Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

The year 1786 was, as we have already seen, one of discouragement. The country was filled with the discontented, who had succeeded in the majority of states in getting possession of the government. The dangerous restlessness of the people, the absurd extravagances of Rhode Island, and, above all, the insurrection in Massachusetts cast a deep gloom over conservative men. Congress, begging for power and money, placed solemnly before the people their choice of life or death as a nation; but there was no indication of willingness on the part of the states to give up money to save the country from disgrace. 

Everywhere there was great cause for despondency: disorder within the states, plots and threatenings on the border, loud laments over commercial distress and heavy taxes, and, worst of all, a reckless disregard of political obligations. But in this year of despair, there were some men who still worked for real government, and we may now turn our attention to the efforts to amend the Articles of Confederation and to establish the necessary authority; we shall see that these efforts, reaching a climax in 1786, had in reality begun some years before. Almost from the time of their adoption, there had been dissatisfaction with the Articles and little hope of their success. No one saw the situation more clearly than Washington, who did not hesitate at the very outset to say that the affairs of the nation could not be well conducted by a Congress with only the power of recommendation. As early as 1781 he declared that a mere nominal head would no longer do and that a real controlling power and the right to regulate all matters of general concern should be given to Congress. He saw with his accustomed simplicity and directness that the states could not be relied on to do what Congress asked, and he pointed out that the Articles provided no means of compelling states to furnish men and money, and that for want of such coercive power the war would necessarily be prolonged. Like others who were to work over this problem in the succeeding years, he wondered how the states could be forced to do their duty, but he was confident that some means must be found. Thus, even before the war was over, Washington had stated what was the most evident fact and the most trying problem of the anxious days of political reorganization.

Hamilton was dissatisfied and disappointed. Months before the Articles were accepted by the last state, he wrote (September 3, 1780) to James Duane a remarkable letter, in which the young statesman, then but twenty-three years of age, showed a thorough appreciation of the situation, marked out with astonishing preciseness the defects in the Confederation and indicated the necessary modifications. A "solid coercive union" he deemed then a necessity, and he proposed if Congress did not assume the dictatorial power rightfully belonging to it, that a general convention should be summoned immediately. Two years later he published in the public press a series of able articles exposing the frailty of the "existing system; every man of information, he asserted, would acknowledge the inadequacy of the Confederation, and he urged the bestowal upon Congress of authority to levy taxes and regulate commerce. He wrote eloquently for a larger conception of national power and dignity. "There is something. . . diminutive and contemptible in the prospect of a number of petty States, with the appearance only of union, jarring, jealous, and perverse, without any determined direction, fluctuating and unhappy at home, weak and insignificant by their dissensions in the eyes of other nations." Under Hamilton's influence, as early as 1782 the legislature of New York proposed a convention of the states to revise and amend the Articles of Confederation, and declared that the radical source of the existing embarrassments was the want of power in Congress; but on this recommendation, Congress took no action.

In the meantime, Madison had been at work in Congress for improvement of the Articles. As early as March 1781, he brought in a report from a committee that pointed to the fact that the states had promised to observe the Articles, and by so doing impliedly vested in Congress the right to carry them into effect against any state which might refuse to abide by the determination of Congress. That there might be no doubt of the existence of this coercive power, the committee advised the adoption of an additional article expressly authorizing Congress to employ the force of the United States to compel the states to fulfill their federal engagements. Congress hesitated about adopting such radical measures, but the matter was not allowed to drop without further attention. In August a new special committee, of which Randolph was chairman, handed in a carefully prepared report which declared that the Articles needed execution in twenty-one different particulars and that seven additional powers should be bestowed on Congress; among these seven was the power "to distrain the property of a state delinquent in its assigned proportion of men and money."

Thus before the Articles had been in full operation for half a year, if indeed one is justified in using such a strong word as operation, Congress was deliberating over the necessity of change. Of the revenue amendments proposed in 1781 and 1783, and of the amendment authorizing the passage of a navigation law which was proposed in 1784, we have already seen the fate; some states reluctantly granted the additional power, but the acquiescence of all the states could not be obtained. It seemed impossible to secure any valuable alteration of the old system by the process of pleading, remonstrance, and expostulation.

In 1786 the enlargement and improvement of the Confederation received consideration from a grand committee which proposed the addition of seven articles and attempted especially to provide for the collection of taxes. With this elaborate report Congress again did nothing; in fact, that sober body of deputies was getting to be worse than helpless; a good part of the time it could not even pass resolutions; and it was largely made up of decidedly second-rate men, who could not see an inch into the future. The whole fabric of the Confederation was creaking in every joint.

The propriety of calling a general convention had been widely discussed. In 1784 the plan was common talk among the members of Congress, but no definite action was taken; and in all probability, the delegates could have reached no conclusion had they tried, for to leave politics aside and agree upon movements of deep interest often transcended their capacity. When in 1785 the general court of Massachusetts passed resolutions favoring a convention to revise the Confederation, the delegates from that state, with rare audacity, refused to lay the resolutions before Congress. They gave as one of their reasons their apprehension of danger from the Cincinnati and the likelihood that "such a measure would produce thro'out the Union, an exertion of the friends of an Aristocracy to Send members who would promote a change of Government." When a man like Rufus King was using such absurd language as this, what prospect for a national convention or for real improvement of the Articles?

Experience, it is plain, had before 1786 taught the necessity of bestowing on some central authority the power to regulate commerce and the power, to obtain revenue without merely begging for it. Every passing year since the adoption of the Articles had shown more clearly that these two powers should have been given to Congress, because without the latter Congress was impotent and ridiculous, and without the former it had no method of meeting the exactions of European nations. It was compelled to look on helplessly while the states working at cross-purposes were angrily trying to retaliate against foreign restrictions, or at the next turn of the wheel of popular caprice were threatening their neighbors with commercial war. The necessity of bestowing such powers was clear, for the lesson had been sharply taught, and though of course it was not learned by the ignorant or the narrow-minded, it was obvious to the intelligent statesmen and men of affairs, who were not yet prepared to give up their country to civil war and ruin. At least this much of the great task of imperial organization had been made clear by the troublesome years of war and the no less anxious years of peace.

But there were plainly other troubles. Congress had been given the power to make treaties, but this power could not be properly exercised; and our commissioners, confident and loyal as they were, could not negotiate with assurance or make equitable treaties as long as the states, feeling that they were quite as wise as Congress, were ready to disregard all foreign obligations when they chose. Our relations with Spain and England were fraught with danger. Surely, if commerce was to prosper, if the country was to hold up its head among the nations, the states must be under compulsion to perform their parts, to abide by the promises of Congress, and not wantonly break the plighted faith of their representatives. In the formation of lasting political order in America some method must be discovered for securing the observance of treaties; without assurance of honesty, any confederation or any national system would be but sounding brass.

This was clear, and thinking men went further; they saw that, if America was to hold together, more than mere promise and pledge was an absolute necessity. Not for treaties alone, but for other obligations as well, for the satisfactory exercise of the powers given to Congress, there must be some sort of compulsive authority. So plain was this that even Richard Henry Lee doubted whether Congress could ever get its money unless it could use force; and the wiser statesmen had come to believe in the absolute need for coercion for the support of government. Jefferson, it is true, was blithely writing from Paris that he liked a "little rebellion now and then," that it was "like a storm in the atmosphere," and that perhaps, after all, the Indians, who had no government, were in the best condition; but Jefferson had learned no recent lesson in the art of constructing government or in founding an imperial system; his mind had not advanced much, if at all, beyond the Declaration of Independence. He was still toying with liberty after it had degenerated into license.

But Madison's mind, a mind of a superior order, had advanced; Washington was as clear-headed as ever; Hamilton and Jay and other great statesmen of the time were seeing things face to face. Evidently, some radical change was needed, and there arose what was the most critical and perplexing problem of the period, the most difficult part in the enormously difficult task of constructing a satisfactory political organization for America.

I have already said that the proper distribution of separate powers between the central authority and the parts was absolutely necessary if the general system was to last, but the experiences of the Confederation had so plainly shown what powers were general and what were local that the task of adjustment and proportionment was by no means insurmountable and did not appeal to the men of the time as a task of great labor or trouble. But supposing that the cleverest adjustment of powers, the most accurate assignment of authority, was at last discovered, what security could there be that the states would regard the system, play their parts, and abide by their obligations? Could any method be found for making certain the observance of the Articles of Union, for making certain the power of the central authority to perform the duties bestowed upon it? Could this be done without destroying the states as political entities or reducing them to mere districts? That was a question that might well have confused the clearest brain of the time; no more delicate and intricate problem in practical politics and statecraft ever confronted a thinking people. If a system could be found which did not involve the destruction of the states, which preserved an equitable distribution of authority between the center and the parts, the great problem of imperial organization had found a solution. If this could be done, America would make one of the greatest contributions ever made by a nation to the theory and practice of government, a contribution hardly second in importance to the principle of representation itself.

That nothing worthwhile could be accomplished unless there was a coercive authority in the center was to some of the men of the time, as we have said, perfectly plain. An interesting essay written by Noah Webster in 1785, though probably without influence in his day, shows how far the thought of the time had advanced: "There must be a supreme power at the head of the union, vested with the authority to make laws that respect the states in general and to compel obedience to those laws. . . . The truth of this is taught by the principles of government, and confirmed by the experience of America... So long as any individual state has the power to defeat the measures of the other twelve, our pretended union is but a name and our Confederation, a cobweb." "A law without a penalty is mere advice; a magistrate, without the power of punishing, is a cypher." These were strong words and full of sense, but it was apparent that the writer had not fully solved the problem; a mere provision for a national government of supreme authority was not enough.

In an interesting scheme for a general reorganization of the Confederation which was prepared by Pelatiah Webster, one of the clearest-headed writers of the day, we find once again the assertion that the states must surrender a portion of their sovereignty, and that the laws of the Union must carry in them "a force which extends to their effectual and final execution"; and we find also the naive suggestion that in order to secure obedience to the laws of the central government, every person whatever, in either his public or his private character, disobeying the supreme authority should be summoned to appear before Congress and be punished. Such a clumsy method of securing obedience to law seems whimsical enough; for Congress to call before it a governor or a member of a state legislature and punish him for violation of the law in an official capacity would of course have been impossible and absurd. But the proposition is an illuminating example of how men were seeking far and near a solution of the problems that oppressed them.

Madison, of course, thought this problem over carefully and saw the real difficulty. "An individual independence of the States," he wrote Randolph, "is utterly irreconcilable with the idea of an aggregate sovereignty. I think, at the same time, that a consolidation of the States into one simple republic is not less unattainable than it would be inexpedient. Let it be tried, then, whether any middle ground can be taken, which will at once support a due supremacy of the national authority, and leave in force the local authorities so far as they can be subordinately useful." He proposed, therefore, a system which would work "without the intervention of the States," and declared that the national government should have a veto on all acts of the state legislatures like that exercised by the king of England over the colonies; and he may also have thought, though this is not quite plain, that the central authority should have the right to overthrow the decisions of state judges. Thus far had men come in their effort to build up in America a substantial organization preserving local liberty and power, but expressing also the general interests and the common life of the nation.

In this dreary year of 1786, while men were writing and arguing, and the liberal-minded among them were almost in despair, a movement that had results of unexpected magnitude was already underway. It grew out of the need of some sort of understanding between Maryland and Virginia concerning the navigation of the Potomac; and back of the plan of agreement and accommodation were Washington and Madison. As early as 1777 three commissioners had been appointed from each of the two states. Nothing having been accomplished at the first convention, Virginia, in 1784, again appointed commissioners, and in January 1785, Maryland, willing to cooperate, took like action. On the invitation of Washington, who was then greatly interested in projects for opening up routes of communication between the east and the west, five of the commissioners met in the spring of 1785 at Mount Vernon, drew up resolutions to be submitted to their states, and asked the cooperation of Pennsylvania in their plans. This report was accepted by each of the states, but Maryland was prepared to go further; she asked for a new conference on commercial questions and proposed the concurrence of Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Those who were anxiously scanning the horizon saw hope in the suggestion; if two more states were to come into the conference they would "naturally pay the same compliment to their neighbors." Madison, hard at work in the legislature, was ready to do what he could to further the movement; but he had to contend with a vehement anti-nationalist party, who were "bitter and illiberal against Congress . . . beyond example," and in their narrow dread of northern commercial power actually considered whether it would not be well to encourage British shipping in preference to that of the eastern states. When resolutions granting Congress authority to regulate commerce were brought before the legislature, they were long discussed, but were at length so hopelessly mutilated that friends of the measure lost interest in their passage; and on the last day of the session another resolution, which had been lying peacefully on the table, was taken up and passed almost without opposition (January 1786). This resolution appointed commissioners to meet such commissioners as might be appointed by other states to take into consideration the trade of the Union, and "to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial regulations may be necessary to their common interest and their permanent harmony." The commissioners, of whom, of course, Madison was one, being instructed to make the necessary arrangements, invited the other states to send delegates to a convention at Annapolis to be held the first Monday in September 1786.

During the summer before the meeting, Madison was doing what he could but had not much hope. "I almost despair of success," he wrote. And yet he believed that something must be done quickly, for delay added to the peril; the introduction of new states might add new elements of uncertainty and perhaps of discord, and there was, moreover, so much selfishness and rascality abroad in the land that anyone looking about him might well have feared that the game by which Philip managed the confederacy of the Greeks would be played on the American states. "I saw enough," Madison said, "during the late Assembly of the influence of the desperate circumstances of individuals on their public conduct to admonish me of the possibility of finding in the council of someone of the states fit instruments of foreign machinations."

The convention met at Annapolis, but delegations from only five states were in attendance. Evidently, nothing could be done in the way of carrying out the express purpose of the meeting, and it was therefore decided to take another bold step forward and to hope for better results. A report, written by Hamilton, was unanimously adopted. It pointed to the critical situation of the states, which called for the exercise "of the united virtue and wisdom of all the members of the confederacy," and it proposed a convention of delegates from all the states to meet at Philadelphia the second Monday in May (1787) "to take into consideration the situation of the United States, 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 such an act for that purpose to the United States in Congress assembled, as, when agreed to by them, and afterward confirmed by the legislatures of every state, will effectually provide for the same."

Although the commissioners declared that they could properly address only the states, "from motives of respect" they transmitted their report to Congress as well as to the governments of all the states. Congress might have been expected to grasp at this opportunity for bettering national conditions, but it hesitated and demurred, and finally, on February 21, without mentioning the request of the Annapolis convention, called a convention to meet at the time and place mentioned in the report of the commissioners, "for the sole and express purpose of revising the articles of confederation," and to report such alterations as should "render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government, and the preservation of the union."

For the men who had been looking for the establishment of respectable institutions, the winter was full of activity and interest. In the end, twelve states appointed delegates to the convention, Rhode Island alone holding aloof. But the wisest men in the land were not very hopeful of results. Jay pointed out that the great trouble was not merely "want of knowledge," and that "reason and public spirit" required the aid of virtue. Washington lamented the factious spirit of the state politicians and, above all, the "thirst for power, and the bantling — I had like to have said monster — sovereignty," which had taken fast hold on the states.