Jack Rakove teaches history and political science at Stanford University. His new book, “A Politician Thinking: The Creative Mind of James Madison” was published in September.
Back in 1889, as the centennial of the Constitution was closing, the historian John Fiske published “The Critical Period of American History, 1783-1789.” His title phrase has beguiled and haunted historians ever since. Were the years between the close of the Revolutionary War and the adoption of the Constitution really so bad? If this was so critical a period, what were its defining problems and challenges? Perhaps this image of crisis was simply a ploy the framers of the Constitution concocted to justify their efforts to reverse the swirl of democratic forces through the states. Or perhaps, as Gordon Wood argued in his epochal book, “The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787,” this mood of crisis reflected a diffuse disappointment over the factional turmoil of the mid-1780s. Somehow the republican promise of 1776, with its great emphasis on the civic virtue of the people, had evaporated.
George William Van Cleve decidedly favors the crisis model. His new book, “We Have Not a Government,” provides a focused explanation of the reasons the Articles of Confederation, the nation’s first federal constitution, went lurching toward collapse. Like most historians, Van Cleve wants to study the past for its own sake, rather than drawing lessons for the present. Yet while writing this book, he was surprised to discover how often acquaintances linked his academic concerns with our own political travails. We, too, have had many reasons to declare that “we have not a government” — even before the least-qualified presidential candidate in American history entered the White House.
Van Cleve’s title phrase sounds all the more apt today, when Republicans control the government but are badly strapped to legislate, when the executive branch lacks hundreds of appointments, and when the sole holder of “the executive power of the United States” is badly ignorant of public policy as well as the principles and substance of the Constitution that he swore to preserve, protect and defend before the unprecedented crowds that he claimed packed the Mall on Inauguration Day.
Still, a working historian would tell lay readers that the real task of history is less to draw straight lines from past to present than to appreciate the differences between then and now. So let us go back to the great story of the founding era, tracing the road to Philadelphia that led to the bold political strokes of 1787-88.
“We Have Not a Government” is very much a work of synthesis, but in the best sense of the term. Van Cleve patiently examines the specific matters of public policy that vexed national politics in the mid-1780s. He draws sharp conclusions and generally takes decided stands on matters that historians still actively dispute.
After eight years of war, American society did not enjoy an easy path to recovery. Massive public and private debts saddled the economy. Congress repeatedly tottered on the verge of bankruptcy. Its system of levying “requisitions” on the states failed to produce the revenue it needed. Lacking resources, Congress could not project national authority into the trans-Appalachian interior, where British and Spanish influence and the justified fears of Native Americans threatened the orderly settlement of the Ohio Valley. British goods flooded American markets, while American ships were denied access to British ports. The Spanish closure of the Mississippi River to American navigation in 1784 weakened the political loyalty of the thousands of settlers heading west. It also sharpened sectional tensions between Northern and Southern states. These were badly exacerbated in 1786, when Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay tried to conclude a commercial treaty with Spain that would subordinate the South’s concerns with the Mississippi to the commercial interests of Northern merchants.
These collective failures demonstrated the “imbecility” of the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation. Congress began submitting amendments to the states as soon as the Confederation took formal effect in March 1781. But none of these amendments ever attained the unanimous approval of all 13 state legislatures. Minuscule Rhode Island, that rocky outcrop of New England, adopted anti-federal policies that seemed to doom any chance of constitutional amendment.
These are familiar events, and Van Cleve does not break new ground in surveying them. To be blunt about it, his rather wooden prose does not quite convey the excitement of American politics that has engaged other commentators. Yet he is absolutely clear on one key point: Both within the individual states and at the level of national government, the obstacles to constitutional reform were high. Regional suspicions ran deep, and the idea that the union could devolve into two or three confederations was a real possibility. The uprising of debtor farmers in western Massachusetts in Shays’ Rebellion was not, Van Cleve further notes, a crucial turning point in developing new ideas of national government. But it did persuade major leaders in Massachusetts and Connecticut to support the reform ideas that James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were developing, especially after they met at the Annapolis Convention in September 1786.
If there is one critical character in Van Cleve’s story, it is George Washington. Artfully quoted throughout the book, he emerges as the most nationalist leader of all, the one most committed to creating an imperial republic. At first glance, for lay readers, this discovery may not seem surprising. But among scholars, Washington is often taken for granted — a major force, perhaps, but a less-creative political entrepreneur than Madison and Hamilton, the two actors he relied on most. Van Cleve departs from other historians in not giving their distinctive contributions to the transformation of American constitutionalism the attention they deserve.
What Van Cleve does demonstrate, persuasively, is that the genuine crisis of the Confederation required creating a “staggeringly powerful” national government through a “grand bargain” that went well beyond what any state might have asked for itself. Some commentators still see the Constitution as the self-interested work of an elite propertied class, recycling the tired arguments Charles Beard made a century ago. Not Van Cleve. He argues, rightly in my view, that the framers of the Constitution “took very large political risks not out of selfish class interest, and not just from perceived necessity, but from objective necessity.” It was this perception of manifest crisis that broke the multiple stalemates that had vexed the Confederation since 1783.
That perception of dogged impasse is what has jogged Van Cleve’s acquaintances to muse that the 1780s and the 2010s may not be as different as one might assume. Of course, by any objective criteria, the differences between these two decades, separated by a near quarter-millennium, overwhelm their superficial similarities. The source of stalemate in American politics today inheres within the Republican Party. Beyond reciting its ideological shibboleths, which work best when one is in opposition, this is a party that can barely agree with itself on courses of action, much less imagine how to collaborate with the Democrats. Given the procedural shackles of the “Hastert rule,” which requires legislation in the House to command the support of a majority of the GOP majority; the feckless leadership of Sen. Mitch McConnell; and President Trump’s gross ignorance of public policy, the Republican Party is an empty vessel of political action.
There may be no obvious political lessons from the 1780s, but if Van Cleve is right, there are some obvious political morals.
By George William Van Cleve
Chicago. 390 pp. $30