- "We Have Not a Government": The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution by George William Van Cleve
Two interpretations dominate the study of the years in which the Articles of Confederation served as the American charter of government. Gordon Wood is among those who propose that this "critical period" was a time of economic and political stresses whose solutions were achieved through [End Page 301] the creation of the Constitution. Other historians, including Merrill Jensen and Woody Holt, essentially argue that there was no real crisis. Rather, the Constitution was an effort by upper-class leaders who sought to secure power through the creation of a sovereign national government. George William Van Cleve's work does not fit completely into either of these two schools. Instead, he attempts to provide a third alternative that in many ways synthesizes the two interpretations. He proposes that to solve the Confederation's problems the Constitution "transferred sovereignty to the national government and adopted a far more flexible decision-making process. But did so by creating an intersectional elite power-sharing agreement, a 'grand bargain' that had profound long-term economic and political consequences" (7).
Van Cleve has organized his work around the various crises that confronted the new United States. Numerous other historians have described these circumstances but what makes Van Cleve's conclusions compelling is the detail and thorough analysis he provides when assessing them. The author contends that the most profound threat involved various deteriorating economic conditions. These stresses ran through all other issues. The author maintains that the "continuing severe recession" spawned both social and political dilemmas (9). He agrees with recent works by Alan Kulikoff and others who contend that the recession of the mid- to late 1780s rivaled that of the Great Depression in the 1930s and produced profound transformative effects on the American experience. Van Cleve makes a strong case that debts, war related and otherwise, headed the list of perils. The war was financed on credit. Afterward the states, burdened by their own debts, were unwilling to pay the Confederation's bills. They ignored a requisition system designed to generate revenue for the Confederation. The states refused to empower the Confederation with taxing authority. For various reasons tariffs were unacceptable. When states issued paper money, devaluation and inflation intensified existing tensions between debtors and creditors. In total, Van Cleve paints a picture of a fragile economy rift by state and regional interests.
Of course, the economic problems included volatile commercial activity. In terms of international trade, with an American military too weak to enforce agreements, European empires imposed strict limitations on maritime trade. Exports, essential to economic stability, fell drastically. The inability to pay existing foreign obligations further isolated the United States from trade with western Europe. Domestic commerce suffered from similar problems. States had little incentive to cooperate with each other. Eventually regional tensions generated a call by some states for a "sub confederation" to [End Page 302] serve as a central commercial authority. Other states flatly opposed the idea. In describing these circumstances, Van Cleve generally parallels Cathy D. Matson and Peter Onuf (Union of Interests), who contend that, guided by self-interest, there was broad agreement that government had a role to play in managing the economy but little agreement about what that role should be.
Van Cleve's discussion of the various issues, most notably the Jay-Gardoqui treaty negotiations, that entangled American foreign relations with migration west are particularly interesting. In both cases sectional interests acrimoniously collided. Plummeting western land prices coupled with various debtor problems encouraged western migration. This movement created confrontations with Native Americans who were apparently being aided by Spain and France. The growing western population demanded policies that both opened the Mississippi River and countered the perceived European support of Native Americans. In the East, foreign commerce was essential though northeastern commercial interests insisted on protected trade while southern agriculture sought free trade. Meanwhile, European trading partners demonstrated...