Coalescing All the States

John Adams. By: John Singleton Copley.

Americans had a keen understanding of the idea, popularized by Montesquieu, that “only a small homogeneous society whose interests were essentially similar could properly sustain a republican government.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 356. This idea created a fundamental problem for America: it was not a small homogeneous society, and it was rapidly expanding.

The “climate and the economic and social interests of the separate states . . . seemed so varied, the habits and character of the people, particularly between North and South, appeared so different, that a continental republic with a single government coalescing all the states was as nearly impossible of establishment in 1776 as the erection of a monarchy.” Id.

Some individuals, right up until the drafting of the Constitution of the United States, identified their state as their nation. John Adams described Massachusetts as his “country” and “the Massachusetts delegation in Congress was ‘our embassy.'” Id. quoting John Adams to Abigail Adams, Sept. 18, 1774, ibid., I, 35. Up until 1787, “Marylanders still called their state ‘the nation.'” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 356 quoting Baltimore, Md. Journal, May 18, 1787.

The Declaration of Independence did nothing to alleviate this problem. It was not a federal entity declaring independence from Britain, it was “thirteen united States of America” that were proclaiming that as “Free and Independent States they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.”

Virtually all power remained with the states. Even seven of the 13 states enacted the Declaration of Independence “to give it the obligation of law within the state.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 356. Congress’ acts were “mere recommendations which the states were left to enforce.” Id. The states carried on their own business, in direct contravention of the Articles of Confederation, as the states declared war, raised armies, laid embargoes, and even had diplomatic relations abroad. See id. at 356-57. In other words, the United States was actually a “Confederation of sovereign states.” Id. at 357; see also Van Tyne, “Sovereignty in the American Revolution,” Amer. Hist. Rev., 12 (1906-07), 529-45; Jensen, Articles of Confederation, 117-18, 162-63; Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The National Experience (N.Y., 1965), 402-05.

These circumstances showed the difficulty of incorporating the overarching sovereignty that the Founding Fathers had envisioned into the states as a collective. The states did not treat each other as being particularly united.

This context reveals the difficulty in which the Founding Fathers had in incorporating all of the states into one unified country, where the sovereignty was to be divided so broadly across so many diverse groups of Americans. It was unprecedented, to say the least. To even imagine the states being united, the various groups of people being combined, and a country emerging from all of it was prescient of the Founding Fathers. It required ingenuity and innovation unknown to the history of government. That innovative spirit reaped significant rewards, as the states together would be capable of so much more than they would have been separate.

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