Page images

obliging every Yankee sloop which came down through Hell Gate, and every Jersey market boat which was rowed across from Paulus Hook to Cortlandt Street, to pay entrance fees and obtain clearances at the custom-house, just as was done by ships from London or Hamburg; and not a cartload of Connecticut firewood could be delivered at the back door of a country house in Beekman Street until it should have paid a heavy duty. . The New Jersey legislature made up its mind to retaliate. The city of New York had lately bought a small patch of ground on Sandy Hook, and had built a lighthouse there. . . . New Jersey gave vent to her indignation by laying a tax of $1800 a year on it. Connecticut was equally prompt. At a great meeting of business men, held at New London, it was unanimously agreed to suspend all commercial intercourse with New York. Every merchant signed an agreement, under penalty of $250 for the first offence, not to send any goods whatever into the hated state for a period of twelve months." 1

3. The monetary system under the Articles of Confederation was even in worse confusion, if possible, than commerce. During the Revolution, Congress had created an enormous amount of paper money which so speedily declined in value that in 1780 one paper dollar was worth less than two cents in specie. It took eleven dollars of this money to buy a pound of brown sugar in Virginia; seventy-five dollars for a yard of linen; and one hundred dollars for a pound of tea. Jefferson records that he paid his physician $3000 for two calls in 1781, and gave $355.50 for three quarts of brandy. After the Revolution, the great majority of states continued to issue paper money without any currency basis. In Rhode Island a most extraordinary conflict occurred over the control of the monetary system. The farmers, being in a majority, secured the passage of a law authorizing the issuance of money to themselves on the basis of mortgages against their farms. The merchants refused to accept this paper, and it promptly declined to about one-sixth of its nominal value. Heavy penalties then were placed upon those who would not accept it, but without avail. Merchants closed their shops rather than yield, and farmers refused to bring produce to town. in the hope of starving the merchants out. In nearly every

'J. Fiske, The Critical Period of American History, pp. 144-147.

state determined efforts were made to force creditors to accept depreciated paper in payment of lawful debts. It is small wonder, therefore, that the framers of the federal Constitution inserted clauses in that instrument forbidding states to emit bills of credit, make anything but gold and silver coin a legal tender in payment of debts, or pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts. It is small wonder also that merchants and creditors everywhere welcomed this measure of relief when the new Constitution was laid before them for ratification.

4. Shays' rebellion in Massachusetts showed that grave dangers to public order might arise in any state and that the duly constituted authorities might be overthrown by violence if no assistance could be secured from neighboring states or the federal authority. The heavy public debt in Massachusetts had necessitated heavy taxes, and the attempt of creditors to recover debts due them added to popular discontent. "A levelling, licentious spirit," says Mr. Curtis, "a restless desire for change, and a disposition to throw down the barriers of private rights, at length broke forth in conventions, which first voted themselves to be the people and then declared their proceedings to be constitutional. At these assemblies the doctrine was publicly broached that property ought to be common, because all had aided in saving it from confiscation by the power of England. Taxes were voted to be unnecessary burdens, the courts of justice to be intolerable grievances, and the legal profession a nuiA revision of the [state] constitution was demanded, in order to abolish the Senate, reform the representation of the people, and make all the civil officers eligible by the people. . . . Had the government of the state been in the hands of a person less firm and less careless of popularity than Bowdoin it would have been given up to anarchy and civil confusion." 1


5. The impotence which characterized the confederate government in enforcing measures of taxation and commercial treaties against recalcitrant states extended throughout the whole domain of its nominal authority. It was dependent almost wholly upon the states for the enforcement of its laws, and yet it had no express power to exact obedience from them or to punish them by pecuniary penalties or suspension of privileges. Who

1 Constitutional History of the United States, Vol. I, p. 181.

ever argued that such a right was necessarily inherent in every government was met by the contention that the Articles themselves provided "that each state retained every power, jurisdiction, and right not expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled." Indeed, as Madison afterwards pointed out in the convention at Philadelphia, "the use of force against a state would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound." Thus was afforded "the extraordinary spectacle of a government destitute even of a shadow of a constitutional power to enforce the execution of its own laws." 2



6. This reduction of the confederate government's power to a shadow was the logical result of what Hamilton regarded as the great and radical vice of the Articles of Confederation; namely, the principle of legislation for states in their collective or corporate capacity as distinguished from the individuals of which they were composed. Subject to the rule of apportionment, Congress could demand an unlimited supply of money and men from the states, but in both these important matters, upon which, in final analysis, the foundations of all government rest, Congress could bring no pressure to bear upon any individual. It was practically restricted to transactions with states - corporate entities represented by transient and often hostile legislatures, so that the complete enforcement of any measure of taxation required the concurrence of thirteen different bodies a conjuncture which was well-nigh impossible to secure in practice. For the purpose of safeguarding and advancing the interests of a nation with such vast natural resources at its command, a more inadequate instrument could scarcely be imagined; and the gravity of the situation was all the more serious because the Articles required the consent of every state to the slightest amendment. It was not merely the Confederation that failed — the entire system, state and national, did not correspond to the real and permanent interests of that portion of the population who by reason of their property and intelligence possessed both the will and the capacity for concerted action on a scale large enough


1 Elliot's Debates, Vol. V, p. 140. 2 The Federalist, No. XXI.
3 Ibid., No. XV.

to overthrow the confederate government and set up an adequate system of union in its stead.

The Movement for Constitutional Revision

The Congress of the Confederation was not long in discovering the true character of the futile authority which the Articles had conferred upon it. The necessity for new sources of revenue became apparent even while the struggle for independence was yet undecided, and, in 1781, Congress carried a resolution to the effect that it should be authorized to lay a duty of five per cent on certain goods. This moderate proposition was defeated because Rhode Island rejected it on the grounds that "she regarded it the most precious jewel of sovereignty that no state shall be called upon to open its purse but by the authority of the state and by her own officers." Two years later Congress prepared another amendment to the Articles providing for certain import duties, the receipts from which, collected by state officers, were to be applied to the payment of the public debt; but three years after the introduction of the measure, four states, including New York, still held out against its ratification, and the project was allowed to drop. At last, in 1786, Congress in a resolution declared that the requisitions for the last eight years had been so irregular in their operation, so uncertain in their collection, and so evidently unproductive, that a reliance on them in the future would be no less dishonorable to the understandings of those who entertained it than it would be dangerous to the welfare and peace of the Union. Congress, thereupon, solemnly added that it had become its duty "to declare most explicitly that the crisis had arrived when the people of the United States, by whose will and for whose benefit the federal government was instituted, must decide whether they will support their rank as a nation by maintaining the public faith at home and abroad, or whether for the want of a timely exertion in establishing a general revenue and thereby giving strength to the Confederacy, they will hazard not only the existence of the Union but of those great and invaluable privileges for which they have so arduously and so honorably contended."

In fact, the Articles of Confederation had hardly gone into effect before the leading citizens also began to feel that the powers

of Congress were wholly inadequate. In 1780, even before their adoption, Alexander Hamilton proposed a general convention to frame a new constitution, and from that time forward he labored with remarkable zeal and wisdom to extend and popularize the idea of a strong national government. Two years later, the assembly of the state of New York recommended a convention to revise the Articles and increase the power of Congress. In 1783, Washington, in a circular letter to the governors,' urged that it was indispensable to the happiness of the individual states that there should be lodged somewhere a supreme power to regulate and govern the general concerns of the confederation. Shortly afterward (1785), Governor Bowdoin, of Massachusetts, suggested to his state legislature the advisability of calling a national assembly to settle upon and define the powers of Congress; and the legislature resolved that the government under the Articles of Confederation was inefficient and should be reformed; but the resolution was never laid before Congress.

In the same year, however, that the Massachusetts resolution was passed, commissioners, selected by Maryland and Virginia for the purpose of reaching an agreement respecting the navigation of the Potomac, recommended the appointment of a new commission with power to arrange a tariff schedule, subject to the consent of Congress, to be enforced by both states. Thereupon, Virginia invited all the other states to send delegates to a convention at Annapolis to consider the question of duties on imports and commerce in general. When this convention assembled in 1786, delegates from only five states were present, and they were disheartened at the limitations on their powers and the lack of interest the other states had shown in the project. With remarkable foresight, however, Alexander Hamilton seized the occasion to secure the adoption of a recommendation advising the states to choose representatives for another convention to meet in Philadelphia the following year "to consider the Articles of Confederation and to propose such changes therein as might render them adequate to the exigencies of the union." This recommendation was cautiously worded, for Hamilton did not

'This letter is printed along with other important materials bearing on the movement for the Constitution in Professor Lawrence Evans' Writings of Washington (1908).

« PreviousContinue »