The Search for the Just Society

Edward J. Dodson


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.


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 the confederation.

Under the Articles, the confederation's agents had no power to charter banks, mint coinage or issue debt instruments.


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 invasion.


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 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 the governed.

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.


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 goods.

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 America.


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 plagued Europe.

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.


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