The Inadequacy of the Confederation

John Jay. By: John Trumbull.

By 1787, the strength and stability of the states was under scrutiny. Shays’ Rebellion had erupted, citizens had become more licentious, and state legislatures appeared to be running rampant, doing significant damage to the health of the country as a whole. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 465.

All of these problems combined to create a sense that the federal government needed to be reformed. By this point, even state-centric thinkers were recognizing that the states alone were not capable of providing the utopian society that they had once dreamed of. See id. at 466. Benjamin Rush wrote to Richard Price in 1787 that “the same enthusiasm now pervades all classes in favor of government that actuated us in favor of liberty in the years 1774 and 1775, with this difference, that we are more united in the former than we were in the latter pursuit.” Rush to Price, June 2, 1787, Butterfield, ed., Rush Letters, I, 418-19.

The momentum was building for a stronger national government and it was “more than a response to the obvious weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 467. The problems with the state governments were “so frequent and so flagrant as to alarm the most stedfast friends of Republicanism, . . . contributed more to that uneasiness which produced the Convention, and prepared the public mind for a general reform, than those which accrued to our national character and interest from the inadequacy of the Confederation to its immediate objects.” Madison to Jefferson, Oct. 24, 1787, Boyd, ed., Jefferson Papers, XII, 276.

The creation of the Constitution was the culmination of American efforts to readjust the structure of government to “fit what Hamilton called ‘the commercial character of America’ and what Jay called ‘manners and circumstances’ that were ‘not strictly democratical.'” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 467 quoting The Federalist, No. 11; Jay to Washington, Jan. 7, 1787, Johnston, ed., Papers of Jay, III, 227.

When Americans called for the Constitutional Convention, they told themselves that the purpose of the Convention “was to frame a constitution that would ‘decide forever the fate of republican government.'” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 467 quoting Boston Independent Chronicle, Sept. 20, 1787; Madison, quoted in Charles Warren, The Making of the Constitution (Cambridge, Mass., 1947), 82.

This context of the drafting of the Constitution illustrates how American society was faulted without the Constitution. It also shows that the momentum did not build purely because of the Articles of Confederation. If the state governments had been preventing the uprisings and the other unpleasant events, Americans would not have turned to question the structure of the federal government.

At least some Americans had done a complete reversal in their ideology to reach this point. Even individuals like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who advocated for states to be preeminent over the federal government, had reversed course. It would be fair to conclude that this was by necessity, and the doctrine of federalism was born, which would begin a transition of power away from the states to the federal government.

While some modern Americans may dispute whether the federal government should take power away from the states, during the 1770s and 1780s, even the most fervent believers in states’ rights knew that it was necessary to preserve the chance for America to accomplish what it wished.

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