The Problem of the 1780s

ArticlesOver at The Nation, historian Richard Kreitner interviews Seattle University Law Professor George William Van Cleave about his new book We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution.   I hope to read Van Cleave’s book at some point since I don’t think I have ever read a book-length treatment of the Articles of Confederation.

Here is a taste of the interview:

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.

Read the rest here.