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- The United States of America Part I - 2/54 -


criterion, the sovereignty began in 1778, when treaties of alliance and commerce were signed with France. But if the actions indicated above were incidental steps to the commencement of sovereignty, if a general recognition by nations be necessary, together with the consent of the former owner, and a restoration of peace and order, then the real story of the United States begins on September 3, 1783. This conclusion is reached by considering fact as well as form.

[Illustration: SIGNATURES TO THE DEFINITIVE TREATY OF 1783. Original in the Department of State Washington. D. Hartey was given power by the King of England and Adams, Franklin, and Jay by the Congress of the United States. Individual seals were used.]

A few days after that date, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay wrote from Paris to the president of the Continental Congress at Philadelphia:

"On the 3d instant, definite treaties were concluded between all the late belligerent powers except the Dutch, who the day before settled and signed preliminary articles of peace with Britain. We most sincerely and cordially congratulate Congress and our country in general on this happy event; and we hope that the same kind Providence which has led us through a vigorous war to an honourable peace will enable us to make a wise and moderate use of that inestimable blessing."

Thus happily ended more than eight years of warfare and almost two years of negotiation. The disturbed conditions of war gave way rapidly to the normal condition of peace. The four European powers, which had been drawn into war by the American cause, adjusted their disturbed relations. The King of England, at the next opening of Parliament, acknowledged the loss of a portion of his American possessions. John Adams with his family crossed from France to England to represent the new nation. The archives of the republic showed treaties with France, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and Sweden, soon to be followed by similar acknowledgments from Prussia and Morocco. A national frame of government had been adopted by the new power. Peace prevailed throughout the land. Local government was established in every State. In external appearance as well as internal form the career of the independent republic of the United States had most auspiciously begun.

But the course of events was soon to dispel the illusion; to show that it was a union in form only and not in affection. Conversion from provincial colonists into liberal-minded unionists was not to be so easily effected. A feeling of true nationality must await years of growth. Confidence in each other had not yet replaced fear and suspicion. That the first attempt to come into a union could have been a success, that a sacrifice to the god Provincialism could have been avoided, seems in retrospect impossible.

This period of fear of centralisation, which began even before the close of the Revolutionary War, a time of mutual distrust, of paramount individualism, is little known and rarely dwelt upon at present. Perhaps the omission is due to a happy nature, which recalls only the pleasant events of the past. The school-texts dismiss it with a few paragraphs; statesmen rarely turn to its valuable lessons of experience; and to the larger number of the American people, the statement that we have lived since our independence under a national frame of government other than the Constitution is a matter of surprise. A writer of fiction somewhere describes two maiden sisters, one of whom had a happy and the other a melancholy disposition. In recalling the family history, one could remember all the marriages and the other all the deaths. To recall only national successes is undoubtedly most pleasant; but posterity sitting ever at the feet of History gains a more valuable lesson by including the failures of the past.

Criticism of the Confederation which our fathers framed to take the place of British rule must be tempered by the reflection that the action was taken while the land was in the chaos of war. Praise is due their genius for organisation, inherited from the mother country they were warring against, which enabled them to contemplate a new form of government while engaged in dissolving the old. The Government is dead; long live the Government. According to the intention, there was to be no interregnum in which Anarchy might rear his ugly head, and destroy existing forms and instincts of government. Unfortunately a genius for undertaking a beneficent enterprise may lack opportunity of carrying it out. The war to secure the permanence of the Government they were trying to establish produced a delay in completing the frame, and allowed the individual States to assume a headway and win the people to an allegiance, which the Union has not yet fully overcome.

In the form of British colonies, the States were well-recognised units before resistance to authority compelled the people to entrust the common defence to an irregularly formed Continental Congress. To the revolutionary central authority thus formed and acknowledged through necessity, colony after colony had turned for advice as their governors and other royal officials fled to escape popular vengeance. Over a year before national Independence was declared, the Congress had advised the colony of Massachusetts that she owed no fealty to a parliament attempting to change her charter, or to a governor who would not abide by the old compact. The people, therefore, were urged to select certain representatives. They in turn were to choose a council to act until a governor should be appointed by the King, who would consent to rule justly. Similar advice given to the other colonies resulted in the formation of State constitutions and the erection of State governments. The States, in this peculiar manner, dated their existence from the suggestion of the Central Government, made at a time when it itself had not been regularly formed. In turn, the States were now to complete the Central Government by confederating themselves under a written document.

Great Britain, the mother country, had never possessed a written constitution, or frame of government; but the colonies were planted under written charters. Perhaps this precedent has produced the American predilection for written constitutions. Many statesmen of the colonial days had attempted a written plan of union for the colonies. Franklin had been one of these and, within three weeks after Washington took command of the American Army, Franklin presented to the Congress certain Articles of Confederation creating "The United Colonies of North America." The federation was intended to be temporary in case the colonial grievances were redressed, but otherwise permanent. The proposition was unheeded at the time but was recalled nearly a year later by one part of Richard Henry Lee's famous motion for Independence. A committee was to be appointed "to prepare and digest the form of a confederation to be entered into between these colonies." The importance of the task was indicated by the fact that the committee was composed of one member from each of the colonies represented, while the committee, appointed at almost the same time, to draw up a declaration concerning independency, had only five members. On July 12th, the former committee brought in a draft of thirteen Articles of Confederation, by common consent ascribed to John Dickinson, but evidently based on Franklin's draft of a year before. This is indicated by the style and form, although the details differ in many particulars. Eighty copies of these proposed Articles were ordered printed for the use of the members, extreme secrecy being enjoined upon all concerned.

These steps toward a national government were taken, it must be remembered, in the midst of a war. The nascent nation had never experienced the duties which peace places on a government; it was familiar only with the requirements of war. The main idea running through the Articles as reported by the committee was a "union for the common defence." The general welfare found no place. The activities of government were confined almost exclusively to conducting a foreign war. The Central Government was authorised to declare war, make peace, and send ambassadors. It had charge of appointing high officers of the State armies, of judging prizes in war, of trials for piracy, and of granting letters of marque. Its few peace functions embraced the postal service between the States, regulating Indian trade, issuing bills of credit, determining the national and State standard of coins, and assessing quotas of expense on the States. Conversely, the States were forbidden to perform these national acts.

Remembering that the Articles were framed to meet the exigencies of war, and considering the condition of public sentiment at the time, one finds it difficult to conceive how any other form of union could have been secured. Individualism was in the saddle. Engaging in war to resist the encroachments of a centralised government and smarting under the actions of a body in which they were not represented, the people would naturally resolve to retain the control which the rebellion had thrown into their hands. Distributed power must never be centralised again. Liberty was closely associated with individualism. A majority was no safeguard. Reaction from a centralised monarchy had evidently swung public sentiment to the other extreme, resulting in a decentralised confederacy.

As implied in the name, this Continental Congress had been called together originally as a consulting body for the thirteen distinct colonies. When the war forced the second session into making laws, the name should have been changed to "Parliament"; but, in the chaotic condition of affairs and the very gradual assumption of sovereignty, a change in name went by default. Although the Congress became a parliament in form, its members never so regarded it. They still served their sovereign States in a national body, consulting and providing for the common defence. They had no desire to make a modern union at the time they formed the Confederation. This is evidenced by the preliminary statement of the Articles that each State retained its sovereignty, freedom, and independence. In this view, "a firm league of friendship," the phrase used to describe the nature of the Confederation, is exact and appropriate. It formed a league of individual units, such as the separate colonies had been, "binding themselves to assist each other against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretence whatever."

This individualistic tendency was manifest in the workings of the Articles. Franklin's plan provided for an executive council of twelve, appointed by Congress from its own numbers. Instead of this arrangement, the Articles allowed the consulting Congress to retain all the executive powers which it had gradually assumed. Fear of delegating authority to any kind of executive, lest the action might lead eventually to another king, was responsible for this mistake. Retaining also the legislative powers, which it had assumed, and such judicial powers as had arisen from the adjudication of prizes appeals, the Congress would monopolise all the functions of the National Government. It would probably continue to consult and recommend, and do nothing more. It had a president, chosen by itself from its own number; but he was simply an officer to preside over the sessions.

In voting in Congress, each State was given one vote, being considered a unit. In declaring assessments, Congress dealt with the individual States and not the people. Congress was authorised to make an estimate of the value of land and improvements in each State for proportioning expenses; but the matter was left to the States and never done. In an elaborate plan for adjudication between States in the numerous boundary disputes, Congress again dealt with the States as units. The central authority would nowhere come into contact with citizens of the States. It had no way of gaining their respect, their gratitude, or their allegiance. It apparently dealt with them in the provision guaranteeing citizens of each State all their rights in the several States; but if a State transgressed on the rights of citizens of another State, the Confederation could only complain and protest. It had no power of


The United States of America Part I - 2/54

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