Story of Our Constitution - E. M. Tappan

The Days of Weakness and Confusion

There was once a family of boys who were somewhat inclined to quarrel. One day the father called them together and handed the youngest a bundle of short sticks. "See if you can break that," he said. The boy tried, but he could not even crack them. Then the next boy tried, and the next, and finally the oldest of the four, but the bundle was tied closely together and remained as firm as ever. While the boys stood wondering what their father was trying to do, he untied the string and gave each boy a stick. Even the youngest could break one, and the father said, "You boys are like the sticks. If you quarrel and each one stands alone, you are weak; but if you are good friends and stand together, no one can ever harm you.

It is a pity that the Americans could not have read this old fable every morning of the first years following the Revolutionary War. They had had a severe struggle, and they had won the victory. Naturally, they were somewhat puffed up and just a bit proud of themselves. No one should step on their toes, whether he were George III or a man from a neighboring State.

They had opinions of their own, and every man was prodigiously sure that his were correct. Some of these opinions, whether correct or not, were certainly remarkable. One sturdy Vermonter fled to the newspapers with a wrathful declaration that nothing but luxuries ought to be taxed, that lawsuits were luxuries and served chiefly for the entertainment of idle, quarrelsome people, and therefore lawsuits ought to be taxed. Another went even farther, for he was much aggrieved that any of the tax money should go to the support of the courts. "I never had a case in court," he declared virtuously, "and why should I be taxed to help pay the costs of settling other people's quarrels?"

About the Society of the Cincinnati there was a real tempest in a teapot. This society was formed of the surviving officers of the Revolution. It was merely an association of friends who agreed to help one another if any need for help should arise. At the death of each member, his oldest male descendant was to have the right to take his place. There does not seem to be anything especially alarming in this, but in the eyes of many worthy Americans of the day, it was fraught with awful danger to the democracy of the country. Hereditary honors and a "hereditary nobility "were bad enough, but much worse was the fact that foreign officers who had fought in the war were actually allowed to become members; and from this there was no knowing what evils might arise. Even the fact that Washington was president of the Cincinnati did not soothe the fears of the apprehensive people.

Another alarm arose at the demand of Congress for a standing army, although it does not seem as if its proposed size need have startled any one. According to the treaty of peace with England, the confiscated property of the Tories, or those who had been on the English side during the war, was to be returned to them and all private debts were to be paid. Congress asked the different States to do this, 'but they paid no heed to the request. England refused to give up the western forts till it was done, and a motion was introduced in Congress to requisition some nine hundred men as a defense in case of necessity. The people were angry and alarmed. What right had Congress, they demanded, to require an army to be furnished by the States in time of peace? There was no knowing where this might end. If Congress once had armed troops at its command, who could foresee what it might do? This storm was at length quieted by the change of a single word; Congress no longer "requisitioned," it "recommended," and quiet was restored.

So it was that everything that Congress did or proposed to do was watched, not only by the people as individuals, but as States. Every State was jealous of every other State. New York on the one side and New Jersey and Connecticut on the other, almost came to blows. New Jersey served New York as a great truck farm. Whenever market day came around, fleets of boats weighed down with fruit, vegetables, fowls, cheese, and butter, sailed from New Jersey to the wharves of New York; and from Connecticut came almost as many piled up with great loads of fire-wood.

New York began to take heed of the amount of money that was going from the pockets of her citizens into those of her thrifty neighbors. It was highly improper, she thought, for so many good pounds and shillings to be carried off to rival States. That she was getting a fair return for her money did not affect the matter; and her assembly passed a decree that all boats over twelve tons must be entered and cleared at the custom house; that is, they must pay their neighboring State as large dues for selling to her citizens as if the vessels had been foreign craft.

The Jersey folk meditated on how to strike back. They could raise the price of wood and vegetables, of course, but the probabilities were that the New Yorkers would then refuse to purchase. There was one way, however, in which New Jersey could get her revenge. New York, it seemed, needed a lighthouse on Sandy Hook, and some time before this had bought of its New Jersey owner four acres of ground and had put up a light-house. Nothing was simpler than for the New Jersey assembly to increase the taxes on that four acres; and New York was promptly notified that her annual tax would be $1,800, a sum worth far more than it is now. As for Connecticut, a league of business men agreed not to sell one article to New York for a year.

Each State was looking out for itself. Kentucky and Tennessee, for instance, wished to trade with New Orleans; but Spain held the land about the lower Mississippi, and she refused to allow American vessels to use that part of the river. New England wished to have a commercial treaty with Spain, and Spain replied, "Very well, I will agree to such a treaty, provided all American vessels are forbidden to enter the lower Mississippi." Kentucky and Tennessee and the Southern States were indignant at being shut off from the mouth of the river; New England was indignant at the "obstinacy and selfishness" of the South. Both groups of States threatened to leave the Union. "What I buy and sell and how I buy and sell it is my own business," was the claim of each and every State.

So it was that the different States contended at home, and when the question arose of sending goods to Europe, there was even more trouble. Most of the imported articles that were wanted in America came from England. England was ready to sell, but she would not buy any American goods in return unless they had been brought in English vessels. Of course any State that chose could refuse to receive goods that were not brought in American vessels; but that would not trouble England in the least, for some neighboring State was always ready to accept the goods. In the same way, a State could put as high a tax as she chose upon any articles brought to her ports; but that made little difference to the sellers, for some other State was always ready to admit them free of duty. In matters of trade, then, America was like a house with thirteen doors. It made no difference whether any one door were closed or not, since some of the others would always be open.

America was buying of England five times as much as England was buying of America; and moreover, America was paying in coin. The result was that coin was becoming very scarce on this side of the ocean, so scarce that many places were almost without any, and people had to go back to the old fashion of barter. If a man wanted to buy a sheep, for instance, he had to pay for it in vegetables or hay or some other product, or in work, rather an inconvenient system of trading. One of the Massachusetts newspapers advertised that it would take pay in salt pork for subscriptions.

What coin there was in the land was as confused as a nightmare. Here were nearly four million people who had been successful in a contest with the most powerful country of Europe, and they used only second-hand coins, which had come to them from England, France, Spain, Germany, and other countries. Their names and their mottoes were in half a dozen different languages. There were great copper pennies and golden guineas from England; francs and sous from France; big, heavy silver dollars and golden doubloons from Spain, the Spanish Indies, and the mouth of the Mississippi River; and there were golden johannes, or "foes," from Portugal and Brazil. There were bits and half-bits, ducats, halfpence, picayunes, fips, and at least a dozen others. Merely to learn the face value of these coins was no trifling matter; but this was only a small part of the knowledge required to buy and sell so as neither to be cheated nor to cheat any one else.

It would not have been so hopeless if these coins had been of the same value in different parts of the country, or had even remained of the same value in any one place, or if counterfeiters and coin-clippers had not been constantly at work. Their business paid well. A copper coin with a wash of silver would often make its way in the world as an English sixpence. A French sou, worth about half a cent, could be nicely gilded and would then sometimes pass for a gold Portuguese coin worth $6.50. Even worse than this was the clipping of coins. A French livre, for instance, was not required to weigh as much in America as in France. Therefore, clipping this coin was especially common. Indeed, it was once done by Congress itself when hopelessly short of funds; for when a loan arrived from France in livres, each coin was promptly cut down to the American weight. Dishonest folk of the day did not stop at that, but clipped away diligently as far as they could and still hope to pass the coins. Indeed, matters became so bad that when a debt was to be paid, the creditor had to bring out his scales and weigh every coin to make sure of getting the amount due him. It was ten years after the Declaration of Independence before our simple and easy decimal system of coinage was adopted. Up to that date the United States coined nothing but copper cents.

Both the United States and many of the separate States issued paper money, however—promises to pay with nothing to back them up! At first people were delighted. It was such a fine thing to have money plentiful! Why vote for taxation when nothing but a printing-press and some paper were necessary? Little by little, this money began to lose even its imaginary value until, near the end of the Revolutionary War, it took, as Washington said, "a wagon-load of money to buy a wagon-load of potatoes."