, in the book, I give in the ‑‑ in the epilogue
I gave an example of what you talk about, equal state voting in the United States senate.
The basic principle the Constitution adopted for allocating power is that it should bear
some reasonable relationship to either the wealth or the population of the areas that
are exerting the power. So that if you think of a monarchy, for example, being the exact
opposite of the principle one person gets to make all decisions for an entire society
the United States Constitution says no we are going to abandon that idea as a legitimate
form of political representation. We think power should be reasonably related to either
wealth or population. Which at the time in the 1780s were roughly the same thing population
was synonymous with wealth. We still have that provision in the Constitution today.
Every state gets the same vote in the United States senate two equal votes right? In 1787 when
that provision was adopted, the largest state Virginia was roughly 12 times as large as
the smallest state Delaware. Today, the largest state California is roughly 65 times as large
as the smallest state Wyoming. I don’t see how you can defend the continuation of equal
voting for all states. I don’t see how you can defend it as being consistent with the
underlying principle of representation that I think the Constitution is intended to adopt.
That’s my own personal view. I am sure that I could find plenty of people especially in
places like Wyoming who would insist that I was completely wrong about that. But here
is what you ‑‑ what I think and here is what I say in the epilogue this is the
kind of things Americans need to give serious thought to. The reason for the Constitution
is the people thought the country would fall apart if we didn’t fix some of the things
that were not getting addressed in American conditions at the time. The same thing is
true today. We have a choice. As a country. We can either start to fix and address the
core problems we have as a country or can keep blaming other people for them. I think
the Constitution today in some ways, not at all all ways but in some I with as
it’s part of the problem. And whether you agree with me or not, I think we all owe it
to each other to give serious thought whether or not we can defend the continuation of some
of the principles in a document that is after all at this point 230 years old. Because as
brilliant as it was as a solution to the problems of the time, today’s country is 100 times
larger in population than the country that ‑‑ when the Constitution was created. We need
to really take seriously the idea it’s a different world. So, that’s my answer to your first
question. And as I say I will be happy to talk with you. I any the broader ‑‑ just
to be honest to quickly summarize off the cuff response about the Caribbean. You are
absolutely right that the Caribbean became strategically really important not just to
the United States but Britain as a result of the revolution. And Caribbean slavery became
critically important to both groups of people. And the United States once it began to create
a continental empire, and once it began to expand to the point where it was pressing
up against Mexico, for example, there was going to be tension between that and a desire
for hemispheric dominance in a sense if you took the really long view you would say the
continental empire was a problem for places like the Caribbean because it meant sooner
or later the Continental empire would expand its reach. We can talk more about that afterwards
next question?>>Most people today when we think of the
Articles of Confederation we don’t see a reason why that would even be considered as workable.
It just seems insane. Whether the existing constitutions were applicable or not. Did
the Articles of Confederation come out of whole cloth or did we base it on models that
have some success rate somewhere else?>>That’s a good question. And I certainly
understand your skepticism. Because we have lived under an alternative model for a couple
hundred years now. Let me just say at the time many people were convinced it wasn’t
just workable but that it was the essence of republicanism. Because their theory was the
states were republics. And that they would meet in a congress that was sort of a council
and debate national policy and they fully expected after that debate the states would
follow congress’s decisions because they had a rational view of politics they thought political
virtue meant that you met in political debate and made decisions on an agreed on set of rules
and people would then follow them. What happens during this period is that belief about the
way politics works essentially falls apart. And becomes less seemingly less rational.
But really it’s important to take seriously the fact that there was an alternative conception
of what politics should be that informed the Articles of Confederation. As to your question
about track records there were federations historically literally some people would say
that the first federations were found in ancient Greece so they had been around for a long
time as an idea. There have always been people who said this can’t ever work they have been
people who said this is the best possible way to arrange a government so that you protect
freedom for the component unit of the government. So, each realistically you could say every
empire whether it’s the Prussian or British empire over time has had to come up with
some version of federalism. Some deference to local rules, customs, local power. And
the degree to which that occurs, is very often a function of when the ‑‑ an empire is
created and what its component units are. So, the Prussian empire looks different than
the British empire. The notion of federation the notion that you should be able to he create
a larger unit that nevertheless respects autonomy of the smaller unit is an idea that’s been
around for an extremely long time. And I ‑‑ all I can really tell you is the practical
experience of this period showed that this version of that wasn’t workable. And the book
really tries to give specific reasons why that was the case. Sectional conflict is a
big part of the problem. You can’t really have people sort of agreeing on policy if
they believe that what is happening is sort of sectional aggression from one section to
the other which is what people felt was happening here the south for example wouldn’t entertain
a commerce power because they were convinced the Northern states which controlled the shipping
industry would exploit them if it got a commerce power. It’s hard to have a federation work
in a situation where there are really strong divisions economic divisions between sections
of one kind or another. I hope that answers your question. It’s not ‑‑ James Madison
was an expert on confederation ‑‑ the history of confederation and wrote a lot about
it if you are interested. I don’t really claim to be. I just tell you how this one worked
my answer is: It didn’t. So, next question?>>Thank you very much. This has been fascinating.
I have a question really about slavery.>> Yes.
>> And I see maybe you are answering it in some of your other books. But I was ‑‑
>>Go ahead.>> I was a little puzzled it was rather late
in your talk that you talked about how the new constitution protected slavery.
>> Right.>> and you didn’t seem to emphasize that
that debate between the north and the south or those who supporting slavery and those
who thought that America could possibly have slaves based on you know liberty and justice
and all of that that that was such a tremendous argument as well tearing the states apart.
Just recent ‑‑ well a few years ago, I heard a scholar define what the clause the
preamble to the constitution to promote domestic tranquility in addition to the British trying
to help Native Americans they were also involved in helping slaves in their rebellions against
their slave owners that was another problem that the Americans faced that the British
were doing as well.>> Okay. Well those are certainly good questions.
And as it happens, I am happy to be able to answer them by saying I wrote an entire book
about that. (LAUGHTER)
>>It is a different book. It’s called: A Slave Holders Union. Slavery Politics and
the Constitution in the Early American Republic. Actually it was writing that book that made
me interested in writing this book. Because while I was looking at the way the Constitution
deals with slavery and it does what I describe in the talk, it creates protections for slavery.
Legal protections economic protections political protections. It creates all kinds of protections
for slavery. And while I was trying to understand how that worked, I also began to realize that
although there were certain areas where the Northern southern states agreed or else agreed
they were going to go along with something that got done as I think is the case for example
where slavery is concerned, there were also places where they really disagreed and where
there are sharp divisions this book in a sense is an outgrowth of my first book. But I couldn’t
agree with you more at the core there could not have been a Constitution if the Constitution
had not protected slavery. There could not have been. Because the south never would have
been willing to enter into the Constitution. And in fact just within a year or two after
the Constitution is adopted southern congressmen stand up on the floor of the House of Representatives
and say: If we hadn’t believed you were going to give complete protection to slavery we
never would have agreed to this Constitution. They are right about that. Politically I don’t
think they could have sold it in the south. Even if you sent a bunch of anti slavery representatives
from the south to Philadelphia, and they had said, you know, really this is inconsistent
with the American ideal let’s abolish slavery. It would have been defeated in every of the
southern states especially Virginia it would have been defeated. In fact Patrick
Henry, one of his major arguments against the Constitution is that sooner or later some
president is going to use the military authority during the war to abolish slavery. People
said, that can’t ever happen. That’s never going to happen. Okay? Henry was dead right.
Because that’s what Abraham Lincoln did. It was an important issue it was the core in
terms of making a political agreement on the Constitution you could not have done it without
protecting slavery you couldn’t have it. This book focuses on how we got there in the first
place how did we get to Philadelphia, and as to the last part I forgotten the very last
little part of your question.>> (inaudible) preamble.
>> Oh, about the preamble. I personally think that the preamble is what a lot of people
charged governor Morris with at the time which is he tried to slide in language that he thought
could later be used prove one point or another. And there is no real evidence that early on
most people took it terribly seriously. The one exception to that is the “we the people”
where Patrick Henry jumps up and down and says who gave the people who wrote the constitution
the ability to talk about “we the people” it’s the states that you know that the government
actually consists of. So, but with that exception the ‑‑ my book my earlier book so you
no he talks a fair amount about the ratification debate and how slavery was dealt with in that
debate. In the south it’s taken care of. In the north don’t worry 20 years we are going
to wipe out the slave trade that will take care of the problem that’s ‑‑they were both wrong, tha’s my view.>>(inaudible)>>No, the good news is my first book should
be in every public library around here. And last time I looked it was ‑‑ it was in
a number of the DC public libraries. Yes, sir?
>>(inaudible)>>If you can find a way to read my books
without buying them more power to you.>> I am for DC statehood as you know DC has
no congressional voting rights, and when Dick Cheney was vice‑president Wyoming had three votes
in the senate and I ‑‑ I hold that addressing why is it okay that DC has no rights is core
issue of what we are talking about to form a more perfect union to promote general welfare
and what are the dynamics how you change things. If you want solve all these problems, including national debt so on why don’t we examine the history of DC and why did we give Alexandria and Arlington back
to Virginia in 1846 how do we get the discussion going what do you think about it go and go
and go. The response to the fugitive slave acts of 1850 his ancestor (inaudible) why ‑‑
>>The question was: What about the fact that District of Columbia residents don’t have
the right to vote. I think this is an example of the kind of problem I was talking about
in my response to the earlier question. The agreements with respect to the district were
made very, very long time ago, for what people thought at the time were sufficient reasons.
The hope was to avoid having the district become a political foot ball of one kind or
another. But the point I want to make is, today’s conditions are different. And today
we have a very different view of voting rights, and who should be included in voting. I mean,
at the time the Constitution is written women can’t vote, blacks can’t vote.
>> (inaudible)>>Sorry
>>(inaudible)>>Right. And so, we now have a very different
conception of what voting rights should be. And so I this I it’s the kind of issue that
should be reexamined but I guess what I want to really leave you with is, what I think
one of the key lessons from takeaways from my book piecemeal reform isn’t going to work.
People who stand up and say there is only one thing I want to do change the Constitution
by repealing citizens united, I think money in politics is evil. So we will just have an
amendment that repeals Citizens United.
My book tells you that is not going to happen. That is not going to happen. That piecemeal
reform by and large does not go anywhere. You can push it, you can get some states to
agree to it, right? But you are not going to get enough support to actually change the
Constitution. At least not in my lifetime although that’s relatively short at this point.
So, when you talk about DC voting rights for example my reaction would be you got to start
looking at being part of a broader reform process. That will be one of the issues on
the table. I don’t see any other way you are going to make it happen. Sorry?
>>(inaudible)>>Well, but that may be ‑‑ that may
be true as a matter of sort of principle, but that’s not true as matter of politics.
And what ‑‑ if you ‑‑ all you need to do is look at what happens during the period
I am writing about you see the way politics works. Nobody wanted to come to the table
as long as they thought they could get anything that they wanted without giving up anything
that they didn’t want. That was how it worked. Okay? If I want tax powers but I don’t want
commerce powers I say like James Madison give me tax powers but oh, no, people in Virginia
do not want commerce powers. Okay? And as long as everybody in the room is saying just
give me what I want, but I am not giving you anything that you want, you are not going
to see fundamental reform. That’s my view. Are we going
>>We are out of time>>Afraid we are out of time
>>We are out of time>>Thank you.
>> Thank you all very much. (APPLAUSE)>>Folks you know there is a book signing
in the archives book store we will see you up there in a few moments.

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