The Beginning of a Nation

Detail of Washington Delivering His Inaugural Address, April 1789 (Library of Congress)

The aftermath of the revolutionary story, even in brief, is rich and exciting.

Editor’s Note: The following article appeared in the July 23, 1976, issue of National Review.

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O! Ye unborn Inhabitants of America! Should this Page escape its destin’d Conflagration at the Year’s End, and these Alphabetical Letters remain legible — when your Eyes behold the Sun after he has rolled the Seasons round for two or three Centuries more, you will know that in Anno Domini 1758, we dream’d of your times. 

So the Boston philomath Nathaniel Ames wrote in his almanac almost two decades before Congress declared the 13 colonies independence from Britain. It had been a century and a half since Captain Newport established at Jamestown the first permanent English foothold; almost as long since Ames’s New England forebears established their “city upon a hill” along Massachusetts Bay. Now, in the mid-eighteenth century, England’s American colonists began to share a sense of special destiny that would later be woven into the fabric of a new American nationalism.

Without this awakening consciousness of the uniqueness of the American experience, the colonists could never have transcended their traditional loyalty to the “English nation.” Their commitment crossed colonial boundaries to embrace the American continent. It is this cultural phenomenon — the emergence after 1750 of a new American self-consciousness — that underlay the American Revolution begun in 1763 and consummated in 1789.

We are commemorating on July 4 of this year the Bicentennial of one event in that tremendous transformation. Independence, however, did not then and there create the American nation. Independence alone, without the existence of a continental political structure, could not have fulfilled the vision Ames articulated 18 years before. It was one thing for a South Carolinian, for example, to feel a sense of common destiny with a citizen of New York. It was quite another for the Carolinian and the New Yorker to come together under a single national government. Separation from Great Britain was one step in the morphology of the Revolution. But the “real revolution,” to use John Adams’ term, consisted in the creation of the United States of America out of 13 highly individualistic English colonies.

The juridical origins of our federal democratic republic go back to the 1760s, when the 13 separate colonial representative assemblies were each making insistent demands for legislative autonomy. Such demands by 13 “little parliaments” in the American woods conflicted with the British Parliament’s declaration of imperial legislative supremacy. We see a groping towards federalism in the colonists’ tentative thought that Parliament might legislate on external affairs (trade, for example), while the assemblies would legislate autonomously on internal affairs (taxation, for example).

That formula — clearly enunciated in 1767 by John Dickinson — failed. It represented a half-way house that satisfied neither Parliament nor, ultimately, the colonists themselves. The former clung to its declaration of legislative supremacy “in all cases whatsoever”: the latter, 13 distinct political societies with a growing sense of a common American identity, had gone too far along the road to self-government. The colonies and England came to blows when the assemblies at last denied that Parliament had any right to legislate for them at all.

For seven years, in fact, from the meeting of the First Continental Congress in 1774 to the ratification of the Articles of Confederation in 1781, the colonies-become-states operated as independent commonwealths cooperating with each other in pursuit of a common cause. They were a sort of United Nations without benefit of charter.

Following Lexington, several members of the Continental Congress pointed to the lack of a written legal agreement for joint action by the states. Even before the Great Declaration, Benjamin Franklin had startled the members of Congress with his suggestion for articles of confederation. A resolution for such an instrument was eventually coupled with the resolution for independence. In consequence, articles of confederation, fittingly written by the same John Dickinson who had suggested federalism within the Empire, were brought forward within the  week following the act of separation.

It took almost a year and a half, however, for Congress to agree on a draft to be transmitted to the states. Understandably, Congress was busy with other matters at that time, including keeping out of reach of the ever-threatening Redcoats. (Indeed, when Congress was not fleeing from the British army, it was avoiding another invasion: the hundreds of European volunteers pursuing commissions and glory in the American service.) Not only did Congress have ultimate responsibility for the military conduct of the war, including raising and paying armies, it had also to obtain foreign aid, attempt to uphold the public credit, and — above all — maintain American independence in the face of the most discouraging odds. Historians have unfairly maligned this Congress, which did, after all, see the states through to victory in a very doubtful contest.

Congress finally submitted the Articles of Confederation to the states on November 15, 1777. Ratification was to be by unanimous consent, a consent not forthcoming for another four years.

The chief stumbling block to agreement was the enormous western landholdings of some of the states. Virginia claimed the grandest domains of all, a domain based on the sea-to-sea charter originally granted her by a king whose successors she now disdained.

The so-called landless states, led by Maryland, refused to ratify the articles until the others ceded their western claims to the general government. New York and Connecticut (excepting the three-million-acre Western Reserve) soon complied. The English southern campaign that began with the occupation of Charleston in 1780 helped convince Virginia to cooperate. (In January 1781, the month of Virginia’s acquiescence, traitor Benedict Arnold led a Redcoat raid on Richmond, the new capitol.) Virginia’s cession, which included a federal guarantee of the previous land claims of her citizens, led to  Maryland’s ratification of the Articles of Confederation on March 1, 1781. At last, only eight months before Yorktown, the United States had a constitution.

There were, fittingly, 13 Articles of Confederation. The fifth of these authorized what Congress had been doing all along: each state would be represented by no fewer than two nor more than seven delegates, their salaries to be paid by the states; voting in Congress would be by state, not by head. The ninth, which is the longest article, laid out Congress’ powers, which were few: to declare war, to adjudicate interstate disputes, to coin money; each power required the agreement of nine states. Amendments to the Articles required unanimous consent. In a burst of optimism, Article Eleven offered a place in the American Confederacy to Canada, an offer which the ungrateful Canadians declined. (Article Eleven was more modest than Franklin’s earlier, rejected federal plan, which included the British West Indies and Ireland as well as Canada.)

But even with the long-postponed ratification of our first constitution, the particularistic Spirit of ‘76 remained in the ascendant. The Articles of Confederation were ratified by the states, not by the people. “The said states,” according to Article Three, “hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other.” The Revolution had yet to be consummated. A governmental structure capable of giving political expression to American national feeling had yet to be created.

Every student of history remembers being taught somewhere, sometime, of the “weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.” And from a nationalist point of view, they were weak. The Congress under the Articles could neither tax nor regulate trade. The states, as well as the Congress, could coin money (an important attribute of sovereignty). The general government’s slight authority was over states, not individuals. There was no executive branch, no federal judiciary. The states remained supreme.

A depression in the mid-1870d exacerbated the financial chaos: agrarianized state legislatures issued legal tender bills of credit and legislated postponement of private debts. Rhode Island (conservatives labeled her “Rogue Island”) presented a picture of eager debtors waving inflated Rhode Island dollars as they closed o’er the landscape frantic creditors who hurled themselves across state lines or into Narragansett Bay to avoid receiving payment in worthless currency. With no central regulatory authority, states vied with one another in a kind of commercial warfare; New Jersey, for example, placed a prohibitive tax on the Sandy Hook lighthouse in retaliation for New York’s tariff, which discriminated against both New Jersey’s and Connecticut’s commerce. True, by 1787, most states had come to reciprocity agreements with one another. But who could say when and where commercial warfare would break out anew among the potentially proliferating states of the confederation?

In foreign affairs, the Congress unsuccessfully attempted to cope with Spain’s monopolization of the lower Mississippi. Negotiations only succeeded in stirring up regional animosities when northern representatives seemed ready to sacrifice the Mississippi for commercial relations with the Spanish West Indies. Here lies the origin of the two-thirds rule for ratification of treaties, intended to prevent one region from sacrificing the interests of another.

The United States were in conflict with Britain over her retention of military forts on American soil along the Great Lakes, and over compensation to loyalists, pre-war debts, the West Indian trade, and commercial relations in general. Proud John Adams’s ministry to the Court of St. James provided constant humiliation. Where, wondered the haughty Britons, were the other 12 ministers? Queen of the seas, Britain seemed to countenance the pirating activities of the North African corsairs. These preyed upon American merchantmen who either payed tribute or showed forged British passes. (Wise Ben Franklin quipped that if the corsairs did not exist, Britain would invent them.)

An emphasis upon the domestic and foreign difficulties of the nation under the Articles should not blind us to the solid achievements of the period. Slavery, for example, was abolished north of the Mason-Dixon line. The precedent-shattering Northwest Ordinance set a liberal pattern for westward expansion. Church and state were separated in Virginia. Industry and commerce discovered new opportunities outside the British Empire, included an astonishing trade with the Far East beginning in 1784. (One staple of this trade was the New England root ginseng, which optimistic Chinese believed would restore virility to the aged.) Such commercial initiative led to Captain Robert Gray’s establishment of the American claim to the watershed of the Columbia River.

It was in the 1780s, too, that Hector St. John de CreveCouer set down on paper the essential configuration of a new American ideology. In Letters from an American Farmer, first published in 1782, the transplanted Frenchman described a system of values that would long remain characteristic of American nationalism. “What, then,” asked Crevecour, “is the American, this new man?”

He is neither European nor the descendant of a European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country…. He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new modes of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds…. Here individual of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world…. The American ought therefore to love this country much better than that wherein either he or his forefathers were born. Here the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labor; his labor is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement?…. The American is a new man who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labor, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. This is an American.

 Here in striking combination are the themes of the melting pot, the mission or America, work justly rewarded, patriotism, equality, and individualism. Crevecouer was not blind to his adopted country’s faults. He particularly condemned slavery and whites’ treatment of Native Americans. But his Letters, like Nathaniela Ames’s apostrophe to generations unborn, is eloquent testimony to the emergence of an American ethos.

Despite solid achievements, and notwithstanding Crevecouer’s hymn of praise, the Confederacy’s problems both at home and abroad were real enough. The movement for the creation of a truly national government began, in fact, before the ink was dry on the 13 Articles. Sparked mainly by public creditors and abetted by discontented army officers, the movement was weakened by the coming of peace and the local jealousies of the states. Rogue Island alone, for example, prevented the passage of a constitutional amendment by which the Congress could have enacted uniform a uniform impost throughout  the nation. Lack of funds, therefore, remained a crucial congressional weakness.

Mt. Vernon was the appropriate setting for a renewed effort at strengthening the central government. In the presence of the living symbol of the nation, commissioners from Maryland and Virginia met to consider interstate commercial problems. Among these was the disposition of Chesapeake Bay’s oysters; so it was that the Constitution would rise, like Venus, from a sea shell.

An amicable settlement of various problems (including the disposition of the oysters) encouraged the commissioners to make more ambitious efforts to strengthen the central government. During September 1786, delegates from five states met at Annapolis. Convinced that a radical revision of the Articles of Confederation was essential, these delegates, Madison and Hamilton in the vanguard, issued a call to the Congress for a convention of the states. Its purpose would be “to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the union.”

Persuasive as this call may have been, captain Daniel Shays in western Massachusetts unwittingly presented reluctant congressmen with an even more compelling motive for shoring up the government. The postwar depression wreaked economic havoc among New England’s yeoman farmers. The rebellion that Shays led in the winter of 1786-87 focused first upon the courts, which Shays and his men forced to disband. Dispossession had become endemic in the debt-ridden western counties. Closing the forts frustrated foreclosure proceedings; moreover, for Shay’s enraged agrarians, the courts were a tangible symbol of the eastern moneyed interest and of a government unresponsive to their needs.

Shay’s attack upon property rights was frightening enough, but when he and his men went after the federal arsenal at Springfield, it seemed that the social order was on the verge of collapse. Massachusetts, after all, possessed the first state constitution to be ratified by the people. Shays appeared to be testing the survival of republican government based on consent. Great was the establishment’s relief when General Lincoln easily dispersed the rebels. Relief became dismay, however, when the frightened Massachusetts legislature enacted some of the rebels’ demands into law.

“I feel, my dear General Knox,” wrote Washington to his old companion in arms, “infinitely more than I can express to you, for the disorders which have arisen in these States. Good God! Who, besides a Tory, could have foreseen, or a Briton predicted them?” Sharing Washington’s sentiments, a Shays-traumatized Congress, on February 21, 1787, asked the states to send delegates to a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation.

This is no place for the historiographical battle over the motives of the 55 men who met in Philadelphia during the simmering summer of 1787. More than half a century ago, Charles Beard called them conspirators against a prevailing order that had failed adequately to represent their property interests: the Philadelphia Convention was our Revolution’s Thermidor.

It seems clear today, however, particularly in the light of exhaustive research into the ideology of the Founders, that the Philadelphians meant not to subvert the Revolution, but to secure it. They believed, of course, in the sanctity of property; in the eighteenth century, property rights were thought to provide the essential foundation of human rights. The Founders did not see, as some see today, any incompatibility between the rights of property and the rights of man. The Constitution, Beard to the contrary, is a political, not an economic document. The Founders’ art consisted in the creation of a national institutional framework consonant with the Revolutionary commitment to local self-government. They turned a “league of friendship” into a “more perfect union,” to be ratified not by the states, but by the people.

The late Catherine Drinker Bowen denominated the Founder’s success in forming a truly national government the “Miracle at Philadelphia.” A century earlier, the historian von Holst had found it necessary to utilize a similarly heavenly metaphor in describing the work of the Constitutional Convention. The Founders, he commented, had ventured to outdo the mystery of the Trinity by endeavoring to make 13 one, while leaving the one 13. John Marshall, in 1821, put the matter in a decidedly more sober, not to say earthly manner. “America,” he said, “has chosen to be, in many respects, and to many purposes, a nation.”

The Constitution at last created a national government that gave adequate effect to the Americans’ increasing self-consciousness as a united people. It left to interpretation the precise juridical balance between state and nation, a problem which would remain at the base of American politics through the Civil War, and which, in fact, is with us still. Yet, the Constitution itself remains above the battle. South and North warred over its meaning, but the universal veneration of the national charter survived even that holocaust.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution define the American nation. As we enter the third century of independence, however, it is well to recall that we are in the fourth century of American history. It is to the colonial period we must look for the roots of republicanism and federalism. While the colonies were becoming mature societies — and their representative assemblies, fully developed organs of self-government — England recognized them only as overseas corporations dependent on her sovereign authority. Denied self-government within the Empire, the colonies, many of them reluctantly, declared their independence — a declaration they made good within eight years of war. The final act of the drama consisted in their coalescing into a nation.

It seems appropriate to give George Washington the last word. As he assumed the executive office for which the new Constitution provided, he remarked upon the “providential agency” that seemed to  accompany every step by which the United States “have advanced to the character of an independent nation,” including “the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government.” In this First Inaugural Address by the First President of the United States, Washington quietly announced the completion of the American Revolution and the beginning of the national period of American history.

Thomas Wendel — Mr. Wendel was a professor of history at San Jose State University.

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