The Search for the Just Society
Edward J. Dodson
INSTRUCTOR'S MANUAL, LESSON 5
This lesson continues the discussion of the transition of the
British colonies in North America to independence and formation of a
confederation under the Articles and then the change to a stronger
Federal government and the Union under the Constitution. Key points
to discuss include the economic and political issues arising while
the states were united under the Articles and the motivations of
those who advocated a stronger Federal government.
A UNION OF SOVEREIGN STATES
Independence from the British empire was initially perceived by
the citizens of each colony as an acknowledgement of sovereignty, of
nation-statehood. Each independent state adopted its own
constitution (and bill of rights) and elected delegates to the
convention that resulted in the Articles.
The provisions of the Articles provided for a confederation of the
sovereign states, in which each state was represented and the
primary purpose of which was to achieve mutual protection from
external threats and to regulate commerce between the states.
Under the Articles, financial needs of the confederation's
administrative agents were to be provided by the individual states.
There was no provision for direct taxation of individuals, since
citizenship was applied to a person's state of residence and not of
Under the Articles, the confederation's agents had no power to
charter banks, mint coinage or issue debt instruments.
THREATS TO THE CONFEDERATION
The greatest initial threat to the newly-independent, sovereign
and loosely united States was a renewal of war with Britain. Peace
between the European powers meant that Britain could concentrate its
military force against its former colonies.
The war debt to European merchants and the French and Spanish
governments remained unpaid, which meant that additional
international credit was not available. An agreement on how to
resolve the debt problem was stalled because some states had
incurred far more debt than others.
There were certain problems of inter-state commerce associated
with the sharing of responsibilities over inland waterways. There
was no provision worked out for the settlement of the frontier, and
many state boundaries remained in dispute between the states, the
British and the Spanish.
While many state leaders felt the problems of the confederation
could be resolved, another group of Federalists led by Alexander
Hamilton, John Adams and others believed that only a strong national
government, superior to that of the states, could deal with domestic
financial problems as well as adequately defend against foreign
A REPUBLIC IS FORMED
Nationalists (or Federalists) led by Alexander Hamilton argued for
a much stronger Union, within which the states would delegate more
power to a central authority. Of particular concern to the
Federalists was the war debt. A national government, with powers to
tax and borrow, would be able to raise financial resources
internationally and thereby repay creditors and the army (which was
owed substantial back pay).
As historian Charles Beard observed in his work, An Economic
Interpretation of the Constitution, the convention was dominated
by the most conservative element in the new states (i.e., large
landowners, wealthy merchants, lawyers, financiers, speculators,
etc.) who sought in the new government protections of their
interests not contained under the Articles.
The end result was a national government built on a framework of
compromise. Many of the principles deemed crucial by Paine,
Franklin, Jefferson and others were not accepted by their more
conservative and self-interested contemporaries.
In the end, the political philosophy of the English legal theorist
James Harrington, as put forth by John Adams, guided the formation
of government on the concept of a balance of power; hence, the new
national government had three co-equal branches: the executive, the
legislative and the judiciary.
THE PHILOSOPHICAL DEBATE
The more enlightened leaders among those who joined in the
rebellion against Britain were greatly influenced by the
socio-political ideas of John Locke contained in his treatise on
government published in the last decade of the seventeenth century,
and by the French school of economists known as the Physiocrats.
John Locke provided a scientific basis for viewing the individual
as sovereign. In the original state of nature, there was no
government, no hierarchy of authority; the individual was born free.
Therefore, the legitimacy of government depended on the consent of
Locke's other important contribution was to examine human behavior
and distinguish between the actions of individuals based on whether
or not they were harmful to others. Actions of a type that expressed
an individual's freedom and in no way harmed others he put in the
realm of liberty. Those that inherently violated the liberty of
others he put in the realm of license. From Locke's analysis, it was
possible for others to further distinguish between criminal and
economic licenses; under positive law the former had to be prevented
(or, when this was not done, punished according to societal norms),
the latter had to be regulated by government.
The Physiocrats were a group of French intellectuals, such as Anne
Robert Turgot -- the finance minister -- and Francois Quesnay
(pronounced kay-nay) who can be credited with the founding of
political economy as a science in conjunction with Adam Smith. They
believed strongly that the strength or weakness of any society began
with its land tenure system.
The Physciocrats were also among the first to argue the case for
removing trade barriers, particularly between provinces of the same
nation but also between countries.
The insights of the Physiocrats were expanded on by Adam Smith in
his work The Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith used the
Physiocratic phrase laissez-faire, laissez-aller (which
Henry George later translated as "a fair field and no favors")
but was shortened in general use (by those who simply wanted to
operate without government interference) into laissez-faire
and redefined to mean "leave things alone".
Smith condemned mercantilism because these policies thwarted the
natural productive and cooperative instincts of individuals. In
arguing for freely operating markets, Smith observed and reminded
his readers that the nations with the highest wages were the most
successful -- economically and politically.
PROTECTIONIST VIEWS DOMINATE
Alexander Hamilton became the primary spokesperson in the
Confederation for a strong national government that could protect
and encourage the development of new industries. The Hamiltonian
view was nationalist and argued the case for self-sufficiency in the
production of goods and services. In this way, the nation could
never be held hostage or threatened by blockade in the event of war.
As President, Thomas Jefferson would turn strongly nationalist as
well, defining free trade as the right of U.S. ships to enter all
foreign ports without restriction. The nation had already adopted
Hamiltonian tariffs and other protectionist measures against foreign
Under the banner of spreading democracy, the leaders of the Union
from George Washington on viewed all of North America as the
legitimate domain of European-Americans.
Indigenous tribes (even those such as the Cherokee who adopted
European law and culture) were considered only as trespassers. This
attitude was given the term manifest destiny.
The distance between the conquest of a thinly-populated northern
hemisphere (south of British Canada) and a renewed pattern of
empire-building was quick to emerge. First, against the Spanish and
Seminoles in Florida, then against the independent state of Mexico
and their holdings in Texas and the southwest portion of North
THE LAND QUESTION
Even the most visionary leaders in North American could not
foresee a time when the frontier would disappear and the continent
come under control of a landed minority as had occurred in Europe
and much of the rest of the world.
Jefferson, Adams and others thought that bringing an end to
aristocratic titles and opening land ownership to all citizens would
prevent the kind of poverty and concentrated political power that
Thomas Paine, in Agrarian Justice, came closest to seeing
that even the elimination of primogeniture and entail, as well as
aristocratic and hereditary titles would not resolve the historical
problem of land coming under the control of the few. He argued that
titleholdings in nature were privileges -- licenses of the type
Locke identified as inconsistent with the preservation of the
liberty of others. Thus, with Paine comes the fundamental principle
of cooperative individualism; namely, that the earth is the
birthright of all mankind, equally.