by Jeff Polet
Most of our readers will know about the Philadelphia Convention in the summer of 1787 and assume that it had to replace the ineffectual Articles of Confederation. While there is some truth to that way of telling the story, the reality was actually more complicated. It is true that many citizens were concerned about the state of the fledgling nation in the summer of 1786: a crippling debt crisis, an inability to protect ourselves against the possibility of another war with Britain, a largely ineffective federal government, states divided against each other in part because there was no common currency and they were restricting interstate trade, trade problems with foreign nations, bankruptcy … the list could go on. Writing about the government of the Articles, the energetic nationalist Alexander Hamilton gave a detailed list in Federalist 15 (one of the most important of the essays) of the “melancholy situation” of the nation:
We may indeed with propriety be said to have reached almost the last stage of national humiliation. There is scarcely anything that can wound the pride or degrade the character of an independent nation which we do not experience. Are there engagements to the performance of which we are held by every tie respectable among men? These are the subjects of constant and unblushing violation. Do we owe debts to foreigners and to our own citizens contracted in a time of imminent peril for the preservation of our political existence? These remain without any proper or satisfactory provision for their discharge. Have we valuable territories and important posts in the possession of a foreign power which, by express stipulations, ought long since to have been surrendered? These are still retained, to the prejudice of our interests, not less than of our rights. Are we in a condition to resent or to repel the aggression? We have neither troops, nor treasury, nor government. Are we even in a condition to remonstrate with dignity? The just imputations on our own faith, in respect to the same treaty, ought first to be removed. Are we entitled by nature and compact to a free participation in the navigation of the Mississippi? Spain excludes us from it. Is public credit an indispensable resource in time of public danger? We seem to have abandoned its cause as desperate and irretrievable. Is commerce of importance to national wealth? Ours is at the lowest point of declension. Is respectability in the eyes of foreign powers a safeguard against foreign encroachments? The imbecility of our government even forbids them to treat with us. Our ambassadors abroad are the mere pageants of mimic sovereignty. Is a violent and unnatural decrease in the value of land a symptom of national distress? The price of improved land in most parts of the country is much lower than can be accounted for by the quantity of waste land at market, and can only be fully explained by that want of private and public confidence, which are so alarmingly prevalent among all ranks, and which have a direct tendency to depreciate property of every kind. Is private credit the friend and patron of industry? That most useful kind which relates to borrowing and lending is reduced within the narrowest limits, and this still more from an opinion of insecurity than from the scarcity of money. To shorten an enumeration of particulars which can afford neither pleasure nor instruction, it may in general be demanded, what indication is there of national disorder, poverty, and insignificance that could befall a community so peculiarly blessed with natural advantages as we are, which does not form a part of the dark catalogue of our public misfortunes?
What many Americans don’t know is the Continental Congress called for a convention to be held in the autumn of 1786 in the city of Annapolis for the purpose of amending the Articles of Confederation, and this convention in turn decided to convene again in the summer of 1787 for the purpose of replacing the Articles. Many of the defenders of the Articles of the Confederation believed that this amounted to an overthrow of a legitimately elected government, especially since only five states were represented in the Maryland port city. From the Proceedings of the Commissioners:
That there are important defects in the system of the Foederal Government is acknowledged by the Acts of all those States, which have concurred in the present Meeting; That the defects, upon a closer examination, may be found greater and more numerous, than even these acts imply, is at least so far probable, from the embarrassments which characterise the present State of our national affairs, foreign and domestic, as may reasonably be supposed to merit a deliberate and candid discussion, in some mode, which will unite the Sentiments and Councils of all the States. …Under this impression, Your Commissioners, with the most respectful deference, beg leave to suggest their unanimous conviction, that it may essentially tend to advance the interests of the union, if the States, by whom they have been respectively delegated, would themselves concur, and use their endeavours to procure the concurrence of the other States, in the appointment of Commissioners, to meet at Philadelphia on the second Monday in May next, 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 Foederal 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 afterwards confirmed by the Legislatures of every State, will effectually provide for the same.
This is, to be sure, archaic and complicated language, but its meaning was not lost on many of the political thinkers of the day. They had agreed to altering the Articles but had not agreed to the idea of a wholly new government. This feeling of deception and betrayal fueled a lot of the debates not only at the Constitutional Convention but especially at the state ratifying conventions (the Constitution needing to be ratified by nine of the thirteen states in order to go into effect). One writer called the Constitutional Convention an “outrageous violation,” another that The Framers had employed “all the arts of insinuation, and influence, to betray the people of the United States,” while others regarded it as “high treason.” The story is a complicated one, but imagine that you go on vacation and hire some builders to make some minor changes to your house and you come home to find they tore it down and built a new one in its place. Some people might be ok with that, but you can imagine how others would be infuriated by it.
- Some critics believed that Hamilton and others were overstating the nature of the problems (“we have been told of phantoms”) the nation faced; do you think they had a point?
- Would states have been within their rights not to send delegates to Philadelphia? What would have become of those states?
- Given the extent of dissatisfaction with the way our current system works, what would you think about, rather than trying to fix it, some people proposed we trash it and start all over again? How do you think that would turn out? How would it be received?