THE AMERICAN EXAMPLE
by Clarence Streit
Common sense may seem to say that the American example does not apply, that it was much easier for the Thirteen States to unite than it would be for the Fifteen Democracies today, that the possibility of their forming a Union is now too remote to justify practical men trying to solve the immediate problem this way. It may seem to say that one needs only consider current American public opinion to realize that unlike 1787 Union now is a dream that cannot possibly be realized for many years, let alone in time to save us now. This seems convincing but is it so?
American opinion has always been remarkable for seeing from afar danger to democracy and quickly adopting the common sense solution, however remote and radical and difficult and dangerous it seemed to be. What other people ever revolted at less oppression? Independence was so remote from American thought at the start of 1776 that it was not even proposed seriously until January 10, when Paine came out for it. Yet his Common Sense then so swept the country that within six months the Declaration of Independence was adopted.
To understand how difficult and remote the Union of the Thirteen states really was when 1787 began and how encouragingly the example they set applies to our democracies today, common sense suggests that we turn back and see the situation then as contemporaries saw it.
"If there is a country in the world where concord, according to common calculation, would be least expected, it is America," wrote Paine himself. "Made up as it is of people from different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of Government, speaking different languages, and more different in their modes of worship, it would appear that the union of such a people was impracticable."
Conditions among the American democracies of the League of Friendship were if anything worse than among ours today. As John Fiske put it, "By 1786, under the universal depression and want of confidence, all trade had well-nigh stopped, and political quackery, with its cheap and dirty remedies, had full control of the field." Trade disputes threatened war among New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. Territorial disputes led to bloodshed and threat of war among New York, New Hampshire and Vermont, and between Connecticut and Pennsylvania. War with Spain threatened to break the League of Friendship in two camps. The League could not coerce its members. Threats of withdrawal from it were common. Its Congress often had no quorum, rarely had an money in the treasury, could no longer borrow. The states issued worthless currency, misery was rife, and courts were broken up by armed mobs. When these troubles culminated early in 1787 with the attempt of Shays's rebels to capture the League arsenal in Massachusetts so strong was state sovereignty and so feeble the League that Massachusetts would not allow League troops to enter its territory even to guard the League's own arsenal. Washington had already written to Jay in 1786, "I am uneasy and apprehensive, more so than during the war." Everything seemed to justify the words of the contemporary liberal philosopher, Josiah Tucker, Dean of Gloucester:
As to the future grandeur of America, and its being a rising empire under one head, whether republican or monarchical, it is one of the idlest and most visionary notions that ever was conceived even by writers of romance. The mutual antipathies and clashing interests of the Americans, their differences of governments, habitudes, and manners, indicate that they will have no centre of union and no common interest. They never can be united into one compact empire under any species of government whatever; a disunited people till the end of time, suspicious and distrustful of each other, they will be divided and sub-divided into little commonwealths or principalities, according to natural boundaries, by great bays of the sea, and by vast rivers, lakes, and ridges of mountains.
The idea of turning from league to union was so remote in 1787 that it was not even seriously proposed until the end of May when the Federal Convention opened. How remote it may be inferred from the fact that the opening of the Convention had to wait ten days in order to have the bare majority of the Thirteen States needed for a quorum. The Convention itself had been called by Congress merely to reform the League--"for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation." It was not deflected away from patching and into building anew until the eve of its session,--and then only thanks to George Washington's personal intervention. Even then Union as we know it now was more than remote: It was unknown, it still had to be invented.
Yet once the Convention decided to build anew it completed this revolutionary political intervention within 100 working days. Within two years--two years of close votes and vehement debate in which Hamilton, Madison and others, now called "men of vision," were derided as "visionary young men" even by Richard Henry Lee, the revolutionist who had moved the Declaration of Independence in 1776, -- within two years the anarchy-ridden, freedom-loving American democracies agreed to try out this invention on themselves. Twenty months after they read its text the American people established the Constitution that still governs them,--but now governs four times as many democracies and forty times as many free men and women.
Is it really visionary to believe that the American people can still be trusted quickly to understand and act upon the common sense of Union?
Can it be hard-headed reason that holds it easier for the American democracies to invent and agree to try out Union in the infancy of self-government than it is for our more mature democracies to adopt it now?
It does seem practical to ask first how all the difficulties in changing from national sovereignty to Union are to be met. Yet the makers of the first Union were not delayed by such considerations. They abolished each State's right to levy tariffs, issue money, make treaties, and keep an army, and they gave these rights to the Union without waiting for a plan to meet the difficulties of changing from protection to free trade, etc. They did not even bother trying to work out plans to meet all these difficulties of transition. And they were right in treating all this as secondary and leaving it to the Union itself to solve, for the lack of such plans neither prevented the swift adoption of Union nor caused any serious difficulty thereafter.
Yet they lived in a time when New York was protecting its fuel interests by a tariff on Connecticut wood and its farmers by duties on New Jersey butter, when Massachusetts closed while Connecticut opened its ports to British shipping, when Boston was boycotting Rhode Island grain and Philadelphia was refusing to accept New Jersey money, when the money of Connecticut, Delaware and Virginia was sound, that of all other States was variously depreciated and that of Rhode Island and Georgia was so worthless that their governments sought to coerce the citizens into accepting it. In those days New York was massing troops on its Vermont frontier while the army of Pennsylvania was committing the atrocities of the "Wyoming massacre" against settlers from Connecticut.
Can it still be said that the difficulties of transition to Union were simpler then than now? That it was then more practical to risk establishing Union without a transition plan to risk delaying Union until such a plan was made? That it is now more practical to delay Union at the risk of catastrophe than to adopt it at the risk of having some transition difficulties? Common sense answers, No.
Clarence K. Streit (1896-1986), born in California, editor and foreign corespondent, author and lecturer, was educated in the United States, Paris and London. In the 1930s he was the League of Nations correspondent for the New York Times.
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