America is divided, some say even falling apart. Shocking episodes of political violence have broken out across the land. Government has ground to a halt. Every month is more tumultuous than the last, and the prospects for relief are dim. The only thing on which all can agree: This can’t go on much longer.
A century later, the historian John Fiske called the 1780s “the critical period of American history.” We may now have entered another.
Good timing, then, for George William Van Cleve, a historian at Seattle University School of Law, who just published a book about those tumultuous years. In lucid, accessible prose, We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution tells the story of the successive crises that convinced Americans to scrap their existing government and replace it with one more capable of facing the country’s challenges. Steering a sober path between the extremes of founder worship and dismissive contempt, Van Cleve offers a fascinating account of a period that ought to be much better known: First, because out of the 1780s came the political system that still structures our affairs, and second, because the era shares so much in common with our own.
I spoke on the phone with Van Cleve earlier this month. The following transcript of our conversation has been lightly edited.
Richard Kreitner: In your book, the United States is bitterly divided, with little holding the whole thing together. What were some of the lines of fracture at that time?
George William Van Cleve: The major divisions were regional. Right after the Revolutionary War, the United States is just a set of small, scattered states. They think of themselves as independent republics. There’s little communication between them, no national press, very little in the way of travel from one part to another. And they have little in common economically. The exports from different regions have only a small overlap with one another, so foreign countries could pass discriminatory trade restrictions against New England without doing any damage to the Southern economy. Whenever Congress faces difficult decisions in this period, things tend to break down according to sectional alliances.
RK: Were those sectional fractures more important than class divisions?
GWVC: The sectional divisions were certainly economic in nature. For example, take the artisans in the cities. You might think they have different class interests, but they align with merchants on trade issues. And that wasn’t about false consciousness. Philadelphia’s artisans wanted to see merchants and shipbuilders do well, because that meant they would do well. So they were likely to ally with people from Philadelphia rather than other members of some supposedly nascent working class who lived in faraway New York.
Where you do see significant class divisions is between the rural backcountry, where people tended to be poorer, and the urban concentrations of people in the coastal cities. Farmers in western Pennsylvania tended to be opposed to policies supported by people in the eastern part of the state, and the same was true of New York. What we think of as a 19th-century division between the working class and rising capitalists has a different geographical structure in this period.
RK: The overarching problem of the 1780s, as you write, was “stalemate government.” Why were things so blocked up?
GWVC: There are two basic reasons. First, the structure of the Confederation itself. The government designed by the Articles of Confederation made it easy for relatively small groups of people—especially individual states or sections of the country—to block any change. There was a requirement for every single state to agree to alter the powers of the Confederation. At least nine states needed to support any significant fiscal or military legislation. Any section could say, “We’re opposed to this, so it’s not gonna happen.” This happened repeatedly throughout the period I’m writing about.
The other significant reason is that from the beginning the Union had been a pretty loose alliance, so people felt relatively free about saying they just didn’t feel like going along with a particular policy. New York is a great example. New York City had one of the major ports in the United States, and the import taxes were very profitable for the state, which didn’t have to raise other kinds of taxes. But the rest of the states wanted to pass a federal import tax, which would have forced New York to give up its own. That was anathema for New York’s political leaders, who thought about how they could block such a tax every time they got out of bed. But, under the Articles of Confederation, there was no way for Congress to impose sanctions on New York for holding out, even if all the other states wanted to go forward. The result was stalemate.
RK: What role did the outbreak of social discord in episodes like Shays’ Rebellion have in the events leading up to the Constitutional Convention?
GWVC: It depends on the part of the country. There was a very severe economic recession during this period, a lot of popular discontent from one end to the other. Most of it was fairly peaceful. People went to state legislatures and demanded debt relief, tax relief, paper money, and so on. In most cases they got a good part of what they wanted. Everyone realized things were a mess. Massachusetts, on the other hand, was run by a bunch of wealthy conservatives, who had written a state constitution that basically guaranteed their power. They told the debtors their suffering was their own fault. The response was Shays’ Rebellion.
The striking thing to me is not that it was an armed revolt, but how popular the rebels were with people not directly involved. They had enormous popular sympathy from communities across the state that could see many of them were veterans, poor, heavily in debt, and stuck in a situation from which they did not have a practical way to extricate themselves. Eventually, the conservatives prevailed on the state to assemble an armed force to crush the rebellion without great trouble. But people in Massachusetts were very upset by the whole chain of events. They were having a hard time understanding how, after the revolution against Britain, people would take up arms against their own state government. A lot of people in Massachusetts went from fearing a stronger central government to supporting one. There was a real change of heart.
The response in other parts of the country was very different. They didn’t have outright rebellions. There was sporadic violence in various states. Occasionally someone in debt decided to burn down the courthouse to get rid of records, but nothing approaching the scale of Shays’ Rebellion. People thought the uprising showed there was something wrong in Massachusetts, not in the Confederation as a whole.
RK: Was the threat to the established order as real as it was made out to be at the time, or was it being exaggerated for political purposes? How close did the United States come to collapse?
GWVC: There was a real political crisis that came to a head in 1786. Two things were happening at once: Congress becomes completely and utterly deadlocked over a treaty with Spain that has implications for western expansion, and the Confederation is going bankrupt. A committee issues a report saying the government is dead broke, with no money coming in and very large loans from France coming due. In both New England the South, people are beginning to talk seriously about forming their own smaller confederations.
Things get so bad that Virginia issues a call for a constitution convention—a complete 180-degree turn from the position they had taken a year before. There’s a lot of opposition in certain states, but many others are ready to move forward, because they see the handwriting on the wall: The country is deadlocked on the very issues that everyone recognizes will determine the future. They know the government is collapsing.
So there was a political crisis, but it occurred in different parts of the country for different reasons, and people drew different conclusions from what they saw going on. But where they ended up in common was that they had to get together and talk about a way to fix things. They did so reluctantly. Most of the delegates at the Philadelphia convention didn’t want to be there. They didn’t know how they were going to fix things. But they all had this sense that if they didn’t there was a distinct possibility that the Union would fall apart.
RK: At the end of the book, you describe a certain resemblance between the problems the United States faced in the 1780s and those we’re confronting today. Can you talk about some of those similarities, and what your study of the Confederation period potentially indicates about where we might be headed?
GWVC: First, a disclaimer: I’m a professional historian. I do not have a crystal ball that allows me to predict the future. I’m comfortable that I’ve done a good job describing the problems of the 1780s, but I deliberately did not say a lot about modern problems. If you read this book carefully, it should give you tools to think about what’s going on today. That’s my fundamental goal.
The Constitution included major concessions to political forces of that time, especially to state and sectional interests. Some of those concessions are now larger in their impact than they were at the time they were made. When the Constitution provided that every state would have two votes in the Senate, Virginia was the largest state in population, and Delaware was the smallest. Today the ratio between the most and least populous is more than 65 to 1. I cannot believe that the people who agreed to that compromise in 1787 would have been anything other than appalled at the idea that they had sanctioned such a system.
When people today are upset about the fact that Congress can’t get anything done, they need to understand that some places around the country have disproportionate political influence compared to population or wealth. That’s a price we have always paid, but we are paying a much larger price today than we would have 200 years ago. If the Senate were differently structured, there are significant national policies that would change immediately. We as a country need to take seriously the possibility that a structure that worked really well a couple hundred years ago and solved a very real political crisis is a structure that today has costs we can’t really afford.
As for where we are headed, I don’t know. The book represents several years of research and writing, and during a good part of that time, I couldn’t have told you what was on the front page of the newspaper. What I will say is that the world is moving on. Other countries are finding ways to cope with their own domestic and international problems, to make themselves larger forces on the world stage. Meanwhile, the United States appears to be paralyzed by its current situation, part of which is attributable to the current structure of the Constitution. We are going to have to make a decision as a country if we want to endure this paralysis indefinitely.
I can tell you that the people who wrote the Constitution thought a stalemated government could not survive. They thought of politics as a harsh, unforgiving environment, where you didn’t want a lot of sentiment governing the way you thought about how to solve problems, especially international problems. A stalemated government could be taken advantage of; it would be vulnerable to internal collapse and external aggression. The framers of the Constitution thought of what they were doing as a form of defense.
What I really hope is that people read the book with an open mind about what happened in the 1780s, but also with an open mind about what implications those events might have for politics today. The main thing I want readers to do is really try to think through where we are now based on what I can tell them about where we were back then.
On Monday, October 23, George William Van Cleve will speak about We Have Not a Government at the National Archives in Washington, DC. His talk will be live-streamed on YouTube.