A video I created from the Coffee Party USA’s Civics Minute radio segments on June 12th, 2013. This video is from my article ‘Shays’ Rebellion and the Articles of Confederation‘.
There are many arguments proclaiming the ‘evils’ of big government, and it always seems to come back to the same arguments made by the Federalists and the Anti-federalists during the days of our founders, concerning the differences between a strong central government and a weak central government.
It is taken as gospel that our government should be small, and it is argued that it was always meant to be this way, but from what has been said about the dangers of our large government, it appears that some are advocating for a return of the Articles of Confederation, with its weak central powers, instead of the federal government that we have today.
The Second Continental College adopted the Articles of Confederation on November 15th, 1777, and it was in place until 1789, but it was replaced by the Constitution, which advocated for a stronger central government. Why was it replaced?
The Articles of Confederation maintained the principle that the national government would not hold more power than the states, which they saw as sovereign. This satisfied the fears that many of the States had regarding a strong central power, as Britain was before the Declaration of Independence.
In fact, there was no Executive Branch, because they feared giving one man that much power, and it was decided that the Congress would handle all the nation’s affairs.
However, there were many inherent weaknesses with the Articles of Confederation:
- The national government did not have the power to tax.
- Congress did not have the power to force states to obey its laws.
- Congress could not enforce laws.
- Each state could issue its own paper money.
- Any state could put tariffs on trade between other states or countries.
- There was no system of national courts.
- Congress could declare war and raise an army, but it could not force the states to give men or money.
After the Revolutionary War, the country went into a deep post-war depression. The States were threatening war with each other, and there were armed uprisings and riots across the land. Things eventually got so bad that the country was on the verge of a civil war.
This was called the ‘critical period‘. The States were jealous of each other’s sovereignty and squabbled among themselves. They negotiated their own trade deals with Europe, and they protected their own interests at the expense of the other States.
Each State was printing their own money, which depreciated soon after the war. Many returning soldiers were paid in currency they considered to be worthless, and it was told that some soldiers wallpapered their houses with the paper currency.
The Articles of Confederation was too weak to handle all of the problems in this time period, because the country was not able to govern itself or defend itself against attack or rebellion. The national government was dangerously close to bankruptcy, and the nation’s currency was virtually worthless.
In Massachusetts, this weakness was dangerously exposed when discontent for the government took shape in the form of Shays’ Rebellion, which occurred on January 25th, 1787.
Daniel Shays, a former captain in the Revolutionary War, led a large group of dissatisfied veterans and farmers to stop the injustices that they perceived were created by the wealthy elite establishment, and the political elite in the State government that seemed to be allied with these moneyed interests on the East Coast.
Because the demand for food products had gone up during the Revolution, many farmers took out loans during the Revolution to be able to plant much more on their land to produce more food for the market, but when the war ended, the demand dried up.
Many farmers were unable to pay for their land mortgages to the eastern merchants, and they had few options: they could have their land sold at auction, could have their crops, livestock and land seized, and creditors could have them thrown into a debtor’s prison.
Because many of the States in the country were on the verge of bankruptcy, this forced many of them to raise their taxes, and while everyone was experiencing these tough times, they were also expected to pay the extra taxes to the State.
To be able to vote during this time, you had to own land, and for many, the loss of their land and their loss of status, from not being able to vote, was too much for them to take. This made many decide that the form of government they had was not working for them, and that something had to be done.
In 1786, the depression was getting worse. County Conventions began to be held in the rural areas so that the people could air their complaints in public about the fiscal policies of the General Court and the State, and how there was a lack of regard for the desperate plight that everyone in the rural areas were experiencing.
They also sent letters to their elected leaders, only to continue feeling ignored by the state government, and the national government was helpless to do anything because they were not given the power under the Articles of Confederation.
Many communities throughout Massachusetts petitioned the State legislature for fiscal relief, and when none came, thousands marched to shut down the court doors that were taking people’s land away and putting the farmers in debtor’s prisons, because they believed the courts had betrayed the principals of free government.
Eventually, there was bloodshed and Shays’ Rebellion did not succeed, but it was determined that a change was needed to resolve the many problems caused by the Articles of Confederation. On February 21, 1787, the Continental Congress resolved that:
Whereas there is provision in the Articles of Confederation & perpetual Union for making alterations therein by the assent of a Congress of the United States and of the legislatures of the several States; And whereas experience hath evinced that there are defects in the present Confederation, as a mean to remedy which several of the States and particularly the State of New York by express instructions to their delegates in Congress have suggested a convention for the purposes expressed in the following resolution and such convention appearing to be the most probable mean of establishing in these states a firm national government.
Resolved that in the opinion of Congress it is expedient that on the second Monday in May next a Convention of delegates who shall have been appointed by the several states be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the states render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government & the preservation of the Union.
On May 25th, 1787, the Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia to decide the fate of the Articles of Confederation, and on September 17th, 1787, a new Constitution was approved, which had the much needed stronger central powers.
To help get all of the States to accept and ratify the Constitution, the Bill of Rights were added on September 25, 1789.
Shays’ Rebellion did not occur because the people felt that the national government was too large. It was literally non-existent for them. They felt like the courts favored only the wealthy elite and they believed they were being excluded from the American experiment by not being given a chance to succeed.
A similar form of confederacy was created for the Confederate States of America during the civil war, and it experienced many of the same problems that they had early in our country’s history. If a weak central government is an example of what our government should be like, then history shows that it was thoroughly tested and found wanting.
- Rhetoric of our fathers: the election of 1800 (johncashon.wordpress.com)
- Federalists and Anti-Federalists – What is the Difference? (hankeringforhistory.com)
- A third constiution that briefly controlled part of America (constitutioncenter.org)
- The Confederation Faces Challenges (AP U.S. History)
- The Confederacy: America’s Worst Idea (Historynet.com)
When one sees the elections of today, they think of the rhetoric that is being thrown at both sides. Every election seems to get worse and worse.
If only we could return to the glorious days of our founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Would it surprise you to know that the rhetoric was just as bad, or worse, back then as well?
The election of 1800 was the first election that had two parties where the winner would control the Presidency and the Vice-Presidency. The Federalists selected John Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and the Democratic-Republicans selected Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.
To get the full story, we would first need to begin by looking at the 1796 election when George Washington, a Federalist, declared that he would not run for President again.
In George Washington’s Farewell Address as President of the United States, he warned about the danger of parties in the State:
I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to founding them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you, in the most solemn manner, against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.
This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes, in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled or repressed; but in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy. 1
At this time, under the original Constitution, two parties did choose their candidates, but there was nothing indicating how to handle two parties for the elections.
In this 1796 election, the Federalists ran John Adams and Thomas Pinckney and the Democratic-Republicans ran Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.
According to the Miller Center, a nonpartisan institute seeking to expand understanding of the presidency, policy, and political history, and based at the University of Virginia, states:
Each party named two presidential candidates, for under the original Constitution, each member of the electoral college was to cast two ballots for President. The winner of the presidential election was the individual who received the largest number of votes, if it constituted a majority of the votes cast. The person receiving the second largest number of votes, whether or not it was a majority, was to be the vice president. In the event that no candidate received a majority of votes, or that two candidates tied with a majority of votes, the House of Representatives was to decide the election, with each state, regardless of size, having a single vote. 2
After the Electoral College delegates cast their ballots, the Vice President, who was the presiding officer of the Senate, had the job to count them. This just happened to be John Adams.
When the votes were counted, John Adams had 71 votes making him President and Thomas Jefferson had 68 votes giving him the Vice-Presidency. This meant the government would be run by a Federalist as the President and a Democratic-Republican as the Vice-President. 3
Saying that the two parties were not fond of the other’s platform for the direction of the country would be a wild understatement. They bitterly opposed each other’s ideas.
The Federalist believed in a strong central government that would have the authority to restrain the excesses of popular majorities. They were backed by the commercial sector of the country favored by the electors in the northern states.
The Democratic-Republicans, containing many members of the former Anti Federalists, wanted to reduce the national authority allowing the people to rule more directly through the state governments. They drew their strength from those favoring an agrarian society which was the strongest in the southern states. 4
Alexander Hamilton, a leader in the Federalist Party, once stated, “Men are reasoning rather than reasonable animals.” He disagreed with Thomas Jefferson’s view that the general public should control government. 5
Thomas Jefferson believed in universal education and universal suffrage for some white men. According to The American Pageant: A History of the American People: To 1877 by David M. Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen and Thomas A. Bailey:
Above all, Jefferson advocated the rule of the people. But he did not propose thrusting the ballot into the hands of every adult white male. He favored government for the people, but not by all the people – only by those white men who were literate enough to inform themselves and wear the mantle of American citizenship worthily. Universal education would have to precede universal suffrage. The ignorant, he argued, were incapable of self-government. But he had profound faith in the reasonableness and teachableness of the masses and in their collective wisdom when taught. 6
The Democratic-Republican’s ideals may sound familiar today with their arguments against Federal authority, taxes, and the call for stronger states rights heard today by the Conservative and Libertarian Parties as they debate for smaller government. This debate has a long history in the United States.
The Election of 1800
By the time the campaigning for the 1800 Election began, many in both parties were angry with John Adams. The Miller Center describes the situation for Adams:
The Federalist Party was deeply split over his foreign policy. Many had opposed his decision to send envoys to Paris in 1799, some because they feared it would result in national humiliation for the United States and others because they hoped to maintain the Quasi-War crisis for partisan ends. Furthermore, early in 1800, Adams fired two members of his cabinet, Timothy Pickering, the secretary of state, and James McHenry, the secretary of war, for their failure to support his foreign policy. Their discharge alienated numerous Federalists. In addition to the fissures within his party, the differences between the Federalists and the Republicans had become white-hot. Jeffersonians were furious over the creation of a standing army, the new taxes, and the Alien and Sedition Acts. 7
The Federalists asked the electors to cast their two votes for John Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, but they did not designate which would be President. The Democratic-Republicans nominated Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, but designated Jefferson to be their candidate for President. 8
During this time, the candidates did not actively campaign, choosing to allow their camps to run their campaigns, while they spent most of their time in their respective homes in Massachusetts and Virginia.
As the campaign continued, the Federalist camp painted Jefferson as a godless nonbeliever and a radical revolutionary. They believed if he was elected, he would bring about a reign of terror in the nation. Adams was accused of trying to have his son married off to King George III‘s daughter and was trying to setup a dynasty. 9
It got worse when John Adams was accused by Jefferson’s camp of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” This led Adam’s camp to call Jefferson, “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” 10
Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, wrote, “In short, we are now wonderfully popular except with Bache & Co., who in his paper calls the President, old, querulous, bald, blind, cripple, toothless Adams.” 11
The campaign was getting particularly brutal with Adams being labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant. Adams’ camp followed suit by calling Jefferson a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward. Martha Washington, after hearing the attacks on Adams, told a clergyman that Jefferson was “one of the most detestable of mankind.” 12
One other event transpired that showed one difference between Jefferson and Adams’ campaign styles. Jefferson decided to hire a ‘hatchet man‘ named James Callendar to smear Adams in publications while Adams believed he was above these types of tactics. This proved successful for Jefferson because Callendar’s work helped convince many Americans that Adams wanted to attack France. 13
Jefferson and Burr tied for first in the election with 73 votes each becoming the only time in American history that the President and the Vice President tied for first in an election. Unfortunately, for Jefferson, a tie meant the decision would have to be made by the House of Representatives, according to the Constitution, even though they declared in the beginning that he was running for President and Burr was running for Vice-President. In a close vote and with Alexander Hamilton’s help, because of his animosity towards Aaron Burr, Jefferson won the vote and became the President of the United States. 14
This election was the first of its kind in the United States because it was the first where an opposition party replaced another in running the government. Even after all of the vitriol that was slung in this election, Jefferson’s opponents stepped down peacefully, which is very significant. This two party structure allowed the opposing groups in the government to have a way of transferring power, through elections, without trying to destroy the other side and allowing each to coexist peacefully, and this established a precedent for all of the future elections to follow.
- The Election of 1800: Hamilton’s Role (itshamiltime.com)
- Hamilton and the New York Post (itshamiltime.com)
- Thomas Jefferson (csmonitor.com)
- Democratic Party-A lilttle history lesson (kssunews.wordpress.com)
- To have served under General Marquis de Lafayette (johncashon.wordpress.com)
- A little history – The Revolutionary War (johncashon.wordpress.com)