While the events we have heretofore contemplated seemed to prophesy the speedy dissolution and downfall of the half-formed American Union, a series of causes, obscure enough at first, but emerging gradually into distinctness and then into prominence, were preparing the way for the foundation of a national sovereignty.
The growth of this sovereignty proceeded stealthily along such ancient lines of precedent as to take ready hold of people's minds, although few, if any, understood the full purport of what they were doing. Ever since the days when our English forefathers dwelt in village communities in the forests of northern Germany, the idea of a common land or folkland--a territory belonging to the whole community, and upon which new communities might be organized by a process analogous to what physiologists call cell-multiplication--had been perfectly familiar to everybody. Townships budded from village or parish folkland in Maryland and Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, just as they had done in England before the time of Alfred. The critical period of the Revolution witnessed the repetition of this process on a gigantic scale. It witnessed the creation of a national territory beyond the Alleghanies,--an enormous folkland in which all the thirteen old states had a common interest, and upon which new and derivative communities were already beginning to organize themselves. Questions about public lands are often regarded as the driest of historical deadwood. Discussions about them in newspapers and magazines belong to the class of articles which the general reader usually skips. Yet there is a great deal of the philosophy of history wrapped up in this subject, and it now comes to confront us at a most interesting moment; for without studying this creation of a national domain between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi, we cannot understand how our Federal Union came to be formed.
When England began to contend with France and Spain for the possession of North America, she made royal grants of land upon this continent, in royal ignorance of its extent and configuration. But until the Seven Years' War the eastward and westward partitioning of these grants was of little practical consequence; for English dominion was bounded by the Alleghenies, and everything beyond was in the hands of the French. In that most momentous war the genius of the elder Pitt won the region east of the Mississippi for men of English race, while the vast territory of Louisiana, beyond, passed under the control of Spain. During the Revolutionary War, in a series of romantic expeditions, the state of Virginia took military possession of a great part of the wilderness east of the Mississippi, founding towns in the Ohio and Cumberland valleys, and occupying with garrisons of her state militia the posts at Cahokia, Kaskaskia, and Vincennes. We have seen how, through the skill of our commissioners at Paris, this noble country was secured for the Americans in the treaty of 1783, in spite of the reluctance of France and the hostility of Spain. Throughout the Revolutionary War the Americans claimed the territory as part of the United States; but when once it passed from under the control of Great Britain, into whose hands did it go? To whom did it belong? To this question there were various and conflicting answers. North Carolina, indeed, had already taken possession of what was afterward called Tennessee, and at the beginning of the war Virginia had annexed Kentucky. As to these points there could be little or no dispute. But with the territory north of the Ohio River it was very different. Four states laid claim either to the whole or to parts of this territory, and these claims were not simply conflicting, but irreconcilable.
The charters of Massachusetts and Connecticut were framed at a time when people had not got over the notion that this part of the continent was not much wider than Mexico, and accordingly these colonies had received the royal permission to extend from sea to sea. The existence of a foreign colony of Dutchmen in the neighbourhood was a trifle about which these documents did not trouble themselves; but when Charles II. conquered this colony and bestowed it upon his brother, the province of New York became a stubborn fact, which could not be disregarded. Massachusetts and Connecticut peaceably settled their boundary line with New York, and laid no claims to land within the limits of that state; but they still continued to claim what lay beyond it, as far as the Mississippi River, where the Spanish dominion now began. The regions claimed by Massachusetts have since become the southern halves of the states of Michigan and Wisconsin. The region claimed by Connecticut was a narrow strip running over the northern portions of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois; and we have seen how much trouble was occasioned in Pennsylvania by this circumstance.
But New York laughed to scorn these claims of Connecticut. In the seventeenth century all the Algonquin tribes between Lake Erie and the Cumberland Mountains had become tributary to the Iroquois; and during the hundred years' struggle between France and England for the supremacy of this continent the Iroquois had put themselves under the protection of England, which thenceforth always treated them as an appurtenance to New York. For a hundred years before the Revolution, said New York, she had borne the expense of protecting the Iroquois against the French, and by various treaties she had become lawful suzerain over the Six Nations and their lands and the lands of their Algonquin vassals. On such grounds New York claimed pretty much everything north of the Ohio and east of the Miami.
But according to Virginia, it made little difference what Massachusetts and Connecticut and New York thought about the matter, for every acre of land, from the Ohio River up to Lake Superior, belonged to her. Was not she the lordly "Old Dominion," out of which every one of the states had been carved? Even Cape Cod and Cape Ann were said to be in "North Virginia," until, in 1614, Captain John Smith invented the name "New England." It was a fair presumption that any uncarved territory belonged to Virginia; and it was further held that the original charter of 1609 used language which implicitly covered the northwestern territory, though, as Thomas Paine showed, in a pamphlet entitled "Public Good," this was very doubtful. But besides all this, it was Virginia that had actually conquered the disputed territory, and held every military post in it except those which the British had not surrendered; and who could doubt that possession was nine points in the law?
Of these conflicting claims, those of New York and Virginia were the most grasping and the most formidable, because they concerned a region into which immigration was beginning rapidly to pour. They were regarded with strong disfavour by the small states, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, which were so situated that they never could expand in any direction. They looked forward with dread to a future in which New York and Virginia might wax powerful enough to tyrannize over their smaller neighbours. But of these protesting states it was only Maryland that fairly rose to the occasion, and suggested an idea which seemed startling at first, but from which mighty and unforeseen consequences were soon to follow. It was on the 15th of October, 1777, just two days before Burgoyne's surrender, that this path-breaking idea first found expression in Congress. The articles of confederation were then just about to be presented to the several states to be ratified, and the question arose as to how the conflicting western claims should be settled. A motion was then made that "the United States in Congress assembled shall have the sole and exclusive right and power to ascertain and fix the western boundary of such states as claim to the Mississippi, ... and lay out the land beyond the boundary so ascertained into separate and independent states, from time to time, as the numbers and circumstances of the people may require." To carry out such a motion, it would be necessary for the four claimant states to surrender their claims into the hands of the United States, and thus create a domain which should be owned by the confederacy in common. So bold a step towards centralization found no favour at the time. No other state but Maryland voted for it.
But Maryland's course was well considered: she pursued it resolutely, and was rewarded with complete success. By February, 1779, all the other states had ratified the articles of confederation. In the following May, Maryland declared that she would not ratify the articles until she should receive some definite assurance that the northwestern territory should become the common property of the United States, "subject to be parcelled out by Congress into free, convenient, and independent governments." The question, thus boldly brought into the foreground, was earnestly discussed in Congress and in the state legislatures, until in February, 1780, partly through the influence of General Schuyler, New York decided to cede all her claims to the western lands. This act of New York set things in motion, so that in September Congress recommended to all states having western claims to cede them to the United States. In October, Congress, still pursuing the Maryland idea, went farther, and declared that all such lands as might be ceded should be sold in lots to immigrants and the money used for federal purposes, and that in due season distinct states should be formed there, to be admitted into the Union, with the same rights of sovereignty as the original thirteen states. As an inducement to Virginia, it was further provided that any state which had incurred expense during the war in defending its western possessions should receive compensation. To this general invitation Connecticut immediately responded by offering to cede everything to which she laid claim, except 3,250,000 acres on the southern shore of Lake Erie, which she wished to reserve for educational purposes. Washington disapproved of this reservation, but it was accepted by Congress, though the business was not completed until 1786. This part of the state of Ohio is still commonly spoken of as the "Connecticut Reserve." Half a million acres were given to citizens of Connecticut whose property had been destroyed in the British raids upon her coast towns, and the rest were sold, in 1795, for $1,200,000, in aid of schools and colleges.
In January, 1781, Virginia offered to surrender all the territory northwest of the Ohio, provided that Congress would guarantee her in the possession of Kentucky. This gave rise to a discussion which lasted nearly three years, until Virginia withdrew her proviso and made the cession absolute. It was accepted by Congress on the 1st of March, 1784, and on the 19th of April, in the following year,--the tenth anniversary of Lexington,--Massachusetts surrendered her claims; and the whole northwestern territory--the area of the great states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio (excepting the Connecticut Reserve)--thus became the common property of the half-formed nation. Maryland, however, did not wait for this. As soon as New York and Virginia had become thoroughly committed to the movement, she ratified the articles of confederation, which thus went into operation on the 1st of March, 1781.
This acquisition of a common territory speedily led to results not at all contemplated in the theory of union upon which the articles of confederation were based. It led to "the exercise of national sovereignty in the sense of eminent domain," as shown in the ordinances of 1784 and 1787, and prepared men's minds for the work of the Federal Convention. Great credit is due to Maryland for her resolute course in setting in motion this train of events. It aroused fierce indignation at the time, as to many people it looked unfriendly to the Union. Some hot-heads were even heard to say that if Maryland should persist any longer in her refusal to join the confederation, she ought to be summarily divided up between the neighbouring states, and her name erased from the map. But the brave little state had earned a better fate than that of Poland. When we have come to trace out the results of her action, we shall see that just as it was Massachusetts that took the decisive step in bringing on the Revolutionary War when she threw the tea into Boston harbour, so it was Maryland that, by leading the way toward the creation of a national domain, laid the corner-stone of our Federal Union. Equal credit must be given to Virginia for her magnanimity in making the desired surrender. It was New York, indeed, that set the praiseworthy example; but New York, after all, surrendered only a shadowy claim, whereas Virginia gave up a magnificent and princely territory of which she was actually in possession. She might have held back and made endless trouble, just as, at the beginning of the Revolution, she might have refused to make common cause with Massachusetts; but in both instances her leading statesmen showed a far-sighted wisdom and a breadth of patriotism for which no words of praise can be too strong. In the later instance, as in the earlier, Thomas Jefferson played an important part. He, who in after years, as president of the United States, was destined, by the purchase of Louisiana, to carry our western frontier beyond the Rocky Mountains, had, in 1779, done more than any one else to support the romantic campaign in which General Clark had taken possession of the country between the Alleghanies and the Mississippi. He had much to do with the generous policy which gave up the greater part of that country for a national domain, and on the very day on which the act of cession was completed he presented to Congress a remarkable plan for the government of the new territory, which was only partially successful because it attempted too much, but the results of which were in many ways notable.
In this plan, known as the Ordinance of 1784, Jefferson proposed to divide the northwestern territory into ten states, or just twice as many as have actually grown out of it. In each of these states the settlers might establish a local government, under the authority of Congress; and when in any one of them the population should come to equal that of the least populous of the original states, it might be admitted into the Union by the consent of nine states in Congress. The new states were to have universal suffrage; they must have republican forms of government; they must pay their shares of the federal debt; they must forever remain a part of the United States; and after the year 1800 negro slavery must be prohibited within their limits. The names of these ten states have afforded much amusement to Jefferson's biographers. In those days the schoolmaster was abroad in the land after a peculiar fashion. Just as we are now in the full tide of that Gothic revival which goes back for its beginnings to Sir Walter Scott; as we admire mediæval things, and try to build our houses after old English models, and prefer words of what people call "Saxon" origin, and name our children Roland and Herbert, or Edith and Winifred, so our great-grandfathers lived in a time of classical revival. They were always looking for precedents in Greek and Roman history; they were just beginning to try to make their wooden houses look like temples, with Doric columns; they preferred words of Latin origin; they signed their pamphlets "Brutus" and "Lycurgus," and in sober earnest baptized their children as Cæsar, or Marcellus, or Darius. The map of the United States was just about to bloom forth with towns named Ithaca and Syracuse, Corinth and Sparta; and on the Ohio River, opposite the mouth of Licking Creek, a city had lately been founded, the name of which was truly portentous. "Losantiville" was this wonderful compound, in which the initial _L_ stood for "Licking," while _os_ signified "mouth," _anti_ "opposite," and _ville_ "town;" and the whole read backwards as "Town-opposite-mouth-of-Licking." In 1790 General St. Clair, then governor of the northwest territory, changed this name to Cincinnati, in honor of the military order to which he belonged. With such examples in mind, we may see that the names of the proposed ten states, from which the failure of Jefferson's ordinance has delivered us, illustrated the prevalent taste of the time rather than any idiosyncrasy of the man. The proposed names were Sylvania, Michigania, Chersonesus, Assenisipia, Metropotamia, Illinoia, Saratoga, Washington, Polypotamia, and Pelisipia.
It was not the nomenclature that stood in the way of Jefferson's scheme, but the wholesale way in which he tried to deal with the slavery question. He wished to hem in the probable extension of slavery by an impassable barrier, and accordingly he not only provided that it should be extinguished in the northwestern territory after the year 1800, but at the same time his anti-slavery ardour led him to try to extend the national dominion southward. He did his best to persuade the legislature of Virginia to crown its work by giving up Kentucky to the United States, and he urged that North Carolina and Georgia should also cede their western territories. As for South Carolina, she was shut in between the two neighbouring states in such wise that her western claims were vague and barren. Jefferson would thus have drawn a north-and-south line from Lake Erie down to the Spanish border of the Floridas, and west of this line he would have had all negro slavery end with the eighteenth century. The policy of restricting slavery, so as to let it die a natural death within a narrowly confined area,--the policy to sustain which Mr. Lincoln was elected president in 1860,--was thus first definitely outlined by Jefferson in 1784. It was the policy of forbidding slavery in the national territory. Had this policy succeeded then, it would have been an ounce of prevention worth many a pound of cure. But it failed because of its largeness, because it had too many elements to deal with. For the moment, the proposal to exclude slavery from the northwestern territory was defeated, because of the two thirds vote required in Congress for any important measure. It got only seven states in its favour, where it needed nine. This defeat, however, was retrieved three years later, when the famous Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery forever from the national territory north of the Ohio River. But Jefferson's scheme had not only to deal with the national domain as it was, but also to extend that domain southward to Florida; and in this it failed. Virginia could not be persuaded to give up Kentucky until too late. When Kentucky came into the Union, after the adoption of the Federal Constitution, she came as a sovereign state, with all her domestic institutions in her own hands. With the western districts of North Carolina the case was somewhat different, and the story of this region throws a curious light upon the affairs of that disorderly time.
In surrendering her western territory, North Carolina showed praiseworthy generosity. But the frontier settlers were too numerous to be handed about from one dominion to another, without saying something about it themselves; and their action complicated the matter, until it was too late for Jefferson's scheme to operate upon them. In June, 1784, North Carolina ceded the region since known as Tennessee, and allowed Congress two years in which to accept the grant. Meanwhile, her own authority was to remain supreme there. But the settlers grumbled and protested. Some of them were sturdy pioneers of the finest type, but along with these there was a lawless population of "white trash," ancestors of the peculiar race of men we find to-day in rural districts of Missouri and Arkansas. They were the refuse of North Carolina, gradually pushed westward by the advance of an orderly civilization. Crime was rife in the settlements, and, in the absence of courts, a rough-and-ready justice was administered by vigilance committees. The Cherokees, moreover, were troublesome neighbours, and people lived in dread of their tomahawks. Petitions had again and again gone up to the legislature, urging the establishment of courts and a militia, but had passed unheeded, and now it seemed that the state had withdrawn her protection entirely. The settlers did not wish to have their country made a national domain. If their own state could not protect them, it was quite clear to them that Congress could not. What was Congress, any way, but a roomful of men whom nobody heeded? So these backwoodsmen held a convention in a log-cabin at Jonesborough, and seceded from North Carolina. They declared that the three counties between the Bald Mountains and the Holston River constituted an independent state, to which they gave the name of Franklin; and they went on to frame a constitution and elect a legislature with two chambers. For governor they chose John Sevier, one of the heroes of King's Mountain, a man of Huguenot ancestry, and such dauntless nature that he was generally known as the "lion of the border." Having done all this, the seceders, in spite of their small respect for Congress, sent a delegate to that body, requesting that the new state of Franklin might be admitted into the Union. Before this business had been completed, North Carolina repealed her act of cession, and warned the backwoodsmen to return to their allegiance. This at once split the new state into two factions: one party wished to keep on as they had now started, the other wished for reunion with North Carolina. In 1786 the one party in each county elected members to represent them in the North Carolina legislature, while the other party elected members of the legislature of Franklin. Everywhere two sets of officers claimed authority, civil dudgeon grew very high, and pistols were freely used. The agitation extended into the neighbouring counties of Virginia, where some discontented people wished to secede and join the state of Franklin. For the next two years there was something very like civil war, until the North Carolina party grew so strong that Sevier fled, and the state of Franklin ceased to exist. Sevier was arrested on a warrant for high treason, but he effected an escape, and after men's passions had cooled down his great services and strong character brought him again to the front. He sat in the senate of North Carolina, and in 1796, when Tennessee became a state in the Union, Sevier was her first governor.
These troubles show how impracticable was the attempt to create a national domain in any part of the country which contained a considerable population. The instinct of self-government was too strong to allow it. Any such population would have refused to submit to ordinances of Congress. To obey the parent state or to set up for one's self,--these were the only alternatives which ordinary men at that time could understand. Experience had not yet ripened their minds for comprehending a temporary condition of semi-independence, such as exists to-day under our territorial governments. The behaviour of these Tennessee backwoodsmen was just what might have been expected. The land on which they were living was not common land: it had been appropriated; it belonged to them, and it was for them to make laws for it. Such is the lesson of the short-lived state of Franklin. It was because she perceived that similar feelings were at work in Kentucky that Virginia did not venture to loosen her grasp upon that state until it was fully organized and ready for admission into the Union. It was in no such partly settled country that Congress could do such a thing as carve out boundaries and prohibit slavery by an act of national sovereignty. There remained the magnificent territory north of the Ohio,--an empire in itself, as large as the German Empire, with the Netherlands thrown in,--in which the collective wisdom of the American people, as represented in Congress, might autocratically shape the future; for it was still a wilderness, watched by frontier garrisons, and save for the Indians and the trappers and a few sleepy old French towns on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, there were no signs of human life in all its vast solitude. Here, where there was nobody to grumble or secede, Congress, in 1787, proceeded to carry out the work which Jefferson had outlined three years before.
It is interesting to trace the immediate origin of the famous Ordinance of 1787. At the close of the war General Rufus Putnam, from the mountain village of Rutland in Massachusetts, sent to Congress an outline of a plan for colonizing the region between Lake Erie and the Ohio with veterans of the army, who were well fitted to protect the border against Indian attacks. The land was to be laid out in townships six miles square, "with large reservations for the ministry and schools;" and by selling it to the soldiers at a merely nominal price, the penniless Congress might obtain an income, and at the same time recognize their services in the only substantial way that seemed practicable. Washington strongly favoured the scheme, but, in order to carry it out, it was necessary to wait until the cession of the territory by the various claimant states should be completed. After this had been done, a series of treaties were made with the Six Nations, as overlords, and their vassal tribes, the Wyandots, Chippewas, Ottawas, Delawares, and Shawnees, whereby all Indian claims to the lands in question were forever renounced. The matter was then formally taken up by Holden Parsons of Connecticut, and Rufus Putnam, Manasseh Cutler, Winthrop Sargent, and others, of Massachusetts, and a joint-stock company was formed for the purchase of lands on the Ohio River. A large number of settlers--old soldiers of excellent character, whom the war had impoverished--were ready to go and take possession at once; and in its petition the Ohio company asked for nothing better than that its settlers should be "under the immediate government of Congress in such mode and for such time as Congress shall judge proper." Such a proposal, affording a means at once of replenishing the treasury and satisfying the soldiers, could not but be accepted; and thus were laid the foundations of a state destined within a century to equal in population and far surpass in wealth the whole Union as it was at that time. It became necessary at once to lay down certain general principles of government applicable to the northwestern territory; and the result was the Ordinance of 1787, which was chiefly the work of Edward Carrington and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, and Nathan Dane of Massachusetts, in committee, following the outlines of a draft which is supposed to have been made by Manasseh Cutler. Jefferson was no longer on the ground, having gone on his mission to Paris, but some of the principles of his proposed Ordinance of 1784 were adopted.
It was provided that the northwestern territory should ultimately be carved into states, not exceeding five in number, and any one of these might be admitted into the Union as soon as its population should reach 60,000. In the mean time, the whole territory was to be governed by officers appointed by Congress, and required to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. Under this government there was to be unqualified freedom of religious worship, and no religious tests should be required of any public official. Intestate property should descend in equal shares to children of both sexes. Public schools were to be established. Suffrage was not yet made universal, as a freehold in fifty acres was required. No law was ever to be made which should impair the obligation of contracts, and it was thoroughly agreed that this provision especially covered and prohibited the issue of paper money. The future states to be formed from this territory must make their laws conform to these fundamental principles, and under no circumstances could any one of them ever be separated from the Union. In such wise, the theory of peaceful secession was condemned in advance, so far as it was possible for the federal government to do so. Jefferson's principle, that slavery should not be permitted in the national domain, was also adopted so far as the northwest was concerned; and it is interesting to observe the names of the states which were present in Congress when this clause was added to the ordinance. They were Georgia, the two Carolinas, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts; and the vote was unanimous. No one was more active in bringing about this result than William Grayson of Virginia, who was earnestly supported by Lee. The action of Virginia and North Carolina at that time need not surprise us. But the movements in favour of emancipation in these two states, and the emancipation actually effected or going on at the north, had already made Georgia and South Carolina extremely sensitive about slavery; and their action on this occasion can be explained only by supposing that they were willing to yield a point in this remote territory, in order by and by to be able to insist upon an equivalent in the case of the territory lying west of Georgia. Nor would they have yielded at all had not a fugitive slave law been enacted, providing that slaves escaping beyond the Ohio should be arrested and returned to their owners. These arrangements having been made, General St. Clair was appointed governor of the territory; surveys were made; land was put up for sale at sixty cents per acre, payable in certificates of the public debt; and settlers rapidly came in. The westward exodus from New England and Pennsylvania now began, and only fourteen years elapsed before Ohio, the first of the five states, was admitted into the Union.
"I doubt," says Daniel Webster, "whether one single law of any law-giver, ancient or modern, has produced effects of more distinct, marked, and lasting character than the Ordinance of 1787." Nothing could have been more emphatically an exercise of national sovereignty; yet, as Madison said, while warmly commending the act, Congress did it "without the least colour of constitutional authority." The ordinance was never submitted to the states for ratification. The articles of confederation had never contemplated an occasion for such a peculiar assertion of sovereignty. "A great and independent fund of revenue," said Madison, "is passing into the hands of a single body of men, who can raise troops to an indefinite number, and appropriate money to their support for an indefinite period of time.... Yet no blame has been whispered, no alarm has been sounded," even by men most zealous for state rights and most suspicious of Congress. Within a few months this argument was to be cited with telling effect against those who hesitated to accept the Federal Constitution because of the great powers which it conferred upon the general government. Unless you give a government specific powers, commensurate with its objects, it is liable on occasions of public necessity to exercise powers which have not been granted. Avoid the dreadful dilemma between dissolution and usurpation, urged Madison, by clothing the government with powers that are ample but clearly defined. In a certain sense, the action of Congress in 1787 was a usurpation of authority to meet an emergency which no one had foreseen, as in the cases of Jefferson's purchase of Louisiana and Lincoln's emancipation of the slaves. Each of these instances marked, in one way or another, a brilliant epoch in American history, and in each case the public interest was so unmistakable that the people consented and applauded. The theory upon which the Ordinance of 1787 was based was one which nobody could fail to understand, though perhaps no one would then have known just how to put it into words. It was simply the thirteen states, through their delegates in Congress, dealing with the unoccupied national domain as if it were the common land or folkland of a stupendous township.
The vast importance of the lands between the Alleghanies and the Mississippi was becoming more apparent every year, as the westward movement of population went on. But at this time their value was much more clearly seen by the southern than by the northern states. In the north the westward emigration was only just beginning to pass the Alleghanies; in the south, as we have seen, it had gone beyond them several years ago. The southern states, accordingly, took a much sounder view than the northern states of the importance to the Union of the free navigation of the Mississippi River. The difference was forcibly illustrated in the dispute with Spain, which came to a crisis in the summer of 1786. It will be remembered that by the treaties which closed the Revolutionary War the provinces of East and West Florida were ceded by England to Spain. West Florida was the region lying between the Apalachicola and the Mississippi rivers, including the southernmost portions of the present states of Alabama and Mississippi. By the treaty between Great Britain and the United States, the northern boundary of this province was described by the thirty-first parallel of latitude; but Spain denied the right of these powers to place the boundary so low. Her troops still held Natchez, and she maintained that the boundary must be placed a hundred miles farther north, starting from the Mississippi at the mouth of the Yazoo River, near the present site of Vicksburg. Now the treaty between Great Britain and the United States contained a secret article, wherein it was provided that if England could contrive to keep West Florida, instead of surrendering it to Spain, then the boundary should start at the Yazoo. This showed that both England and the United States were willing to yield the one to the other a strip of territory which both agreed in withholding from Spain. Presently the Spanish court got hold of the secret article, and there was great indignation. Here was England giving to the Americans a piece of land which she knew, and the Americans knew, was recently a part of West Florida, and therefore belonged to Spain! Castilian grandees went to bed and dreamed of invincible armadas. Congress was promptly informed that, until this affair should be set right, the Americans need not expect the Spanish government to make any treaty of commerce with them; and furthermore, let no American sloop or barge dare to show itself on the Mississippi below the Yazoo, under penalty of confiscation. When these threats were heard in America, there was great excitement everywhere, but it assumed opposite phases in the north and in the south. The merchants of New York and Boston cared little more about the Mississippi River than about Timbuctoo, but they were extremely anxious to see a commercial treaty concluded with Spain. On the other hand, the backwoodsmen of Kentucky and the state of Franklin cared nothing for the trade on the ocean, but they would not sit still while their corn and their pork were confiscated on the way to New Orleans. The people of Virginia sympathized with the backwoodsmen, but her great statesmen realized the importance of both interests and the danger of a conflict between them.
The Spanish envoy, Gardoqui, arrived in the summer of 1784, and had many interviews with Jay, who was then secretary for foreign affairs. Gardoqui set forth that his royal master was graciously pleased to deal leniently with the Americans, and would confer one favour upon them, but could not confer two. He was ready to enter into a treaty of commerce with us, but not until we should have renounced all claim to the navigation of the Mississippi River below the Yazoo. Here the Spaniard was inexorable. A year of weary argument passed by, and he had not budged an inch. At last, in despair, Jay advised Congress, for the sake of the commercial treaty, to consent to the closing of the Mississippi, but only for twenty-five years. As the rumour of this went abroad among the settlements south of the Ohio, there was an outburst of wrath, to which an incident that now occurred gave added virulence. A North Carolinian trader, named Amis, sailed down the Mississippi with a cargo of pots and kettles and barrels of flour. At Natchez his boat and his goods were seized by the Spanish officers, and he was left to make his way home afoot through several hundred miles of wilderness. The story of his wrongs flew from one log-cabin to another, until it reached the distant northwestern territory. In the neighbourhood of Vincennes there were Spanish traders, and one of them kept a shop in the town. The shop was sacked by a band of American soldiers, and an attempt was made to incite the Indians to attack the Spaniards. Indignation meetings were held in Kentucky. The people threatened to send a force of militia down the river and capture Natchez and New Orleans; and a more dangerous threat was made. Should the northeastern states desert them and adopt Jay's suggestion, they vowed they would secede, and throw themselves upon Great Britain for protection. On the other hand, there was great agitation in the seaboard towns of Massachusetts. They were disgusted with the backwoodsmen for making such a fuss about nothing, and with the people of the southern states for aiding and abetting them; and during this turbulent summer of 1786, many persons were heard to declare that, in case Jay's suggestion should not be adopted, it would be high time for the New England states to secede from the Union, and form a confederation by themselves. The situation was dangerous in the extreme. Had the question been forced to an issue, the southern states would never have seen their western territories go and offer themselves to Great Britain. Sooner than that, they would have broken away from the northern states. But New Jersey and Pennsylvania now came over to the southern side, and Rhode Island, moving in her eccentric orbit, presently joined them; and thus the treaty was postponed for the present, and the danger averted.
This lamentable dispute was watched by Washington with feelings of gravest concern. From an early age he had indulged in prophetic dreams of the grandeur of the coming civilization in America, and had looked to the country beyond the mountains as the field in which the next generation was to find room for expansion. Few had been more efficient than he in aiding the great scheme of Pitt for overthrowing the French power in America, and he understood better than most men of his time how much that scheme implied. In his early journeys in the wilderness he had given especial attention to the possibilities of water connection between the east and west, and he had bought for himself and surveyed many extensive tracts of land beyond the mountains. The subject was a favourite one with him, and he looked at it from both a commercial and a political point of view. What we most needed, he said in 1770, were easy transit lines between east and west, as "the channel of conveyance of the extensive and valuable trade of a rising empire." Just before resigning his commission in 1783 Washington had explored the route through the Mohawk Valley, afterward taken first by the Erie Canal, and then by the New York Central Railroad, and had prophesied its commercial importance in the present century. Soon after reaching his home at Mount Vernon, he turned his attention to the improvement of intercourse with the west through the valley of the Potomac. The east and west, he said, must be cemented together by interests in common; otherwise they will break asunder. Without commercial intercourse they will cease to understand each other, and will thus be ripe for disagreement. It is easy for mental habits, as well as merchandise, to glide down stream, and the connections of the settlers beyond the mountains all centre in New Orleans, which is in the hands of a foreign and hostile power. No one can tell what complications may arise from this, argued Washington; "let us bind these people to us by a chain that can never be broken;" and with characteristic energy he set to work at once to establish that line of communication that has since grown into the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and into the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. During the three years preceding the meeting of the Federal Convention he was largely occupied with this work. In 1785 he became president of a company for extending the navigation of the Potomac and James rivers, and the legislature of Virginia passed an act vesting him with one hundred and fifty shares in the stock of the company, in order to testify their "sense of his unexampled merits." But Washington refused the testimonial, and declined to take any pay for his services, because he wished to arouse the people to the political importance of the undertaking, and felt that his words would have more weight if he were known to have no selfish interest in it. His sole purpose, as he repeatedly said, was to strengthen the spirit of union by cementing the eastern and western regions together. At this time he could ill afford to give his services without pay, for his long absence in war-time had sadly impaired his estate. But such was Washington.
In order to carry out the enterprise of extending the navigation of the Potomac, it became necessary for the two states Virginia and Maryland to act in concert; and early in 1785 a joint commission of the two states met for consultation at Washington's house at Mount Vernon. A compact insuring harmonious coöperation was prepared by the commissioners; and then, as Washington's scheme involved the connection of the head waters of the Potomac with those of the Ohio, it was found necessary to invite Pennsylvania to become a party to the compact. Then Washington took the occasion to suggest that Maryland and Virginia, while they were about it, should agree upon a uniform system of duties and other commercial regulations, and upon a uniform currency; and these suggestions were sent, together with the compact, to the legislatures of the two states. Great things were destined to come from these modest beginnings. Just as in the Yorktown campaign, there had come into existence a multifarious assemblage of events, apparently unconnected with one another, and all that was needed was the impulse given by Washington's far-sighted genius to set them all at work, surging, swelling, and hurrying straight forward to a decisive result.
Late in 1785, when the Virginia legislature had wrangled itself into imbecility over the question of clothing Congress with power over trade, Madison hit upon an expedient. He prepared a motion to the effect that commissioners from all the states should hold a meeting, and discuss the best method of securing a uniform treatment of commercial questions; but as he was most conspicuous among the advocates of a more perfect union, he was careful not to present the motion himself. Keeping in the background, he persuaded another member--John Tyler, father of the president of that name, a fierce zealot for state rights--to make the motion. The plan, however, was "so little acceptable that it was not then persisted in," and the motion was laid on the table. But Madison knew what was coming from Maryland, and bided his time. After some weeks it was announced that Maryland had adopted the compact made at Mount Vernon concerning jurisdiction over the Potomac. Virginia instantly replied by adopting it also. Then it was suggested, in the report from Maryland, that Delaware, as well as Pennsylvania, ought to be consulted, since the scheme should rightly include a canal between the Delaware River and the Chesapeake Bay. And why not also consult with these states about a uniform system of duties? If two states can agree upon these matters, why not four? And still further, said the Maryland message,--dropping the weightiest part of the proposal into a subordinate clause, just as women are said to put the quintessence of their letters into the postscript,--might it not be well enough, if we are going to have such a conference, to invite commissioners from all the thirteen states to attend it? An informal discussion can hurt nobody. The conference of itself can settle nothing; and if four states can take part in it, why not thirteen? Here was the golden opportunity. The Madison-Tyler motion was taken up from the table and carried. Commissioners from all the states were invited to meet on the first Monday of September, 1786, at Annapolis,--a safe place, far removed from the influence of that dread tyrant, the Congress, and from wicked centres of trade, such as New York and Boston. It was the governor of Virginia who sent the invitations. It may not amount to much, wrote Madison to Monroe, but "the expedient is better than nothing; and, as the recommendation of additional powers to Congress is within the purview of the commission, it may possibly lead to better consequences than at first occur."
The seed dropped by Washington had fallen on fruitful soil. At first it was to be just a little meeting of two or three states to talk about the Potomac River and some projected canals, and already it had come to be a meeting of all the states to discuss some uniform system of legislation on the subject of trade. This looked like progress, yet when the convention was gathered at Annapolis, on the 11th of September, the outlook was most discouraging. Commissioners were there from Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Rhode Island and North Carolina, had duly appointed commissioners, but they were not there. It is curious to observe that Maryland, which had been so earnest in the matter, had nevertheless now neglected to appoint commissioners; and no action had been taken by Georgia, South Carolina, or Connecticut. With only five states represented, the commissioners did not think it worthwhile to go on with their work. But before adjourning they adopted an address, written by Alexander Hamilton, and sent it to all the states. All the commissioners present had been empowered to consider how far a uniform commercial system might be essential to the permanent harmony of the states. But New Jersey had taken a step in advance, and instructed her delegates "to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial regulations _and other important matters_ might be necessary to the common interest and permanent harmony of the several states." _And other important matters_,--thus again was the weightiest part of the business relegated to a subordinate clause. So gingerly was the great question--so dreaded, yet so inevitable--approached! This reference to "other matters" was pronounced by the commissioners to be a vast improvement on the original plan; and Hamilton's address now urged that commissioners be appointed by all the states, to meet in convention at Philadelphia on the second Monday of the following May, "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, and to report to Congress such an act as, when agreed to by them, and confirmed by the legislatures of every state, would effectually provide for the same." The report of the commissioners was brought before Congress in October, in the hope that Congress would earnestly recommend to the several states the course of action therein suggested. But Nathan Dane and Rufus King of Massachusetts, intent upon technicalities, succeeded in preventing this. According to King, a convention was an irregular body, which had no right to propose changes in the organic law of the land, and the state legislatures could not properly confirm the acts of such a body, or take notice of them. Congress was the only source from which such proposals could properly emanate. These arguments were pleasing to the self-love of Congress, and it refused to sanction the plan of the Annapolis commissioners.
In an ordinary season this would perhaps have ended the matter, but the winter of 1786-87 was not an ordinary season. All the troubles above described seemed to culminate just at this moment. The paper-money craze in so many of the states, the shameful deeds of Rhode Island, the riots in Vermont and New Hampshire, the Shays rebellion in Massachusetts, the dispute with Spain, and the consequent imminent danger of separation between north and south had all come together; and the feeling of thoughtful men and women throughout the country was one of real consternation. The last ounce was now to be put upon the camel's back in the failure of the impost amendment. In 1783, when the cessions of western lands were creating a national domain, a promising plan had been devised for relieving the country of its load of debt, and furnishing Congress with money for its current expenses. All the money coming from sales of the western folkland was to be applied to reducing and wiping out the principal of the public debt. Then the interest of this debt must be provided for; and to that end Congress had recommended an impost, or system of custom-house duties, upon liquors, sugars, teas, coffees, cocoa, molasses, and pepper. This impost was to be kept up for twenty-five years only, and the collectors were to be appointed by the several states, each for its own ports. Then for the current expenses of the government, supplementary funds were needed; and these were to be assessed upon the several states, each of which might raise its quota as it saw fit. Such was the original plan; but it soon turned out that the only available source of revenue was the national domain, which had thus been nothing less than the principal thread which had held the Union together. As for the impost, it had never been possible to get a sufficient number of states to agree upon it, and of the quotas for current expenses, as we have seen, very little had found its way to the federal treasury. Under these difficulties, it had been proposed that an amendment to the articles of confederation should endow Congress with the power of levying customs-duties and appointing the collectors; and by the summer of 1786, after endless wrangling, twelve states had consented to the amendment. But, in order that an amendment should be adopted, unanimous consent was necessary. The one delinquent state, which thus blocked the wheels of the confederacy, was New York. She had her little system of duties all nicely arranged for what seemed to be her own interests, and she would not surrender this system to Congress. Upon the neighbouring states her tariff system bore hard, and especially upon New Jersey. In 1786 this little state flatly refused to pay her quota until New York should stop discriminating against her trade. Nothing which occurred in that troubled year caused more alarm than this, for it could not be denied that such a declaration seemed little less than an act of secession on the part of New Jersey. The arguments of a congressional committee at last prevailed upon the state to rescind her declaration. At the same time there came the final struggle in New York over the impost amendment, against which Governor Clinton had firmly set his face. There was a fierce fight, in which Hamilton's most strenuous efforts succeeded in carrying the amendment in part, but not until it had been clogged with a condition that made it useless. Congress, it was declared, might have the revenue, but New York must appoint the collectors; she was not going to have federal officials rummaging about her docks. The legislature well knew that to grant the amendment in such wise was not to grant it at all, but simply to reopen the whole question. Such was the result. Congress expostulated in vain. On the 15th of February, 1787, the matter was reconsidered in the New York legislature, and the impost amendment was defeated.
Thus, only three months before the Federal Convention was to meet, if indeed it was ever to meet, Congress was decisively informed that it would not be allowed to take any effectual measures for raising a revenue. There now seemed nothing left for Congress to do but adopt the recommendation of the Annapolis commissioners, and give its sanction to the proposed convention. Madison, however, had not waited for this, but had prevailed upon the Virginia legislature to go on and appoint its delegates to the convention. The events of the year had worked a change in the popular sentiment in Virginia; people were more afraid of anarchy, and not quite so much afraid of centralization; and now, under Madison's lead, Virginia played her trump card and chose George Washington as one of her delegates. As soon as this was known, there was an outburst of joy throughout the land. All at once the people began everywhere to feel an interest in the proposed convention, and presently Massachusetts changed her attitude. Up to this time Massachusetts had been as obstinate in her assertion of local independence, and as unwilling to strengthen the hands of Congress, as any of the thirteen states, except New York and Rhode Island. But the Shays rebellion had served as a useful object-lesson. Part of the distress in Massachusetts could be traced to the inability of Congress to pay debts which it owed to her citizens. It was felt that the time had come when the question of a national revenue must be seriously considered. Every week saw fresh converts to the party which called for a stronger government. Then came the news that Virginia had chosen delegates, and that Washington was one of them; then that New Jersey had followed the example; then that Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Delaware, had chosen delegates. It was time for Massachusetts to act, and Rufus King now brought the matter up in Congress. His scruples as to the legality of the proceeding had not changed, and accordingly he moved that Congress should of itself propose a convention at Philadelphia, identical with the one which the Annapolis commissioners had already recommended. The motion was carried, and in this way Congress formally approved and adopted what was going on. Massachusetts immediately chose delegates, and was followed by New York. In April, Georgia and South Carolina followed suit. Connecticut and Maryland came on in May, and New Hampshire, somewhat tardily, in June. Of the thirteen states, Rhode Island alone refused to take any part in the proceedings.
The convention held its meetings in that plain brick building in Philadelphia already immortalized as the place from which the Declaration of Independence was published to the world. The work which these men were undertaking was to determine whether that Declaration had been for the blessing or the injury of America and of mankind. That they had succeeded in assembling here at all was somewhat remarkable, when we think of the curious medley of incidents that led to it. At no time in this distressed period would a frank and abrupt proposal for a convention to remodel the government have found favour. Such proposals, indeed, had been made, beginning with that of Pelatiah Webster in 1781, and they had all failed to break through the crust of a truly English conservatism and dread of centralized power. Now, through what some might have called a strange chapter of accidents, before the element of causal sequence in it all had become so manifest as it is to us to-day, this remarkable group of men had been brought together in a single room, while even yet but few of them realized how thoroughly and exhaustively reconstructive their work was to be. To most of them it was not clear whether they were going merely to patch up the articles of confederation, or to strike out into a new and very different path. There were a few who entertained far-reaching purposes; the rest were intelligent critics rather than constructive thinkers; the result was surprising to all. It is worth our while to pause for a moment, and observe the character and composition of one of the most memorable assemblies the world has ever seen. Mr. Gladstone says that just "as the British Constitution is the most subtle organism which has proceeded from progressive history, so the American Constitution is the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man." Let us now see who the men were who did this wonderful work,--this Iliad, or Parthenon, or Fifth Symphony, of statesmanship. We shall not find that they were all great geniuses. Such is never the case in such an assembly. There are not enough great geniuses to go around; and if there were, it is questionable if the result would be satisfactory. In such discussions the points which impress the more ordinary and less far-sighted members are sure to have great value; especially when we bear in mind that the object of such an assembly is not merely to elaborate a plan, but to get the great mass of people, including the brick-layers and hod-carriers, to understand it well enough to vote for it. An ideally perfect assembly of law-makers will therefore contain two or three men of original constructive genius, two or three leading spirits eminent for shrewdness and tact, a dozen or more excellent critics representing various conflicting interests, and a rank and file of thoroughly respectable, commonplace men, unfitted for shining in the work of the meeting, but admirably competent to proclaim its results and get their friends and neighbours to adopt them. And in such an assembly, even if it be such as we call ideally perfect, we must allow something for the presence of a few hot-headed and irreconcilable members,--men of inflexible mind, who cannot adapt themselves to circumstances, and will refuse to play when they see the game going against them.
All these points are well illustrated in the assemblage of men that framed our Federal Constitution. In its composition, this group of men left nothing to be desired. In its strength and in its weakness, it was an ideally perfect assembly. There were fifty-five men, all of them respectable for family and for personal qualities,--men who had been well educated, and had done something whereby to earn recognition in these troubled times. Twenty-nine were university men, graduates of Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, William and Mary, Oxford, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. Twenty-six were not university men, and among these were Washington and Franklin. Of the illustrious citizens who, for their public services, would naturally have been here, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were in Europe; Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and Richard Henry Lee disapproved of the convention, and remained at home; and the greatest man of Rhode Island, Nathanael Greene, who--one likes to think--might have succeeded in bringing his state into the convention, had lately died of a sun-stroke, at the early age of forty-four.
Of the two most famous men present little need be said. The names of Washington and Franklin stood for supreme intelligence and consummate tact. Franklin had returned to this country two years before, and was now president of Pennsylvania. He was eighty-one years of age, the oldest man in the convention, as Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, aged twenty-six, was the youngest. The two most profound and original thinkers in the company were but little older than Dayton. Alexander Hamilton was thirty, James Madison thirty-six. Among political writers, these two men must be ranked in the same order with Aristotle, Montesquieu, and Locke; and the "Federalist," their joint production, is the greatest treatise on government that has ever been written. John Jay, who contributed a few pages to this immortal volume, had not been sent to the convention, because New York did not wish to have it succeed. Along with Hamilton, New York sent two commonplace men, Robert Yates and John Lansing, who were extreme and obstinate Antifederalists; and the action of Hamilton, who was thus prevented from carrying the vote of his own state for any measure which he might propose, was in this way sadly embarrassed. For another reason, Hamilton failed to exert as much influence in the convention as one would have expected from his profound thought and his brilliant eloquence. Scarcely any of these men entertained what we should now call extreme democratic views. Scarcely any, perhaps, had that intense faith in the ultimate good sense of the people which was the most powerful characteristic of Jefferson. But Hamilton went to the other extreme, and expressed his distrust of popular government too plainly. His views were too aristocratic and his preference for centralization was too pronounced to carry conviction to his hearers. The leading part in the convention fell, therefore, to James Madison, a young man somewhat less brilliant than Hamilton, but superior to him in sobriety and balance of powers. Madison used to be called the "Father of the Constitution," and it is true that the government under which we live is more his work than that of any other one man. From early youth his life had been devoted to the study of history and the practice of statesmanship. He was a graduate of Princeton College, an earnest student, familiar with all the best literature of political science from Aristotle down to his own time, and he had given especial attention to the history of federal government in ancient Greece, and in Switzerland and Holland. At the age of twenty-five he had taken part in the Virginia convention which instructed the delegates from that state in Congress to bring forward the Declaration of Independence. During the last part of the war he was an active and influential member of Congress, where no one equalled or approached him for knowledge of English history and constitutional law. In 1784 he had returned to the Virginia legislature, and been foremost in securing the passage of the great act which gave complete religious freedom to the people of that state. No man understood better than he the causes of the alarming weakness of the federal government, and of the commercial disturbances and popular discontent of the time; nor had any one worked more zealously or more adroitly in bringing about the meeting of this convention. As he stood here now, a leader in the debate, there was nothing grand or imposing in his appearance. He was small of stature and slight in frame, like Hamilton, but he had none of Hamilton's personal magnetism. His manner was shy and prim, and blushes came often to his cheeks. At the same time, he had that rare dignity of unconscious simplicity which characterizes the earnest and disinterested scholar. He was exceedingly sweet-tempered, generous, and kind, but very hard to move from a path which, after long reflection, he had decided to be the right one. He looked at politics judicially, and was so little of a party man that on several occasions he was accused (quite wrongfully, as I hope hereafter to prove) of gross inconsistency. The position of leadership, which he won so early and kept so long, he held by sheer force of giant intelligence, sleepless industry, and an integrity which no man ever doubted. But he was above all things a man of peace. When in after years, as president of the United States, he was called upon to manage a great war, he was out of place, and his reputation for supreme ability was temporarily lowered. Here in the Federal Convention we are introduced to him at the noblest and most useful moment of his life.
Of the fifty-five men here assembled, Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, and Madison were of the first order of ability. Many others in the room were gentlemen of more than ordinary talent and culture. There was John Dickinson, who had moved from Pennsylvania into Delaware, and now came to defend the equal rights of the smaller states. There was James Wilson of Pennsylvania, born and educated in Scotland, one of the most learned jurists this country has ever seen. Beside him sat the financier, Robert Morris, and his namesake Gouverneur Morris of Morrisania, near the city of New York, the originator of our decimal currency, and one of the far-sighted projectors of the Erie Canal. Then there was John Rutledge of South Carolina, who ever since the Stamp Act Congress had been the mainstay of his state; and with him were the two able and gallant Pinckneys. Caleb Strong, afterward ten times governor of Massachusetts, was a typical Puritan, hard-headed and supremely sensible; his colleague, Rufus King, already distinguished for his opposition to negro slavery, was a man of brilliant attainments. And there were George Wythe, the chancellor of Virginia, and Daniel Carroll of Maryland, who had played a prominent part in the events which led to the creation of a national domain. Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, afterward chief justice of the United States, was one of the ablest lawyers of his time; with him were Roger Sherman and William Johnson, the latter a Fellow of the Royal Society, and afterward president of Columbia College. The New Jersey delegation, consisting of William Livingston, David Brearley, William Paterson, and Jonathan Dayton, was a very strong one; and as to New Hampshire, it is enough to mention the name of John Langdon. Besides all these there were some twenty of less mark, men who said little, but listened and voted. And then there were the irreconcilables, Yates and Lansing, the two Antifederalists from New York; and four men of much greater ability, who took an important part in the proceedings, but could not be induced to accept the result. These four were Luther Martin of Maryland; George Mason and Edmund Randolph of Virginia; and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts.
When these men had assembled in Independence Hall, they chose George Washington president of the convention. The doors were locked, and an injunction of strict secrecy was put upon every one. The results of their work were known in the following September, when the draft of the Federal Constitution was published. But just what was said and done in this secret conclave was not revealed until fifty years had passed, and the aged James Madison, the last survivor of those who sat there, had been gathered to his fathers. He kept a journal of the proceedings, which was published after his death, and upon the interesting story told in that journal we have now to enter.