Story of Our Constitution - E. M. Tappan

Keeping the Union Together

No government can be carried on without money and power. As to money, Congress needed it badly. The pay of the soldiers was long overdue. The salaries of officers and employees of the Government at home and of representatives abroad were in arrears. Forts were needed to protect from the Indians the settlers in what was then the "far West." Americans who had lent their savings to the Government had not received even the interest on their loans. France in the darkest days of the Revolution had helped with men and treasure to win the war, and had continued her generosity even after the contest had come to an end. Holland and Spain were also our creditors. The Union was grateful, but it could not pay.

What could be done? No more money could be borrowed, and it was very difficult to raise any by taxation. Sometimes a State declared that the amount required of it was unjust, and refused to pay. Sometimes a State refused unless Congress would oblige some other State to grant it a desired privilege. Some States issued notes to serve as money, as has been said; but this did not make matters much better, for while the legislature of a State could oblige its citizens to accept the notes of their own State, it could not force them to accept those of any other. Sometimes merchants stopped carrying on business rather than accept payment in such notes. The agreement under which the States lived, the Articles of Confederation, as it was called, formed a "league of friendship "and nothing more; for the colonists had been so anxious to be "free "that they had given Congress no power to enforce its decrees. The lawless, who are in every land and who delight in disorder and opposition to any control, were constantly at work trying to overthrow what government there was.

Europe, and especially England, were watching the course of events in America. "That Union will never stand," they said. "It will soon fall to pieces, and the Americans will be glad enough to beg England to take them back under a government strong enough to rule and protect its people." Indeed, Europe had good warrant for such belief, for scattered all over the country were groups planning to cut loose from the Confederation, and some of them thinking of calling upon England for protection.

The Union had held together while its people were struggling for independence; but now that they had won their independence, there was nothing to keep them united, or rather, there was only one thing, namely, the Northwest Territory. This was the land lying between the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers. Four States had claims upon it, but one by one they finally gave up their claims into the hands of the general Government. This was between 1780 and 1786. Congress made treaties with the Indians of the Territory, made fair laws for its government, and threw it open to immigrants. It was valuable enough to pay the whole cost of the war and more, too. If a State left the Union and set up for herself, she would lose her share of this wealth. At last there was something in which every State was interested.

The compact by which the States had agreed to be governed, the "Articles of Confederation," was quite a lengthy document. It emphasized the independence of each State, and declared that the object of the Union was that these States might assist one another. It promised that any citizen of one State should have the same rights of trade and commerce in any other as if he had been an inhabitant of that State. Money needed for the general welfare was to be provided by the States in proportion to their wealth. The decisions of Congress were to be "inviolably observed "by every State.

This sounded well, but if any State did not wish to "inviolably observe," Congress had no power to force it to obey. Another difficulty was in regard to apportioning taxes. In voting, the State was represented, but the people were not, for each State, large or small, had but one vote. These Americans had fought for seven years to make sure of representation, and they did not propose to be governed without that representation now that they had been victorious.

Of course, long before this the people who thought rather than grumbled had seen that if there was to be any commerce with other countries, Congress must be able to make treaties that would bind every State; if it was to carry on the Government, it must be able to raise money to work with. In short, it must have power. The States must yield some of their "sovereignty, freedom, and independence," as the Articles put it, and consider what was for the best good of the whole Union.

Washington had been especially troubled by the disagreements of the States. He had made many sacrifices for America. By his eight years' absence he had greatly lessened the value of his property. He had risked his life not only in war, but in the certainty of being hanged as a traitor to the Mother Country if the struggle of the colonies should prove to be a rebellion rather than a revolution. He believed that this spacious America might become the land of the free, the land of peace and justice and uprightness; and he saw it a collection of selfish, quarrelsome, and often lawless States. But he did not join the ranks of the grumblers. The States do not understand one another, he said; they must learn to look at matters from the point of view of one another. Instead of being rivals, they must learn that they have interests in common. They must become acquainted. The people of the East and the people of the West must be brought together. The way to bring them together is to make it more possible to go from one to the other.

To lay out even the roughest roads through the wilderness would be an enormous undertaking. Travel by land was at the best extremely slow and full of difficulties. To go from New England to Annapolis, for instance, through the most thickly settled parts of the country required between two and three weeks. Travel by water was a different matter. To deepen the channels of the Potomac and the James Rivers and clear away obstructions would not be at all impossible or even especially difficult. It would be easy to connect the head waters of the Potomac with those of the Ohio. Vessels going up and down these waters would exchange the products of East and West; and such intercourse would do much to unite the people of the two parts of the country. This was a favorite scheme of Washington's even before the war, and after the war he had made a seven-hundred-mile horseback tour to the Monongahela River and through the wilderness of the Alleghany Mountains into the Shenandoah Valley. A company was formed to carry his plans into effect, and he was chosen president.

Here was a matter in which four States, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, were interested. They would have to meet and agree upon questions of duties; why not, then, invite the other States to send commissioners for informal talk about desirable laws for trade? So said the Virginia legislature, and in the name of the governor of Virginia an invitation was sent to the other nine States. When the day came, Washington and the others who were most interested must have been badly disappointed, for besides Virginia, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, only two other States were represented. Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and North Carolina had indeed made appointments, but their commissioners had not arrived. Maryland had not taken the trouble even to name commissioners.

There was only one thing to do, and that was to adjourn and start for home. But of course the men who were there had informal consultations together, and they decided to ask all the States to send delegates to a convention to be held in Philadelphia some eight months later, with the object, they said frankly, of planning how to make the Government strong enough to meet the needs of the Union.

Everybody had been so independent, so afraid of "oppression," that no one had ventured to say much about giving more power to Congress; but people were beginning to feel alarmed and doubtful whether a weak Congress was after all what they really wanted. Even the most independent among them were questioning whether bankruptcy, rebellions, disputes with Spain, threats of separation and of appeals to England for protection, together with a general and increasing lawlessness were just what they had been struggling for.

Of course there were all shades of opinion. Some of those who opposed giving power to Congress had not had enough of monarchy, and would have been glad to set up a king. Some thought that the country was entirely too large for a single republic. The men of the East were chiefly fishermen or merchants, they said, and these would form one republic. The men of the South were farmers and planters. Their wishes and needs were quite different from those of the New Englanders, and so they would form a second republic. The people of New York and the other Middle States would form a third.

Massachusetts was won for the convention by a rebellion that took place on her own soil. There was little coin to be had, and the State had refused to issue paper "notes." People who owed money could not pay, and as the law was then, they could be put into prison for non-payment. One Daniel Shays led a company of debtors against the courthouses in several Massachusetts towns, and prevented the laws from being carried out. Barns were burned, houses robbed, and the arsenal at Springfield attacked before the rebellion could be subdued.

Part of this trouble was caused by the fact that Congress could not raise money to pay debts which were due to Massachusetts people. This set the Bay State citizens to thinking. They began to realize that a country with no way to enforce its laws was a poor place in which to live. Perhaps this proposed convention would better the condition of affairs. While they were discussing the matter, news came from Virginia that George Washington had been named as the first delegate. This settled the question, for where he led, no true patriot need hesitate to follow. Before this, Massachusetts had opposed every attempt to strengthen Congress. Only a few months earlier she had actually formed a scheme to separate New England from the rest of the country. She had now seen for herself that a stronger power than that of the State was sometimes required, and from that moment Massachusetts was one of the most earnest friends of a strong central government.

Connecticut just escaped a similar uprising. The farmers could not pay their taxes, and more than five hundred farms were advertised for sale. These must be sold for cash, and as cash was so hard to get, their prices were put very low. Often a farmer whose farm was sold for taxes received only one-tenth of its real value. Just who was to blame for this was not clear, but the orders came from the courts and were made out by the lawyers; therefore the people turned upon the courts and the lawyers. The country was not only in confusion, but was on the verge of anarchy. It was time for a convention.

Five or six States had already chosen their delegates, but here and there was a feeling that it was not quite according to law for such a convention to be called by any other authority than that of Congress. At length a motion was made in Congress that this body itself should call a meeting at Philadelphia on the date named, that is, should formally adopt the plan already formed. This motion was carried, and now the greatest stickler for legality might feel his mind at rest.