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.

 

Richard Bernstein Weighs-In on the Chaplin-Cruz Dust-Up

BernsteinLast night while scanning Facebook I ran across Richard Bernstein’s take on this whole Joyce Chaplin-Ted Cruz debate. He was gracious enough to let me share it here.

Bernstein is a historian who teaches law at New York Law School.  He is the author of several books, including The Founding Fathers: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2015); The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (Oxford, 2009); and Thomas Jefferson (Oxford, 2003).

Not familiar yet with the Chaplin-Cruz dust-up?  Get up to speed here and here.

There is a dust-up on Twitter between Harvard’s Joyce Chaplin and Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) about the consequences of President 45’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement. Prof. Chaplin argued that the US was created by the international community as a result of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, and Cruz fired back an angry and bitter retort insisting that the United States was entirely self-created by the following equation: “Declaration+Revolutionary War+Constitution=USA.”

Well, Prof. Chaplin is a bit off, but Senator Cruz is way off. Here’s one historian’s take on the matter, rooted in various books that I’ve written and in the research supporting them:

The United States was self-created on either 2 July (the adoption of the independence resolution) or 4 July (the adoption and promulgation of the Declaration of Independence) 1776. Its first form of government (omitted by Cruz from his equation) was the Articles of Confederation, framed in 1777 and ratified in 1781. Of the three resolutions introduced by Richard Henry Lee (VA) in the Second Continental Congress in June 1776, one pertained to declaring independence; a second pertained to framing articles of confederation; and a third pertained to securing foreign alliances, showing the importance that the founding guys placed on the international dimension of the struggle.

* The treaty between the US and France in 1778 was the first by which a foreign power recognized the United States; other treaties with other nations confirmed American independence in the eyes of those nations making the treaties.

* The Treaty of Paris of 1783 is the instrument by which Britain officially recognized American independence, though one could argue that, by entering into full negotiations with American diplomats, Britain recognized American independence earlier than 1783. The step of opening negotiations was the first step in a process culminating in the treaty, and thus in full recognition.

The creation of the United States is a process with domestic and international dimensions, as set forth above. It ended with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and its effectuation on 4 March 1789. On receiving news of the Constitution’s ratification, Benjamin Rush (a signer of the Declaration) said, “‘Tis done. We have become a nation.” One could argue that the United States first took shape as a confederation of states in 1776 and then reformulated itself into a federal republic, an independent nation, by 1789. Note, however, that the Constitution does not include the word “nation” — in fact, during the Convention, the delegates were so leery of that word that they specifically excised it from the document.

Apparently, Ted Cruz is an idiot. He seems not to realize that a formal treaty between Britain and the United States, under which Britain recognized American independence and nationhood, was an essential part of the creation of the United States. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay did not make that mistake, nor did they miss the importance of the treaty they were appointed by Congress to negotiate. It is sad that a graduate with honors of the Harvard Law School is so stupid as to miss that essential point about the origins of the United States. Cruz insists on the Battle of Yorktown (1781), but he misses that the treaty negotiations were the direct consequence of the UH-French victory over Britain at Yorktown.

Indeed, regarding the use of the word “nation,” Abraham Lincoln was the critical figure in establishing the legitimacy and importance of defining the United States as a nation. His predecessor in that argument, of course, was Alexander Hamilton, who in THE FEDERALIST No. 85 wrote, “A nation without a national government is to my mind an awful spectacle.”

In sum, the creation of the United States as an independent nation was a long, arduous process, one with both domestic (national) and international elements – one that can’t be contained in a tweet.