The Americans were now free but not independent. Why not? Because they had not established a nation endowed with the functions of absolute sovereignty. The British statesmen were wise enough to see this, and sagacious enough to take advantage of the situation. They saw that the Americans were without a government sufficiently powerful to command the fulfillment of treaty stipulations, or an untrammeled commerce sufficiently important to attract the cupidity or interested sympathies of other nations. John Adams was received with courtesy as the ambassador of an independent nation at the court of St. James, and King George had said to him: "I was the last man in the kingdom, Sir, to consent to the independence of America; but now it is granted, I will be the last man in the world to sanction a violation of it."
These courtesies and fair words were only the velvet that covered the mailed hand of power. The British ministry, misled by the Loyalists that swarmed in the metropolis, believed that the weak confederacy would soon crumble, and that each part would be suing for restoration to the privileges of subjects to the crown. It was prepared to seize with merciless grasp the inchoate nation and destroy its sovereignty. The trade, commerce, manufactures, arts, literature, science, religion and laws were yet largely subservient to the parent country, without a well-grounded hope for speedy deliverance from the thrall. These facts gave Dr. Franklin good reason for saying to a compatriot who remarked that the war for independence was successfully closed: "Say, rather, the war of the Revolution. The war for Independence is yet to be fought." That struggle occurred, and that independence was won by the Americans in the war of 1812.
We have already observed that wise men deplored the weakness of the government under the Articles of Confederation ratified in 1781. The powers of that government were soon tested by its efforts to employ the functions of sovereignty. A debt of $70,000,000 lay upon the shoulders of a wasted people, besides the promises of the dead "Continental money" to pay more than $200,000,000 more. About $44,000,000 of this live debt was owing by the general government, $10,000,000 in Europe, and the remainder by the individual States. The debt had been contracted in carrying on the war, which, for a long time, was sustained only by money borrowed for the purpose. By this means the public credit had sunk very low. The restoration of that credit or the downfall of the infant republic was the alternative presented to the Americans at the close of the war.
With a determination to restore the public credit, the General Congress put forth all their strength, which was only absolute weakness. They asked the several States to vest that body with power to levy, for the term of twenty-five years, duties on certain imported articles, the revenue therefrom to be appropriated to the sole purpose of paying the interest and principal of the public debt. It was also proposed that the States should establish, for the same time and for the same object, substantial revenues for supplying each its proportion of $1,500,000 annually, exclusive of duties on imports. This financial system, which was approved by the leading men of the country, was not to go into effect without the consent of every State in the league. For three years the proposition was before the people. All the States but two were willing to raise the required amount; but they would not consent to vest the Congress with the asked-for power. "It is money, not power," they said, "that ought to be the object. The former will pay our debts, the latter may destroy our liberties." So ended in failure the first important effort of the general government to assume the functions of sovereignty. It was the beginning of a series of failures, and was mischievous because it excited the jealousy of the respective States. It also exposed the impotency of a so-called national government, whose very vitality, as well as the right to exercise governing functions, depended upon the will of thirteen distinct legislative bodies, each tenacious of its own peculiar rights and interests, and miserly in its delegation of power. It was perceived that the public credit must inevitably be destroyed by a repudiation of the public debt.
The League were equally unfortunate in their attempts to establish commercial relations with other governments, especially with Great Britain. The British ministry in power when the treaty of peace was ratified were disposed to make liberal commercial arrangements with the Americans, and our commerce began to revive. William Pitt, son of the Earl of Chatham, and then, at the age of twenty-four years, Chancellor of the Exchequer, proposed a plan by which the British West India Islands and other possessions of the crown, should be thrown open to American commerce. Such a measure would have secured a lasting peace between the two countries. But the unwisdom of British statesmen could not discern it. The shipping interest, then potential in Parliament, opposed it, and the wiser ministry did not survive the proposition a month. The new ministry, listening to the suggestions of bitter American Loyalists in England, assumed a haughty tone toward the Americans, treating them as vassals, and inaugurating a restrictive commercial policy which indicated that they regarded the States of the League as only alienated members of the British realm. Lord Sheffield, in a pamphlet that was widely circulated, declared his belief that utter ruin must soon overtake the League because of the anarchy into which their independence had thrown them. He saw the utter weakness of their form of government, and advised his countrymen to consider them of little account as a nation. "If the American States choose to send consuls," he said, "receive them and send a consul to each State. Each State will soon enter into all necessary regulations with the consul, and this is the whole that is necessary." In other words, the United States have no dignity above that of a fifth-rate power; and the States are still, in fact, only dis-membered fragments of the British empire.
Impelled by this unfriendly conduct of Great Britain, the Congress, in the spring of 1784, asked the several States to delegate powers to them for fifteen years, by which they might, by countervailing measures, compel the British to be more liberal. The appeal was in vain. The States growing more and more jealous of their own dignity, refused to vest any such powers in the Congress; nor would they make any permanent or uniform arrangement among themselves. Without public credit; their commerce at the mercy of every adventurer; without respect at home or abroad, the League exhibited the sad spectacle of the elements of a great nation paralyzed in the formative process. Then came a threatened open rupture with Great Britain on account of the inexecution of the Treaty of Peace, when John Adams was sent to England early in 1785, clothed with the full powers of plenipotentiary, to arrange all matters in dispute. But he could accomplish little. He was courteously received, as we have observed, but was coldly treated afterward. The representative of a weak government, he was compelled to bite his lip in silence; and he asked and obtained leave to return home.
Meanwhile matters were becoming infinitely worse in the United States. The League appeared to be on the verge of dissolution. The idea of forming two or three distinct confederacies took possession of the public mind. The people of Western North Carolina revolted and a new State called Frankland, formed by the insurgents, lasted several months. A portion of Southwestern Virginia sympathized in the movement. Insurrections against the authorities of Pennsylvania appeared in the Wyoming Valley. A convention at Portland discussed the propriety of making the Territory of Maine an independent State. An armed mob surrounded the New Hampshire Legislature and demanded a remission of taxes. In Massachusetts, Captain Daniel Shays led a formidable insurrection, which caused the calling out of several thousand militia under General Lincoln to suppress it. There was resistance to taxation everywhere. It was caused by the hard necessities of the people. Debt weighed down all classes; and the burden of the tax gatherer was often the "feather that would break the camel's back."
Wise and patriotic men now saw clearly that the chief cause of all the trouble was the inherent weakness of the general government. Sagacious men like young Hamilton had perceived it long before. So early as 1780, when he was only twenty-three years of age, Hamilton seems to have formed well-defined, profound and comprehensive opinions on the situation and wants of the States. In a long letter to James Duane, in Congress, dated "At the Liberty-Pole," September 3d, he gave an outline sketch of a national constitution, and suggested the calling of a convention to frame such a system of government. During the following year he published in the New York Packet, then printed at Fishkill, in Duchess County, New York, a series of papers under the title of The Constitutionalist, which were devoted chiefly to the discussion of the defects in the Articles of Confederation. They excited much local attention. In the summer of 1782, as we have observed, he succeeded in having the subject brought before the Legislature of New York, then in session at Poughkeepsie. It was favorably received; and on Sunday, the 21st of July, that body, by resolution, drawn by Hamilton and presented by General Schuyler, his father-in-law, recommended the "assembling of a convention of the United States, specially authorized to revise and amend the Confederation, reserving the right to the respective legislatures to ratify their determination." In the spring of 1783, Hamilton, in Congress, expressed an earnest desire for a convention charged with that high duty. In the same year, Thomas Paine and Pelatiah Webster wrote on the subject; and in the spring of 1784, Noah Webster, the author of the Dictionary, published a pamphlet on the great topic, which he took pains to carry in person to General Washington. In that pamphlet he suggested a "new system of government which should act, not on the States but directly on individuals, and vest in Congress full power to carry its laws into effect." In the autumn of 1785, Washington, in a letter to James Warren, deplored the weakness of the government and the "illiberality jealousy, and local policy of the States" that was likely to sink the new nation, "in the eyes of Europe, into contempt."
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