New Concept Of Government Emerges

The struggle with England had done much to change the colonial attitude of 20 years earlier. Then local assemblies had rejected the Albany Plan of Union, refusing to surrender even the smallest part of their autonomy to any other body, even one they themselves had elected. But in the course of the Revolution, mutual aid had proved effective, and the fear of relinquishing individual authority had lessened to a large degree.

The Articles went into effect in 1781. Though they constituted an advance over the loose arrangements provided by the Continental Congress system, the governmental framework they established had many weaknesses. There was quarreling over boundary lines. The courts handed down decisions that conflicted with one another. The legislatures of Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania passed tariff laws that injured their smaller neighbors. Restriction upon commerce between states created bitter feeling. New Jersey men, for example, could not cross the Hudson River to sell vegetables in New York markets without paying heavy entrance and clearance fees.

The national government should have had the authority to set up tariffs when necessary, to regulate commerce, and to levy taxes for national purposes. It should have had sole control of international relations, but a number of states had begun their own negotiations with foreign countries. Nine states had organized their own armies, and several had little navies of their own. There was a curious hodgepodge of coins and a bewildering variety of state and national paper bills, all fast depreciating in value.

Economic difficulties subsequent to the war also caused discontent, especially among the farmers. Farm produce tended to be a glut on the market, and general unrest centered chiefly among farmer-debtors who wanted strong remedies to insure against the foreclosure of mortgages on their property and to avoid imprisonment for debt. Courts were clogged with suits for debt. All through the summer of 1786, popular conventions and informal gatherings in several states demanded reform in the state administrations. Many yeomen, facing debtor's prison and loss of ancestral farms, resorted to violence.

In the autumn of 1786, mobs of farmers in Massachusetts, under the leadership of a former army captain, Daniel Shays, began forcibly to prevent the county courts from sitting and to prevent further judgments for debt, pending the next state election. The state government offered stout resistance, and for a few days there was danger that the state house in Boston would be beseiged by an infuriated yeomanry. But the rebels, armed chiefly with staves and pitchforks, were repulsed by the militia and scattered into the hills. Only after the uprising was crushed did the legislature consider the justice of the grievances that had caused it and take steps to remedy them.

At this time, George Washington wrote that the states were united only by a "rope of sand," and the prestige of the Congress had fallen to a low point. Disputes between Maryland and Virginia over navigation on the Potomac River led to a conference of representatives of five states at Annapolis in 1786. One of these delegates, Alexander Hamilton, convinced his colleagues that commerce was too much bound up with other questions and that the situation was too serious to be dealt with by so unrepresentative a body as themselves.

He induced the gathering to call upon all the states to appoint representatives of the United States and 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." The Continental Congress was at first indignant over this bold step, but its protests were cut short by the news that Virginia had elected George Washington a delegate, and during the next fall and winter, elections were held in all the states but Rhode Island.

It was a gathering of notables that assembled as the Federal Convention in the Philadelphia State House in May 1787. The state legislatures sent leaders with experience in colonial and state governments, in Congress, on the bench, and in the field. George Washington, regarded as the country s outstanding citizen because of his integrity and his military leadership during the Revolution, was chosen as presiding officer. The sage Benjamin Franklin, now 81, let the younger men do most of the talking, but his kindly humor and wide experience in diplomacy helped ease some of the difficulties among the other delegates.

Prominent among the more active members were two Pennsylvanians: Governor Morris, able and daring, who clearly saw the need for national government; and James Wilson, who labored indefatigably for the national idea. From Virginia came James Madison, a practical young statesman, a thorough student of politics and history and, according to a colleague, "from a spirit of industry and application... the best-informed man on any point in debate."

Massachusetts sent Rufus King and Elbridge Gerry, young men of ability and experience. Roger Sherman, shoemaker turned judge, was one of the representatives from Connecticut. From New York came Alexander Hamilton, just turned 30 and already famous. One of the few great men of colonial America absent from the Convention was Thomas Jefferson, who was in France on a mission of state. Youth predominated among the 55 delegates, for the average age was 42.

The Convention had been authorized merely to draft amendments to the Articles of Confederation but, as Madison later wrote, the delegates, "with a manly confidence in their country," simply threw the Articles aside and went ahead with the building of a wholly new form of government.

They recognized that the predominant need was to reconcile two different powers - the power of local control, which was already being exercised by the 13 semi-independent states, and the power of a central government. They adopted the principle that the functions and powers of the national government, being new, general, and inclusive, had to be carefully defined and stated, while all other functions and powers were to be understood as belonging to the states. But realizing that the central government must have real power, the delegates also generally accepted the fact that the government should be authorized-among other things - to coin money, to regulate commerce, to declare war, and to make peace.