Gambar halaman
PDF
ePub

SECTION IL

EVENTS FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE WAR OF INDEPEN

DENCE TO THE FORMATION OF THE CONSTITUTION.

The colonies of North America were formed in rapid succession, and were scattered all along our seaboard. They were formed, to some extent, by different kinds of people, who came not all from one country nor moved by the same impulse, and they brought with them different characteristics. They were planted at distances which permitted them, independently, or, at least, without much assimilating influence of one upon another, to grow up each in its own way, each under its own circumstances, and each to develop its own peculiarities. And yet they were near enough, and similar enough, to seek and to have much intercourse, and to render to each other much assistance. As time passed on, they found it desirable, in some instances toʻunite and coalesce under a common government; and in others, to form alliances for mutual assistance and protection. And in this way some unity of feeling and of interest, and some tendency to community of action, grrw up. And these experiences undoubtedly facilitated, and perhaps I might say made possible, their united action in their efforts to obtain independence.

As the feeling that independence must be won, and would be worth all that it might cost, grew stronger and more general, it became evident to the far-sighted and the patriotic that there must be some concert of action. In June, 1765, James Otis, of Boston, advised the calling of an American congress. But this measure met with much opposition, and for a time it seemed as if there could be no union. Then South Carolina responded to Massachusetts, and declared for union! In New York, those who held similar views established a newspaper, called the “ Constitutional Courant,” which had much influence. It bore for its motto the words, first used by Franklin nearly ten years before, “ Join or Die.” Never was the guiding truth of a great emergency expressed more emphatically or in fewer words. Join or die. This was indeed the great truth of that day, of every day since then, and of the very hour in which we live. Other States acceded, and on the 7th of October, 1765, the first congress, consisting of delegates regularly appointed from six States, with others, representing three more, assembled at New York. The doings of this congress strengthened and diffused the desire for united action. As the necessity became greater and more apparent, at length what is called the Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia on the 5th of September, 1774, and then on the 10th of May, 1775. Still, so great was the jealousy of a central power, that nothing but the peril of impending war, and its pressure when it came, held even this congress of delegates together. But they did hold together; and it was this congress which, on the 15th of June, 1775, appointed Washington commander-in-chief of the continental army; and on the 4th day of July, 1776, declared our independence.

In that declaration these two elements of the unity of the whole and the sovereignty of the parts were mingled. It begins, “When it becomes necessary for ONE PEOPLE to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another," and at its close declares that the former colonies are “free and independent States.” There they stood, free from all external dominion, and as independent of each other as of England.

But in 1777, Washington, when, at Morristown in New Jersey, he found himself in the midst, if not of treason, of an indifference which was hardening into treason, by proclamation required all who had received protections from the British commander to surrender them and take an oath of allegiance to the United States! United; when and how were they united ? In Congress he was censured for this. In the legislature of New Jersey it was declared that the required oath encroached upon the prerogatives of the State, and that it was absurd to swear allegiance to the United States before even a confederacy was formed. But even then Washington was justified by the language of the Declaration of Independence: even then were these States united in the contemplation of the good and the wise, and most of all in the heart of him who was best among the good and wisest among the wise.

The doings of the Continental Congress before the Declaration of Independence, and in making that declaration, were revolutionary. They acted from necessity; and the general sense of this necessity prevented criticism of their measures or a refusal to obey them. But the Congress itself felt the need of a more orderly organization, which should approach a nationality, so far, at least, as to unite the States into a strong and efficient confederacy.

On the same day in which a committee was appointed to prepare. a declaration of independence, 11th of June, 1776, it was resolved to appoint another committee “to prepare and digest the form of a confederation to be entered into between these colonies." This committee reported a draft of articles of confederation, which was debated for about a month, and then a new draft was reported by the Congress in committee of the whole. The matter then slept until April

, 1777, when it was taken up and debated on sundry days

for about seven months, and on the 15th of November was adopted. These particulars are stated, that it may be seen how slowly and with what difficulty the idea of nationality made its way among the people. At that time it had indeed scarcely an existence. The different colonies had always been jealous of each other. Their interests were distinct, and in some respects opposed. Only because no one colony, and no part of the colonies, could achieve their independence, and all desired their independence, could they be induced to combine together sufficiently to act with any concert in the war of the Revolution. The wisest and strongest men in the country - Washington and Franklin may be mentioned looked further. We cannot say that either of these men or any of their great compatriots anticipated the wonderful future which awaited their country, and which would have been impossible if that country had not become a nation. It is, however, certain that they did earnestly desire an actual and effectual confederation, which should confer upon the general government adequate powers. The nearest approach they could make to this, and that with great difficulty, was in forming the Articles of Confederation. It was no easy matter to carry these articles through the Congress, obvious as must have been the need of them to every member of that body. And after they had been adopted by Congress, there was great difficulty in obtaining the ratification of them by the colonies, which by the declaration of independence had become States. At length, however, in the last half of 1778, about one year from the adoption of this instrument by the Congress, it was ratified by all the States but two; and these, Delaware in 1779, and Maryland in 1781, finally ratified it. It was then publicly declared by Congress, with rejoicings which proved, on the one hand, with how much difficulty it had been obtained, and on the other, how much was hoped from it, and how great a good it was thought to be.

The main cause of this difficulty was in the absence of all willingness among the people of the different States to give up so much of the independence and sovereignty of each State as was necessary, that all together might constitute a nation. There were, however, other causes. One of these was a great difference of opinion as to the basis of voting in the Congress. Some wished this to be by States, the smaller having equal power with the larger. Others would have political power proportioned to wealth; and still others to population. There was also much conflict, both of opinion and of interest, as to the ownership of the vacant lands in the vast and then unexplored western territory. The charters of the colonies were exceedingly indefinite as to their western boundaries, some of them running to “ The South Sea," as the Pacific Ocean was then called. The larger States claimed that all the land within their chartered boundaries should belong to them. The smaller States insisted that the western regions, so far as they were unoccupied, should belong as a common property to the whole country. After much exciting controversy, which more than once threatened the existence of the confederacy, this question was settled by a concession to the confederacy, by the larger States, of a great part of the unsettled territory claimed by them.

These obstacles not only obstructed and delayed the formation of a confederacy, until they were overcome by the absolute necessity ol'union and co-operation in resisting the efforts of Great Britain to preserve her sovereignty, but they made the Articles of Confederation a most imperfect instrument. While the war lasted, it sufficed tolerably well for its purpose; and one reason for this was that Congress took whatever measures seemed necessary, without any careful observance of the limits imposed by the articles; and the people seeing the necessity made no opposition. But when peace came, it may be said that the Articles of Confederation broke down. The reason was, that the general jealousy of a central government had withheld from it powers absolutely necessary to its existence. It had, indeed, no power of self-protection, no power of compulsion, no power of carrying into effect its own resolves. They could raise no money, and no army. They could appoint ambassadors, but could pay them nothing. They could conclude treaties, but only advise the execution of them. It was but the semblance of a government, with little of its substance.

For all this, the Articles of Confederation must be regarded as the nearest approach to a national government that the temper of the people at that time made possible. They were a step in that direction, and an important step; but it was only one step towards that result.

The Articles of Confederation did not even purport to make of us a nation. If they are studied, they will prove the earnest desire of some at least of those who drew them, that we might become a nation. But they stopped so far short of this as to form of the States only a confederacy. These articles were skilfully drawn, and gave to the central government all the power which the States could then be induced to part with. Some semblance — something indeed of the substance of national power -- was given; although there was no regular legislative, executive, or judicial department. Probably all the power was given to Congress that it was thought necessary that it should possess to do the work that lay before it. This work it did, well and thoroughly; for while the thirteen States were held together by the presence of a common enemy, a common war, and a common necessity, the Articles of Confederation sufficed to make that war triumphant; but they sufficed for this, because the sagacity and singleness of purpose of the men who wielded the powers of government, the patriotism of the people, and the wisdom and constancy of Washington, supplied - so far at least as was needed for success — all deficiencies.

Then came peace, and it was soon apparent that the want of unity in the nation, and of power in the government and its organs, not only prevented the deep wounds of the war from healing, but seemed even to aggravate all the mischiefs which followed, and made the first years of peace no years of returning prosperity. The central government, no longer sustained and invigorated by the war, found itself utterly unable to prevent or to avenge insults and outrages to our flag: it could not even repel the incursion of the savages on our borders; it could not pay the interest of our national debt; it had no credit, no force, no vital energy, and it may well be said to have died of inherent weakness; for in 1787 it abrogated its own functions, declared its inability to act as the government of a nation, and it appealed to the ultimate source of all political power, – the people of the whole country. And then came the convention of 1787. When it met, there was in that assembly as much of sagacity, of varied intellectual accomplishment and resource, and of earnest devotion to duty, as ever co-operated in a great work.

And with all these mingled as little of folly and weakness, as little personal ambition, as little self-seeking of any kind, and as little of the disturbing force which these ignoble qualities would exert, as was possible under the conditions of humanity.

If, in saying that the old Articles of Confederation carried this country successfully through the war of independence, I give them high praise, I believe that I give them still higher when I say that they made the national Constitution possible. These articles familiarized the minds of the whole country with the idea of united action and a central government. They proved indisputably the immense advantages which might be obtained thereby; and they proved as certainly that to secure all these advantages it was absolutely necessary that the nation should have a greater unity than they gave to it, and the central government more power. Aided and illustrated by the course of events, they produced a general impression, especially among leading minds, everywhere, that there might be a stricter national unity, and a stronger central government, without absorbing or imperilling those State rights which were deservedly dear to the people of every State. Thus it was that this jealous love for the sovereign rights of the several States yielded slowly, reluctantly, and only step by step, to the inevitabla

« SebelumnyaLanjutkan »