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  • The Confederation Court
  • Fredrika J. Teute and David S. Shields

Noah Webster, The Cincinnati, Salons, Annis Boudinot Stockton, Elias Boudinot, American Revolutionary War, George Washington, Martha Washington

In 1787, Noah Webster, brooding on the state of the nation, observed, “Instead of general tranquility, one State has been involved in a civil war, and most of them are torn with factions, which weaken or destroy the energy of government. Instead of a free commerce with all the world, our trade is every where fettered with restraints and impositions, dictated by foreign interest. . . . Instead of a union of States and measures, essential to the welfare of a great nation, each State is jealous of its neighbor, and struggling for the superiority in wealth and importance, at hazard even of our federal existence.”1

The civil and political disarray under the Confederation set Webster searching for causes and projecting remedies. He did not find the cause in the defective charters of government. Rather he saw the problem as arising from the total dependency of the United States upon Europe for manners. Americans seemed to Webster smitten with the allure of European modes and intent on luxury. “The present ambition of Americans is, to introduce as fast as possible, the fashionable amusements of the European courts.” Webster argued that only the transformation of women’s opinion could break the thralldom of European manners. Until this occurred, “the revolution of America is yet incomplete.” Until then, feudal Europeans “give us their fashions, they direct our taste to make a market for their commodities; they engross the profits of our industry, without the hazard of defending us, or the expense of supporting our civil government.” But how to transform opinion? Webster believed it [End Page 215] was in the power of an array of tastemakers scattered over the continent to complete the revolution. “If our implicit submission to the prevailing taste of European courts, involves individuals and the public in unnecessary expenses, it is in the power of a few influential characters in each of our commercial cities to remedy the whole evil. And in a reformation of this kind, the ladies would have no inconsiderable share.”2

Webster’s recourse to the press suggests that he believed that print would be the agent of change, inspiring influential characters from Savannah to Portsmouth to eschew sumptuary excess and European goods. But print is a peculiarly disembodied thing, while fashion thrives on bodies. Webster failed to realize the implications of his own cultural diagnosis; if the court was so potent in promulgating manners and dictating modes, it possessed the most efficient means of changing manners. Webster resisted the idea that to counter the effects of European courts the most promising course was to found an American court promoting republican manners. While Webster didn’t grasp the obvious, others did.

If Webster did not see the institutional remedy for his problem, he did view most matters with acuity. His diagnosis of the troubles of the Confederation possessed an analytic depth unmatched by most Federalist critics of the state of the union. His intuition that women were somehow involved in the solution to the cultural turmoil also spoke to a problem that has been apparent only in retrospect: The confederation was a government dominated by veterans of the continental army, a body of men habituated to an ethic of valor and to resolving difficulties by the application of force. Furthermore, the officer corps looked to itself for moral and political sustenance. Its distrust of Congress and its exclusive solidarity made its reconstitution as the Society of the Cincinnati in 1783, after the disbanding of the army, a cause for crisis. That members of this exclusive brotherhood would seek elective office in the Confederation stirred fears that a junto was installing itself in power. Such a prospect was not suited to establishing domestic tranquility.3

George Washington, alarmed by public opposition to the Cincinnati on the eve of its first general meeting in Philadelphia in May 1784, sought the advice of Thomas Jefferson. His reply, in addition to reiterating the general objections to introducing the “influence of foreign [End Page 216] courts,” hereditary distinctions, and privilege and prerogative into...


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