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The Constitution (Part 1)


BUT what could Congress do? Its treasury was empty; it had never been otherwise. It could vote money to pay the soldiers, and it did so; but it could not accomplish the payment. All it had was paper notes worth one-eighth of their face value, ostensibly due in six months; and unknown quantities of unreclaimed land in the West, which had been relinquished to the Union by the several States which had claimed them. Empty pockets and hungry stomachs could not be replenished by this means. But the army, having adopted its course, steadily adhered to it. Instead of ravaging the country and destroying the work which it had protected, it took what was offered and quietly retired. The officers accepted five years' full pay in promises in lieu of half pay for life; and established the Order of the Cincinnati, for the support of widows and orphans, and the preservation of the Union. The rank and file went home penniless, and many of them moved to the West, taking noble ideals with them. America was safe.

On the 19th of April, 1783, eight years after the battle of Lexington, peace was proclaimed in the States. Washington took the occasion to write a letter, intended for circulation throughout the country, North and South, which he termed his "legacy" to his countrymen, in which he eloquently and forcibly advocated union and fidelity to engagements. The effects produced by this document were beneficent and wide spread. Legislature after Legislature read it, and acted in accordance with its suggestions. In an address to the army, Washington gave them their meed of praise, and contemplating their dispersal over the new lands yet to be settled, adjured them to observe in their lives the principles which they had so nobly defended in the field. A secure Union, the suppression of State jealousies, more power in Congress, and the consequent creation of a permanent revenue, were the pressing needs of the time; apart from these, the country gave every promise of prosperity. Thousands of loyalists from all sections had moved to Nova Scotia, where the British Government granted them sums of money aggregating fifteen and a half million dollars. It might have been better to have gradually absorbed these persons into the population; but the immediate discomfort of their presence was too irksome; nor were they themselves willing to wait for the gradual healing of differences which time might have brought about. On the other hand, most of the prisoners of war who were Germans chose to remain in the country, and formed, with German emigrants, the nucleus of the vast German population which has proved itself so valuable in America.

Savannah and Charleston had been evacuated; and all the British troops had been collected in New York. On the 25th of November, 1783, in chilly weather, the redcoats and the refugees embarked in boats and were put over to Staten and Long Islands, from which they were to take ship for England or Nova Scotia. On the morning of the same day, General Knox with some American troops from West Point entered the Bowery, and early in the afternoon occupied Fort George on the Battery. They were joined there by Washington and his suite. On the 4th of December Washington met his officers at an inn near the Battery to bid them farewell. The scene cannot be better described than in the words of the historian Bancroft:-- "The thoughts of the eight years which they bad passed together, their common distresses, their victories, and now their parting from the public service, came thronging to every mind. No relation of friendship is stronger or more tender than that between men who have shared together the perils of war in a noble and upright cause. The officers could attest that the courage which is the most perfect and the most rare, the courage which determines the man, without the least hesitation, to hold his life of less account than the success of the cause for which he contends, was the habit of Washington. Pledging them in a glass of wine, he thus addressed them: 'With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. May your latter days be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious. I shall be obliged to you if each of you will come and take me by the hand.' With tears on his cheeks he grasped the hand of Knox, who stood nearest, and embraced him. In the same manner he tool: leave of every officer. Followed by the company in silent procession, he passed through a corps of light infantry to the ferry at Whitehall. Entering his barge, he waved his hat to them; with the same silence they returned that last voiceless farewell, and the boat pushed across the Hudson. A father parting from his children could not excite more regret nor draw more tears."

His journey to Annapolis, where Congress was now assembled, was marked at every stage by the affection and reverence of the people. He was received in full assembly, and the galleries of the hall were crowded. He had come to resign his commission as Commander in Chief, which he had assumed under the elm at Cambridge so long ago. He spoke with profound emotion
and was answered by Jefferson.

"Sir," said the latter, "the United States in Congress assembled receive with emotions too affecting for utterance the solemn resignation of the authorities under which you have led their troops with success through a perilous and doubtful war. Called upon by your country to defend its invaded rights, you accepted the sacred charge before it had formed alliances, and while it was without funds or a government to support you. You have conducted the great contest with wisdom and fortitude, invariably regarding the rights of the civil power through all disasters and changes. You have persevered till these United States, aided by a magnanimous King and nation, have been enabled, under a just Providence, to close the war in freedom, safety, and independence. Having taught a lesson useful to those who inflict and to those who feel oppression, with the blessings of your fellow citizens, you retire from the great theater of action; but the glory of your virtues will continue to animate the remotest ages. We join you in commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, beseeching Him to dispose the hearts and minds of its citizens to improve the opportunity afforded them of becoming a happy and respectable nation."

The order in council of Great Britain to restrict the carrying trade to the West Indies to English-built ships could be met only by a united policy in the States; since no one of them could afford to exclude British ships from its ports unless all the rest would do so. Virginia was the first of the States to call for resistance. Its Legislature empowered Congress to act. A proposal was adopted that Congress, with the assent of nine States, might prohibit foreign commerce for fifteen years. A majority of Congress decided that the United States formed one nation. Equality and reciprocity in commercial treaties were .proclaimed. A commission consisting of Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson was appointed to negotiate treaties during the ensuing fifteen years. Jefferson submitted a plan for the division into ten States of all the relinquished Western lands, and suggested a north and south line to stay the western extension of slavery. He also proposed that slavery be abolished at the end of the century. This was voted down by a majority of "an individual vote." Two years afterward, .Jefferson wrote, "The voice of a single individual would have prevented this abominable crime; heaven will not always be silent; the friends to the rights of human nature will in the end prevail."

In 1786, the decimal system of coinage, based on the dollar, was adopted, and a mint was established. The war had cost the States one hundred and forty million dollars. Congress had issued altogether about two hundred and thirty-six millions in paper, the value and circulation of which had ceased. Eight million dollars had been borrowed abro6ad; Adams paid Holland's claims by a lottery; France generously wrote off the interest on her bill. But though the country was rich, the United States was bankrupt.

The remedy could come only from the people. As the citizens of the various States discovered by experience the disabilities to which they were subjected by the present lack of system, they began to clamor for efficient reform. Congress must be allowed greater powers over the commercial regulations of the country. New York, Pennsylvania, and Boston advocated duties on British trade. "Peace," said Massachusetts, "has not brought back prosperity; foreigners monopolize our commerce; the confederacy is inadequate to its purposes; from national unanimity and national exertion we have derived our freedom: the joint action of the several parts of the Union can alone restore happiness and security." This was a change of heart, wrought by experience, from the time, two years before, when Boston had clamored for absolute State sovereignty.

But before the real reform could come, the need for it must be effectively brought home to all and sundry; the attempt to bring it about through Congress must be made, and fail; and the selfish prejudices of States and individuals must be overcome by the certainty that a choice must be made between the cherishing of such prejudices and the utter crumbling to pieces of the Union. The long battle was fought both at home and abroad. Adams, in England, could not come to an agreement with Pitt, unless he would consent to admit England to commercial privileges denied to France. The laws relating to religion were gradually abrogated in the interests of freedom, Virginia taking the initiative: but the hopeless confusion caused by paper money in the several States could be modified only by frugality and industry. But how was action affecting the whole of the States to be initiated? Congress could enact requisitions, but could not carry them into effect until each and all of the thirteen States had agreed to them. The only hope was in a convention of the States, free to take any course which might seem to it for the best. Virginia invited such a convention to be held at Annapolis; but it was not fully attended. But the commissioners present represented the necessity of revising the Federal system, and recommended another meeting, preferably to a discussion in Congress, "where it might be too much interrupted by ordinary business, and would, besides, be deprived of the counsels of individuals who are restrained from a seat in that Assembly. The crisis is arrived at which the people of America are to decide the solemn question whether they will reap the fruits of independence and of union, or whether, by giving way to unmanly jealousies and prejudices, or to partial and transitory interests, they will renounce the blessings prepared for them by the Revolution." The appeal did not come too soon; the disorders caused by vicious conditions in some parts of the country were already suggesting the possibility of civil war. In Massachusetts a large body of citizens, under the leadership of Daniel Shays, organized, and openly opposed the Government, and were only put down by a greatly superior force of militia under Lincoln. This happened only three years after the peace of the Revolution. The States accepted the call to a convention in May, 1787, with the exception of Rhode Island. What was to be the outcome none knew. "Shall we have a king?" asked Jay. England had hopes of placing a member of the House of Hanover on an American throne, and was anxious lest America might prefer a French Bourbon. If the convention should fail to decide on anything, it was plain that at least three separate confederacies must emerge. Before the convention met, Madison prepared a draft of a constitution, as a basis for discussion. He Stipulated that the new dispensation must be ratified by the people of all the States, so that it might be superior to State Legislatures; and he tried to steer between a homogeneous republic without states, which was impracticable, and state sovereignty, which was incompatible with effective government.

On the 14th of May the delegates began to ride into Philadelphia from their respective homes in all parts of the country, grave with the consciousness of the solemn responsibility which they had undertaken. Washington was escorted into town with public honors. He was in favor, not of an amended confederacy, but of "probing the defects of the Constitution to the bottom, and providing a radical cure." The other delegates from Virginia stood with him, and their agreement was a strong element in the deliberations; many of the others being doubtful, and many prejudiced in favor of mere amendments. On the 29th of May, most of the delegates being present, Randolph of Virginia addressed them, calling attention to the "prospect of anarchy from the inherent laxity of the Government. As the remedy," he added, "the Government to be established must have for its basis the republican principle."

He then read fifteen proposed articles of a constitution, and debate upon them began. Within a fortnight the committee of the whole had passed upon them all, and had adopted the majority of them with only minor changes, which were in the way of improvement. But there remained certain points on which delegates were opposed, and it was the contests on these which comprised the real perils of the convention.

The long and sometimes ardent debates on point after point should be studied by all political investigators; for the perfect flower of the Constitution can be appreciated and understood only by watching the processes of its growth. It is often surprising to note the manner in which the future conditions of the country, especially as modified by the slavery question, were foreseen by the debaters; and on the other hand how far the convention went astray in other anticipations, such as of the preponderance of population in the South. Upon the whole, the discussion was carried on in a manly and' patriotic spirit, with acumen and breadth of view; the chief conclusions which were recorded have stood the test of time. The Constitution as we have it is partly an inheritance, partly a compromise, and in a limited sense only can be regarded as in any part a creation; yet as a whole it is a creation of the most important kind. Old elements in a new combination produced by spiritual chemistry a substance different from any that had heretofore existed. But the result was achieved only at the cost of many mutual sacrifices; and more than once the threads of connection which held the convention together were worn so thin that it seemed as if they must needs part. But again and again the members recalled it to mind that, should they fail in providing a regimen of life for their country, the attempt would probably never after be renewed; and this gave them courage and temper to go on. At times, too, the perplexities appeared too great to admit of solution, and a temporary expedient had to be adopted. In the end, however, the work was done, and it was a fitting sequel to that which delivered the country from the tyranny of King George.

The fear of trouble between the small and the large States, which had at first threatened, was seen later not to be the real point of peril; the country divided on the slavery line. The small States were secured by their equal footing in the Senate Chamber; but the prosperity of slavery depended on whether the South or the North should control its continuance and. extension. All matters relating to this subject were settled, as will as discussed in all their bearings, in after years; and we need not do more than refer to this early agitation of them. Virginia was at this time more pronounced than almost any, of the States in her disapproval of slavery, and North Carolina supported her; had these States maintained this attitude, the act of secession would have had a different history. But in 1787 the peculiar institution had not wrought upon the proprietors of it the full effects which were visible in 1861.

Another difficult task was the drawing of the distinctions and limits of the State and central powers; it was necessary to preserve the State in full vigor, without in any degree detracting from the absoluteness of the central Government on all questions proper to it. But though an agreement was reached in theconvention, the divergence of opinions as to the just proportions of power created the two great parties which have ever since, under one or another name, controlled the country. Had State divisions been abolished, it is hardly conceivable that the Republic could have endured; but the existence of the States gave more trouble to statesmen in quest of a stable and efficient government than did any other problem. Had all the States been of the same size and general topography, inhabited by the same number of persons in each, engaged in the same industries, and with similar traditions-it would have been easy to frame a government for them and put it in operation. But inasmuch as the extreme opposite of all these conditions existed, the obstacles were continuous and formidable.

Early in the deliberations New Jersey proposed that the work of the convention should be restricted merely to revising the old articles of confederation; that the Congress should be a single body, and the executive should consist of three persons, removable by Congress; that Congress should derive revenues only from duties, stamps, and the Post Office. Connecticut, on the other hand, wanted a strong central or "national" government. It was finally agreed that the Congress should consist of two branches-the House of Representatives, elected by the people, and the Senate, elected mediately through the Legislatures; the latter to hold office for six years, the former to be elected every two years. The Executive was to be single, his tenure of office to be for three or four years; he was subject to impeachment for cause, and was to have a veto on bills, which would then have to be passed by a two-thirds majority of the whole Congress, in order to become laws. The judiciary branch was to be independent, and was to be the final interpreter of the laws. This is an outline of
our system of government as it now exists. But it had vet to be subjected to almost interminable criticism and opposition from the several States, before it could acceptance gain Gouverneur Morris, a man of ability, wit, and penetration, but too much inclined to hasty action, and somewhat cynical in his views, wanted the Senate to be appointed for life by the Executive; but this was voted down. He then enunciated the proposition that property, not liberty, was the main object of society: "The savage state is more favorable to liberty than the civilized, and was only renounced for the sake of property. A range of new States will soon be formed in the West. The rule of representation ought to be so fixed as to secure to the Atlantic States a prevalence in the national councils." Randolph replied that if new States made a part of the Union, they ought to be subject to no unfavorable discriminations. But the point at present was to secure equality between the Southern and Northern representations. Differences led to the withdrawal of Lansing and Yates of New York, who thus enabled the South to determine the commercial policy of the Union. Morris, with Rufus Icing, still harped on the supposed dangers from the West, which, they said, would be settled by persons of inferior culture, and would yet in time control the country. Sherman replied that- "our children and grandchildren will be as likely to be citizens of new Western States as of old States; we are providing for our posterity." Question arising as to the degree in which slaves should appear in estimates of population, which said: "I am reduced to the dilemma of doing injustice to the Southern States, or to human nature, and I must do it to the former; I can never agree to give such encouragement to the slave trade as would be given by allowing them a representation for their negroes." The division seemed to threaten danger; and Morris proposed to levy taxes in proportion to representation. But when the South refused to be driven from its position by this device, Morris limited his suggestion to direct taxation only. This was agreed to, but injudiciously, inasmuch as it prevented the United States from getting full revenue from real property. North Carolina now refused to confederate unless the negroes were rated as three-fifths: and Randolph said, "I lament that such a species of property exists, but as it does exist, the holders of it will require that the representation allowed for slaves should be embodied in the Constitution." Rufus King replied "The Southern States threaten to separate now in case injury should be done them. There will be nor point of time at which they will not be able to say, Do us justice, or we will separate. The "Southern gentlemen," remarked Morris, "will not be satisfied unless they gain a majority in the public councils. The consequence of a transfer of power from the maritime to the interior . and landed interest will be an, oppression of commerce." Butler retorted that the South wanted security that their negroes be not taken from them. Wilson said that the majority, wherever found, would rule in an' case. "If numbers be not a proper rule, why is not a better pointed out? Property is not the sole or primary end of government and society; the improvement of the human 'Mind is the most noble object., With respect to this and other personal rights, numbers are surely the natural and precise measure of representation, and could not vary much from the precise measure of property." Finally, the resolve to found representation on numbers only was adopted.

The South was acting under a misapprehension. It thought that emigration would -come chiefly ,its way, and therefore wished for representation according to population, and resisted an equal vote in the Senate. As a matter of fact, the equal vote in the Senate turned out to be its only means of contending with the North, and when the House of Representatives numbered more Northern than Southern men, slavery was doomed.

A noticeable result of the resolve to give all States' an equal vote in the Senate was to enlist the smaller States on the side of a strong central government. Hitherto, in spite of the adminsitration that diversity of interests would prevent the larger States from acting together against the smaller, they had feared tyranny.

Continue to Chapter 22 Part 2