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.