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  • “We Have Not a Government”: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution by George William Van Cleve
  • Stuart Leibiger (bio)

Articles of Confederation, U.S. Constitution, Shays' Rebellion

“We Have Not a Government”: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution. By George William Van Cleve. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. Pp. 390. Cloth, $30.00.)

In “We Have Not a Government”: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution, George William Van Cleve, research professor at Seattle University School of Law, traces the collapse of the Confederation Congress from 1783–87. Because the Confederation lacked either an independent source of revenue or enforcement power over the states, Van Cleve argues, it proved unable to resolve several challenges that faced the United States in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War. By 1786, these failures convinced most Americans that the Confederation had become moribund and that they must take a chance on political reform through a constitutional convention.

Van Cleve explains that the restoration of peace in 1783 ushered in the worst recession in American history prior to the Great Depression. With the imposition of British and French restrictions on American trade to the West Indies, postwar exports fell by 25 percent. Congress could [End Page 350] not alleviate the nation’s economic distress because the states regulated commerce. When Massachusetts tried to wring commercial concessions from Great Britain through trade restrictions, other states simply took advantage of the situation to step up their trade with the British. Yet, Van Cleve argues, the states still rejected calls to grant Congress regulation of commerce because they feared centralized tyranny.

In 1783, Congress faced foreign and domestic war debts that had to be paid to establish national credit. Van Cleve demonstrates that every attempt to raise revenue, whether by requisitioning funds from the states, granting taxation power to the Confederation, selling western lands, or turning the debt over to the states for payment, all failed. Congress lacked any enforcement power to make the states pay their requisitions. This system encouraged states to become “free riders” (283), enjoying the benefits of the Confederation without paying for them. As a result, Congress only received one-third of the money due it from the states. Van Cleve recounts futile attempts to grant Congress the authority to tax. A 1781 proposal for Congress to collect a 5 percent impost suffered defeat when Rhode Island and Virginia, fearing centralized despotism, rejected it. In 1783, Congress again sought an independent revenue, this time through a 5 percent impost coupled with a mandatory requisition. Although all the states eventually approved the impost, only five of them accepted the accompanying requisition. Since both measures had been combined in a package deal, the whole plan failed.

Van Cleve points out that Congress faced intractable problems in the West. Because the states refused to honor provisions of the 1783 peace treaty requiring the payment of pre-Revolutionary debts to English merchants, Great Britain refused to evacuate troops from its posts in the Northwest Territory. Instead the British incited the Indians to attack frontier settlements. Congress found itself powerless either to make the states adhere to the treaty or to evict the British by military force. In 1784, when Spain closed the Mississippi River to American traffic, westerners threatened secession if they did not gain access to the waterway. In 1786, Minister of Foreign Affairs John Jay proposed that the U.S. surrender Mississippi navigation rights in return for commercial concessions to the northern states. So desperate were southerners for Mississippi navigation and so desperate were northerners for commercial concessions, writes Van Cleve, that each section vowed to form its own confederacy if it did not get its way. The resulting stalemate caused public confidence in Congress to evaporate. [End Page 351]

During the 1780s recession, several states passed paper money laws or other legislation to provide relief to debtors. Van Cleve argues that most of the paper money laws enjoyed bipartisan creditor–debtor support. Rhode Island, however, adopted an extremely pro-debtor paper currency that many saw as an example of majority tyranny against a propertied minority forced to accept repayment...


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