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Mike Duncan (00:00):
Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 30 – The Critical Period We left off last time with the aborted Newburgh conspiracy, hatched between disgruntled Continental officers and disgruntled members of Congress to strong-arm the several states into granting the national government more power.
But though George Washington smacked the conspiracy down before it even got off the ground, that did not mean he didn’t agree with them. Years of trying to wrestle supplies from obstinate states and an ineffectual Congress had convinced him that a strong central government was essential to the long-term survival of an independent United States. It was the means he disagreed with, not the ends. And those ends became even more obviously needed as the new country tried to get itself up and running in the 1780s.
The years between the end of the war and the ratification of the Constitution have long been known to scholars as the Critical Period, a period during which internal and external pressures threatened to crush the newly independent United States. More recently, historians have decided it might not be quite as melodramatic as that. But it was a time of political and economic uncertainty, and as the years passed it became clearer and clearer that the Articles of Confederation were part of the problem, not a part of the solution.
To start with the big picture, the leaders of the new United States immediately found themselves swimming in the deep end of international waters and no one much interested in helping them stay afloat. France and Spain and Holland had all been happy to buoy the Americans while the war with Britain was on, but now that the European powers had succeeded in their real politique objective of dismembering the British Empire, hey, you wanted to be independent? Well, now you’re independent. The Dutch bankers were hesitant about lending more money to a Congress that had literally no way to pay them back. The French told Thomas Jefferson, the new American ambassador in Paris, that they were happy to trade with the United States when and where it suited them, but only when and where it suited them. These were still the heady days of mercantilist economic theory, where the point was to create a closed system of colonial trade that benefited the mother country, not an open system of international trade that might, god forbid, benefit a rival nation.
The Spanish, as we’ll see in a minute, were deeply concerned about an expanding United States pushing them off their North American foothold along the Gulf Coast. So yes, allies in war, rivals in peace. Then of course there was the British, who adopted a posture of studious contempt towards their emancipated children. John Adams arrived as the first American ambassador to the court of St. James and found himself alternatively ignored, dismissed, or laughed at, depending on which door he happened to be knocking on. The British planned to make the Americans learn the hard way what independence really meant. American consumers were free to purchase all the British goods they wanted, knowing that American consumers were desperate for British goods. This had the effect of destroying whatever burgeoning local manufacturing had grown up in the United States during the war years. Then all the British ports in the West Indies were closed to American exports, which was fairly devastating to the New England economy in particular.
The only way to combat these economic attacks was to put up a united front, as the colonies had so ably done when combating the Stamp Act and the Townsend Acts, but that solidarity was nowhere to be found in the 1780s. Each state tried to work out its own deal with the British, and all to Britain’s advantage. I’ll wrap up this global outlook by coming back around to the Spanish, because the trouble with Spain will segue us nicely into a discussion of kind of internal tensions that threaten the cohesion of the new United States. In the Treaty of Paris negotiations, Britain had given Spain all of Florida, and the Spanish now enjoyed a claim to pretty much the entire Gulf Coast, including all ports in the Mississippi Delta. The Spanish, though, were none too happy about the boundary lines of the new United States worked out between the British and Americans, which granted the U.S. lands reaching all the way to the Mississippi, which Spain did not believe was really Britain’s to concede.
To combat the spread of American settlers, they closed up the lower Mississippi to American economic traffic in 1784. This was of course a stab at the jugular of migrants moving into what is now mostly the states of Kentucky and Tennessee. Their economic livelihoods depended on trading down the river, rather than back overland to the Atlantic. So much so that the Spanish even started offering these new settlers access to the river if they agreed to renounce the United States and incorporate themselves as part of the Spanish Empire. At the time, and at that moment, this was not as far-fetched a proposal as it might seem today.
All of this of course set off a diplomatic kerfuffle that saw the Americans dispatch John Jay of New York to work out a treaty with Spain that would resolve the crisis. Jay’s talks with the Spanish went smoothly, but for leaders of the southern states they went a little too smoothly, because Jay seemed inclined to just give the Spanish everything they wanted and call it a day. This the southern leaders suspected was because Jay was not representing the United States so much as he was representing northeastern commercial interests who feared the rising power of the west.
Those commercial interests wanted to make sure that all financial and political power stayed where it belonged on the eastern seaboard. A western economy built off the Mississippi rather than the Atlantic would threaten that economic and political monopoly. But though Jay signed off on terms that would in fact close the lower Mississippi to American economic traffic, it didn’t really matter because the Articles of Confederation required nine of thirteen states to ratify a treaty, and the southern states were never going to ratify this treaty in a million years because they were the ones who stood to gain the most from southwestern expansion.
So as I said, these dealings with the Spanish exposed the internal tensions that were working to divide the union. North and south on the one hand, east and west on the other. The north-south question will of course become the defining tension of the United States and ultimately result in the Civil War because what’s going on here is that two very different political economies are being grafted together, a commercial northeast that will soon become an industrialized commercial northeast and an agrarian south built on slave labor. What was good for one often turned out to be bad for the other, especially as the north turned its back on slavery both for economic and moral reasons while the south dug in its heels even harder.
The other great tension that threatened to undermine American unity was the divide between east and west. The interests of the rich coastal cities really did not align with those of the inland farmers, and as we’ll see in a minute with Shay’s Rebellion, like, really really not aligned. But the Treaty of Paris guaranteed that the future of America lay to the west. The question was how those lands would be divided up and incorporated into the United States and then how much say would western settlers get in how the national government was run. As we just saw, there were powerful little cliques in New York and Boston and Philadelphia who thought it perfectly right that they would continue holding all the power.
But in grappling with the question of what to do with the west, the Congress of the Confederation enjoyed its one major success because the resulting northwest ordinance wound up serving as the permanent model of how territories would be divided up and integrated into the United States. And yes, coastal elites, you are going to have to share with the other children.
The first issue was whether those territories would remain mere territories in perpetuity, or whether they would eventually be admitted as full and equal states. We just sort of take the whole path to statehood for granted today, but it’s worth remembering that at the time there was basically no precedent for this. When a sovereign nation created a colony or claimed a territory, those colonies and territories remained colonies and territories forever. And despite everything that had just happened in the last 20 years, there were quite a few American leaders who naturally assumed that the western territories would remain territories governed by the real states along the Atlantic seaboard.
But to other, and dare I say wiser, leaders, this seemed like a recipe for simply replaying the revolution a generation or two down the road, only this time we’ll get to be the evil British, and they’ll get to be the scrappy colonial underdogs. So it was decided that the northwest territories would be surveyed, divided up into a reasonable number of chunks, and when those chunks hit 60,000 residents, they could apply for statehood, a process that got rolling in earnest in 1803, and eventually saw the new states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin admitted to the union. Part of Minnesota is in there too, but it took the Louisiana Purchase to fill them out.
During the debate over the northwest ordinance, the tension between north and south and east and west coincided over the increasingly all-important issue of slavery, because slavery wound up being forbidden in the northwest territories, mostly. Settlers who already had slaves were grandfathered in, there was no mention of whether slavery would be legal once a territory became a state, and the first iteration of the Fugitive Slave Law was written in to guarantee that runaway slaves would be returned to their rightful owners, if that’s not the most heinous contradiction in terms I can think of.
But other than that, no buying or selling or importation of slaves would be allowed in these new territories, and this is a pretty momentous decision, as it ensured that the dividing line between the free north and the slave south would be extended to the Mississippi River. The southern states apparently went along with this, partly because they were afraid of economic competition from the new territories if they were allowed to use slave labor. The future, however, the south would be far less willing to grant those kinds of legal precedents, and the battles over whether slavery would be allowed or not in new territories and states became the running political battle that eventually exploded into the Civil War.
So the Northwest Ordinance was a pretty good piece of legislation for Congress, and historians generally concede it to be their one enduring achievement. Though if you were an American Indian living in those territories, well you probably don’t think the Northwest Ordinance is so hot, seeing as how it’s basically dividing up all your land into neat little boxes and handing it over to a bunch of white guys. Not that Congress just ignored the rights of Indians, and they wrote in an article to the Northwest Ordinance that I’m going to quote in full because of the dark irony contained therein.
The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians. Their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent, and in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress. But laws founded in justice and humanity shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them. Which, yeah, that’s not how it went at all.
This one success aside though, the Articles of Confederation were just not working. And it didn’t help that the only people treating the national government of the United States worse than the British was these states themselves. Most outright ignored Congress, and if they bothered to send representatives at all, the men they sent were second or third tier leaders who were more or less being sent into political exile. The states built their own navies, they unilaterally fought Indians, they tried to make commercial treaties with foreign powers, all the stuff that was supposed to be the purview of Congress. All that, and they refused to send Congress any of the money they had promised.
All of this, to be blunt, threatened the very existence of this thing called the United States of America. In the end, all hope for the survival of Congress lay with reviving that 5% impost we talked about last week. If that one little piece could be put in place, maybe things would work out.
Though the tactic of using the military to gain leverage over the states had failed, the men interested in a solvent national government, one of whom we’ll talk about in a moment, did not give up. For more than two years, they kept pushing for the amendment, and one by one the various states agreed that yes, fine, you can have your impost, though usually there was a slew of concessions and exceptions that had to go along with it. But then that sticky business of unanimity popped up again. The first time the impost had been floated back in 1781, it had been killed because Rhode Island didn’t want to ratify.
This time around, it languished for want of support in both Pennsylvania and New York. American creditors, both home and abroad, were strung along for more than two years on the promise that the impost would eventually be passed and they would get their money. But by 1786, both New York and Pennsylvania refused to ratify. The impost was dead, and Congress was essentially bankrupt. So uh, what do we do now?
One of the guys trying to figure out what to do now was Alexander Hamilton, who was about to make his way to the forefront of American history, where he will either be treated as a visionary hero or an evil villain depending on whose side of history you happen to be reading. Hamilton had been born at an indeterminate date in the mid-1750s down in the Leeward Islands, then part of the British West Indies. Orphaned in the 11-13 range, the young Hamilton worked as a clerk in an import-export firm until the local elites noticed that this bright young man was actually something of a prodigy. So they took up a collection in 1772 to send him up north for a proper education.
After some secondary schooling in New Jersey, Hamilton wound up at King’s College, which is now Columbia University. As political tensions mounted, young Hamilton was a vocal supporter of the Patriot cause, publishing rebuttals to Tory arguments both anonymously and under his own name. When the war finally did break out, he immediately joined a New York militia regiment made up of other King’s College students. This regiment conducted a quick raid on a British battery and took home some artillery pieces, which is how the regiment became an artillery regiment and how Hamilton became an artillery officer.
He served throughout the campaigns in New York and, as I was able to briefly mention, manned one of the batteries that kept the Hessians pinned down at the Battle of Trenton. Under Trenton, though, he came to the attention of the senior staff, including Nathaniel Green and Henry Knox, who recognized his brilliance. But unfortunately, these guys wanted Hamilton for their staffs, not to command troops in the field, which is what he wanted. So Hamilton kept turning down requests until he got one he couldn’t turn down. George Washington asked him to serve as his secretary, and Hamilton couldn’t say no. He spent the next four years as Washington’s de facto chief of staff, handling correspondence, drafting orders, organizing logistics, everything.
But Hamilton was an ambitious kid still in his mid-20s, and he didn’t want to go down in history as a paper-pusher. By 1781, Hamilton was sick of being Washington’s secretary, and he wanted out. And there’s plenty of evidence that Washington was not really an easy guy to work for, and praise for his personal greatness tends to diminish the closer you actually get to him. Washington, for his part, seemed ready to let Hamilton go, and they both decided to let a petty little incident be an excuse for Hamilton to resign. Literally, it was about how long Washington had been kept waiting at the top of a flight of stairs.
The ill will, though, was not permanent, and Washington eventually granted his former secretary’s repeated demands for a field command, and Hamilton served as a colonel of infantry during the Siege of Yorktown. After the war, Hamilton resigned from the army, and in 1782 was appointed to the now Congress of the Confederation. As I mentioned at the top of the show, Washington had been convinced by his wartime experience that a strong central government was a must. Well, that was doubly true for Alexander Hamilton, especially since he was the guy who had to write all those letters begging for supplies, and then wade through all the refusals.
Hamilton had zero respect for the supposed virtues of voluntary support. As the Newburgh conspiracy started bubbling up, he was one of those nationalist-inclined representatives who prodded the officers still in the Continental Army to take action, and he even wrote a letter to Washington asking for the general’s support at this critical juncture. But when the conspiracy failed, and the 5% impost looking like it was going nowhere fast, Hamilton resigned from Congress and returned to New York to practice law, where he would remain until circumstances provided another opportunity to push for a stronger, or for God’s sake at the very least solvent, national government.
Which brings us to the final crisis of the critical period, Shays’ Rebellion, because, as it turned out, Congress, who was not the only ones having trouble paying their bills in the mid-1780s. Out in rural western Massachusetts, life was a bit different than it was in the coastal cities, and as I mentioned, it was a perfect example of the tension between the urban East and the rural West. Families in the West lived mostly a subsistence farming existence, using the barter system and lines of credit that would not really hold up to strict demands for repayment.
The war had not been easy on them, but the peace was proving to be positively brutal. A big part of their pain was a result of the new economic relationship between the British and Americans. As I said, the British were happy to keep shipping goods to the colonies, I mean the United States, but the liberally extended credit had dried up. The British merchants now wanted hard currency from their partners in, for example, Boston. This dynamic was actually playing out all over the country, but we’re going to keep the focus on Massachusetts.
Hard currency, though, was tough to come by, so the city merchants had to pass along the demand for hard currency to their inland distributors, who had to pass it along to their customers, and if anyone had currency, as sure as hell wasn’t small-hole farmers in western Massachusetts. But that didn’t stop creditors from taking them to court and suing for the money they were owed, or stopping the courts from issuing judgments that invariably went against the farmers.
Now the one thing the farmers had going for them, though, was Governor John Hancock. Hancock’s entire career had been built on his populist appeal, and he was winning annual elections to the governorship with like 90% of the vote. So being popular and populist, Hancock did not lift a finger to help creditors retrieve their debts, or enforce any court orders. But by 1785, things were starting to get out of hand. There were so many uncollected and uncollectible debts that something was going to have to give. And that’s right when John Hancock suddenly got so sick that he had to resign from office.
The rumors swirled so loud that it’s basically now taken for granted that Hancock resigned to avoid dealing with the looming political crisis, because it was down to either evict poor families from their homes, or stiff the wealthy and powerful merchants of Boston. It was going to be a really tough decision, and so Hancock started coughing and slipped off to bed. Replacing him was a man who did not think that this decision was tough at all, James Bowdoin.
Bowden was one of those wealthy and powerful merchants, and he was all for compelling repayment of debt. The revolution had been about anything, it had been about protecting property. Money had been lent in good faith, and people couldn’t just be allowed to walk away from it, that road led to anarchy. But then Bowden added fuel to the fire when he decided to get the state’s financial house in order by also demanding payment of all delinquent taxes. This of course went over like gangbusters among the totally broke western farmers, who now had to deal not only with debt collectors, but tax collectors.
One of those farmers was a Revolutionary War veteran named Daniel Shays. Shays had been a young farmhand when the war broke out, and after he signed up for service he saw action at Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, and then Saratoga.
Eventually wounded, Shays resigned from the service in 1780, and his compensation for his five years under arms he received… nothing. Then he returned home and started getting dragged into court for non-payment of debts. This as you can imagine fired a little something in the belly of Daniel Shays. He was not the first man to call for resistance, nor was he the only man to call for resistance, but he wound up the most prominent, and so we call this little insurrection Shays Rebellion. The first instances of direct resistance started as early as 1782 when groups of sympathetic neighbors would simply go take back property that had been seized from their poor friends.
But though there was some wild talk at this point about taking up arms, for the moment most were content to petition the state government for help. Specifically, requesting that the state issue more paper currency. More paper currency would mean not only that, hey, we’ll have some money now, but also that it would diminish the amount owed, as the resulting inflation would reduce the overall burden of payment. Of course, the creditors out there wanted no part of this for the exact same reason, and one of the leaders against the free money was of course James Bowdoin. So when Bowdoin became governor, you can imagine what the farmers thought of their chances for relief.
Things really got going in August 1786 when the state legislature adjourned without considering any of the various petitions from the western farmers. The response was immediate. Shays and the other leaders settled on a plan to simply prevent local courts from sitting. No courts, no judgments.
So on August the 29th, they mobbed the courthouse at Northampton and prevented it from sitting. Then on September the 5th, a court was shut down by like-minded farmers in Worcester. These unconscionable acts of criminal anarchy led the Massachusetts Supreme Court to hand down indictments of the leaders, who promptly decided to try and shut down the Supreme Court too. But when Shays led about 300 farmers to the courthouse, they were met by an equal number of state militia. So all Shays and his men did was demonstrate and parade around their strength before retiring.
Through early October, more courts across the state were shut down, and it was becoming clear to the political elites in Boston that there was a serious armed rebellion going on out in the west, and stern measures needed to be taken. Ironically, one of those who argued that stern measures needed to be taken was none other than Sam Adams. The once-stunt populace was accused by his former friends of being a hypocritical sellout — I mean, you remember the stunts we used to pull back in the day, right? But Adams said that there was no contradiction. Rebellion against an unrepresentative monarchy was right, and just. Rebellion against a representative republic, though, was blatantly criminal, and all the leaders should be hanged.
In late November, a group of about 300 defenders of this representative republic rode west to arrest the leaders of the rebellion. They succeeded in nabbing a few, but only after a violent confrontation that further radicalized the farmers, who were now agreeing that it was time to overthrow the tyrannical state of Massachusetts. So yeah, it’s kind of amazing how fast you can go through the looking glass once the revolutionary ball gets rolling.
The national government was of course unable to lift a finger to help put down this armed insurrection within their borders. They had no money to raise troops. And even the state of Massachusetts was having trouble, so the hat had to be passed around the wealthy elites until a private militia of 3,000 men was raised, put at the disposal of former Continental General Benjamin Lincoln, key of the Siege of Charleston. Meanwhile, Shays and his comrades were rapidly forming their ranks into organized units.
Their first target was a natural one, the Federal Armory in Springfield. But before they could get to it, a contingent of state militia occupied it, all of which was terribly embarrassing for Congress, since it was technically a federal armory, and they couldn’t defend it, or frankly stop the Massachusetts militia from simply taking it over. I mean really, at this point, is there even such a thing as the United States of America? The rebel farmers planned to hit the armory from three sides on January 25, 1787. But one of the groups was held up, and the frantic message to delay the attack was intercepted. So the other two columns, numbering about 1,500, moved in without further backup.
When they arrived at the armory, the militia inside fired shots over their heads to warn them off, and then the militia fired grapeshot from a cannon right into them, killing three and wounding about 20 others. The rest scattered before regrouping in Amherst. When news of the armory incident filtered back east, Benjamin Lincoln let out his 3,000 men in pursuit. Shays and his comrades managed to keep a safe distance, but on the night of February 3, Lincoln ordered a forced march to surprise the rebels at their temporary camp. There wasn’t much killing, and only a few prisoners were taken, but it did break the cohesion of the rebellion, and that was really the last large-scale action.
At the end of February, the short enlistments of Lincoln’s private militia expired, and most went home. The scattered rebels either went home themselves, or tried to carry on the fight in small bands. The last little kick came on February 27, when about 150 farmers started raiding towns and were met in Sheffield by 80-state militia. A sharp firefight broke out that saw dozens wounded on both sides.
As the rebellion died down, Governor Bowdoin imposed harsh terms on known rebels, but this proved to be an unpopular move, and John Hancock, suddenly feeling much better now, thank you, was able to ride back in, trounce Bowdoin in the next election, and start granting pardons for the 4,000 or so men who admitted taking some part in the insurrection. Daniel Shays himself was convicted and sentenced to death, but he was pardoned in 1788 and was later granted a small pension by the federal government for his wartime service, dying in 1825 at the ripe old age of 78.
Now, there is not a direct correlation between Shays’ rebellion and the almost simultaneous call for a convention to rewrite the Articles of Confederation, but it certainly helped nudge any fence-sitters in the direction of, yeah, okay, it’s not like these states are doing such a bang-up job with their newfound powers, and what would be so bad about strengthening the national government a little? Not that everyone was so squeamish about the prospect of future insurrections. Reflecting on Shays’ rebellion later the next year, Thomas Jefferson issued his now famous or infamous quote that in his view a little rebellion now and again was good for the soul, that the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants, it is its natural manure.
But by the time he was issuing this quote, the newly drafted Constitution of the United States was already making the rounds for ratification, because before Shays’ rebellion even got going, leaders in Jefferson’s own home state of Virginia initiated a call for representatives from the several states to meet in Annapolis, Maryland work out a commercial agreement that would help solidify and rationalize the national economy, and maybe make it competitive on the world stage.
In September 1786, delegates from five states, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia, showed up in Annapolis and when they started talking, wouldn’t you know it, they all agreed that the Articles of Confederation were a big roadblock to economic and political maturity. So, without waiting for delegates from other states to show up and disagree with them, they signed a statement drafted by New York delegate Alexander Hamilton, calling for a convention to revise the Articles to meet in Philadelphia in May 1787, a convention where the first thing that would be agreed to was that the Articles were hopelessly broken and needed to be replaced by a whole new constitution.
Next week will be the last episode of our cycle on the American Revolution, and we will cover the final act of the Revolutionary Era, the crafting and ratification of the United States Constitution. After that, I will take my leave to prepare for the French Revolution, a revolution that made Thomas Jefferson rethink his attitude about just how much blood the Tree of Liberty really needed.
- Samuel Adams
- Benjamin Lincoln
- Nathanael Greene
- James Bowdoin
- John Adams
- George Washington
- Thomas Jefferson
- John Jay
- Alexander Hamilton
- Henry Knox
- John Hancock
- Daniel Shays
- The Critical Period of American History, 1783-1789 (Classic Reprint) by John Fiske: None
- The Siege of Charleston, 1861-1865 by E. Milby Burton: None
Between the end of the War of Independence and the Constitutional Convention the new United States was plagued by problems. The Articles of Confederation were not up to solving them.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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