The Call for a Convention
"Our present federal government is a name, a shadow"
THE YEAR WAS 1786. It was the tenth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the third year of life in a new nation, but political leaders everywhere feared there was little cause to celebrate. Dark clouds and a suffocating gloom seemed to have settled over the country, and these men understood that something had gone terribly wrong. From his plantation in Virginia, George Washington lamented the steady stream of diplomatic humiliations suffered by the young Republic. Fellow Virginian James Madison talked gravely of mortal diseases afflicting the confederacy. In New Jersey William Livingston confided to a friend his doubt that the Republic could survive another decade. From Massachusetts the bookseller turned Revolutionary strategist, Henry Knox, declared, "Our present federal government is a name, a shadow, without power, or effect." And feisty, outspoken John Adams, serving as the American minister to Great Britain, observed his nation's circumstances with more than his usual pessimism. The United States, he declared, was doing more harm to itself than the British army had ever done. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Monroe, Robert Morris-in short, men from every state-agreed that a serious crisis had settled upon the nation. The question was could they do anything to save their country?
It seemed like only yesterday that these same men, along with Americans everywhere, had greeted the future brightly. In 1783 Americans had looked forward confidently to reaping the benefits of independence. British political oppression, with its threat to natural rights and traditional liberties, had come to an end, and with it the challenge to America's most dearly held principle, "No taxation without representation." In every colony turned state, lawmaking was safely in the hands of a representative assembly, and a guarantee of citizens' rights was written into most state constitutions. British economic oppression had ended as well. Free from the restraints imposed by British navigation, or trade, laws, American shippers, farmers, and planters looked forward to selling tobacco and wheat directly to foreign nations, and entrepreneurs looked forward to manufacturing finished products for sale to markets abroad. New Englanders were equally optimistic, for John Adams's dogged persistence had won them the right to fish the outer banks of Newfoundland. Independence also meant that the rich farmlands west of the Appalachians were at last open to settlement, good news for ordinary farmers and perhaps even better news for major speculators like George Washington, the Lees of Virginia, and even Benjamin Franklin, who owned shares in large land companies.
Unfortunately, each of these blessings soon proved to have a darker side. True, the restrictions and injustices suffered in the colonial era had been eliminated but so, too, had many of the advantages of membership in the British empire. An independent American merchant marine was free to carry American products to the ports of their choosing, but they no longer enjoyed the protection of the British navy on the high seas. New England fishermen had won the right to fish off Newfoundland, but they had lost the guaranteed British Caribbean markets for their catch. Chesapeake tobacco planters had renounced their debts to Scottish merchants and English consignment agents when they declared independence, but in the process they had lost their most reliable sources of credit. And settlers faced no barriers to westward migration, but they could no longer rely on a well-trained and well-equipped army when Indians attacked. Slowly, Americans realized their new dilemma: Who would provide the protection colonists once found in the sheltering arms of their mother country?
The pessimism slowly engulfing men from Maine to Georgia was intensified by the lingering postwar depression in the South and in New England. Two major British military campaigns had left the Carolinas in shambles, with scores of homeless and penniless still to be cared for. Rice planters had to replace much of their labor force as hundreds of slaves had run away or found refuge in British army camps. Farther north peace, not war, had dealt the crushing blow to New England's economy. Despairing, idle fishermen could be seen in every seaport town, helpless in the face of British trade restrictions against them in the West Indies. Local agriculture fared no better. Far from the battlefield during most of the Revolution, New England farmers had expanded their production to meet the demands for food in other regions. Now that farming had resumed in every state, New Englanders were scrambling to meet mortgage payments for land they had cleared and planted during the Revolution. A wave of foreclosures and evictions swept across the western counties of Massachusetts, and local prisons soon overflowed with debtors. In Berkshire and Hampshire Counties, the busiest workers were local carpenters, called upon to construct larger jails.
These nagging economic problems had not brought Americans closer together. Wherever one looked, the competing interests of creditors and debtors, rural farmers and urban merchants, artisans and importers, acted as centrifugal forces, dividing the nation. While state governments debated what to do, private citizens took matters into their own hands. Disgruntled Vermont farmers, who had declared their independence from New York in 1777, demanded that the new American government, the Confederation Congress, recognize their statehood. More disturbing was the news that in New Jersey, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland, backcountry farmers were rising up in armed rebellion and had to be controlled by militia units.
Relationships among the states were no better. In the aftermath of the Revolution, real political power resided in these state governments. Animated by a heartfelt ill will and rivalry, state legislators missed no opportunity to exploit the weakness of their neighbors. They rushed to enact tariffs and trade barriers, replacing the hated British restrictions with restrictions of their own. New Jersey had gone so far as to create its own customs service, an ironic tribute to the regulatory system of its former British rulers. Virginia's penalties for avoiding its interstate import duties would have impressed even the most venal British customs men. With duties to pay at every state border, even the most intrepid merchant or shipper found interstate commerce a nightmare. States with natural advantages made every effort to abuse those without them. Virginia and South Carolina cheerfully squeezed what they could out of hapless North Carolina. Meanwhile, New York and Pennsylvania, both blessed with major ports, imposed steep duties on all goods destined for neighboring states. James Madison described New Jersey, trapped between the two states, as "a cask tapped at both ends." Connecticut also fell victim to New York's greed. Tired of being victimized, Connecticut and New Jersey were rumored to be planning a joint assault on New York.
Other sovereign rights claimed by the states hurt domestic trade. Each state insisted on issuing its own currency, and, thus, a New Yorker sending goods to South Carolina ran a gauntlet of ever-fluctuating exchange rates before his wares reached their final destination. By 1785 the conflict and chaos created by thirteen independent mercantile systems was obvious, yet calls for commercial cooperation that year and the following year were met with suspicion, resistance-and a decided lack of interest.
The solution to these problems, and others, would seem to modern Americans to be the task of the national government. But in 1786 the national government was ill equipped to handle even the smallest crisis. Many of...