Deficiencies of the Confederation

CHAPTER 5 | Document 14

Samuel Osgood to John Adams

14 Nov. 1786Adams Works 8:419--21

. . . in a government where expedients only keep up its existence, it is impossible to foresee what sudden and unexpected changes may take place. The federal government seems to be as near a crisis as it is possible for it to be. The State governments are weak and selfish enough, and they will of course annihilate the first. Their stubborn dignity will never permit a federal government to exist. There are, however, a few men in every state, who are very seriously impressed with the idea that, without a proper federal head, the individual states must fall a prey to themselves, or any power that is disposed to injure them. With this idea, they are thinking, very seriously, in what manner to effect the most easy and natural change of the present form of the federal government to one more energetic, that will, at the same time, create respect, and secure properly life, liberty, and property. It is, therefore, not uncommon to hear the principles of government stated in common conversation. Emperors, kings, stadtholders, governors-general, with a senate or house of lords, and house of commons, are frequently the topics of conversation. Many are for abolishing all the state governments, and for establishing some kind of general government; but I believe very few agree in the general principles, much less in the details, of such a government.

How to effect a change, is the difficulty. The confederation provides that congress shall make the alterations, and that they shall be adopted by the several legislatures. Yet the idea of a special convention, appointed by the states, to agree upon and propose such alterations as may appear necessary, seems to gain ground. But the danger is, that neither congress nor a convention will do the business. For the situation of the United States, and of some of the particular states, is such, that an army must be kept up, and the probability is, at present, that this army will be seriously employed; and, in case of a civil war, the men of property will certainly attach themselves very closely to that army, the final issue of which, it is feared, will be, that the army will make the government of the United States. Many say, already, any change will be for the better, and are ready to risk any thing to effect it. The disturbances in Massachusetts seem most likely to produce some very important event. It is a little surprising to some, how they come to break out in such a manner there. It is said that the insurgents have two objects in view; one, to reduce their state debt and those securities given by the United States to citizens of that state for their services or moneys loaned, to their current value in the market; the other, to annihilate private debts. Perhaps this may be in part true, and the greater number may have nothing further in view but to remedy some supposed grievances; yet, as it affords a fine opportunity for the restless enemies of this country to sow dissensions, we have too much reason to believe, that they are not only looking on as spectators, but that they are industriously employed in disseminating disaffection to the present forms of government. If these enemies are British, or their old adherents among us, which seems to be the case, because they are traced from Hampshire and Berkshire to Vermont, and from thence to Canada, if they are British, their object must be something further than mere revenge; and that object can be nothing short of establishing a monarchical government in this country, and placing some one of George's sons on the throne. If this object is worth to the British from five to ten millions sterling, and they can advance the money, they can and will effect it; not by force of arms, for, if they should come out openly against us, we should fight again; but, be assured, this country is extremely poor, as well as extravagant, and I have no doubt that ten millions, artfully applied, would secure nearly the whole country. That the British will and do cherish all their old adherents, is not to be doubted; and that those adherents never will be Americans, is a principle founded in nature.

That the French will not be silent, unoperative spectators in these negotiations, if they should happen, is most certainly to be expected. They wish to keep us just where we are, or, if a little more insignificant, quite as well; they will, therefore, view without emotion any civil commotions that tend to weaken us. But if there should be any danger of the scales preponderating in favor of any other foreign power, they will act with their usual address.

The British party is and will be great; the French party also; the genuine Americans, few; the speculators numerous, who care not what the government is, so that they can speculate upon and spunge it.

Mr. Jay will probably have furnished you with the newspapers of this country, which will contain much with respect to the hostile disposition of the Indians. That the British instigate them to make depredations on us, is very natural; but why they are reënforcing Canada, which by the public papers appears to be the case, is not so easy to determine.

All things are operating here to bring the Cincinnati into vogue. I cannot say I think they are all for supporting government, but they are for having government.

The leader of the insurgents in Massachusetts is entitled to the ribbon and eagle. He left the army in the fall of 1780, being then a captain of good reputation; his name is Shays, a man without education, but not without abilities. He is privately involved, which may be the reason why he has adopted such violent measures. It is generally supposed that he cannot retreat.

As to the situation of the finances of the United States, they can scarcely be in a worse condition. As to making any further attempt to discharge any part of the principal or interest of our foreign debt, it is in vain. The thirteen states do not pay enough to keep the civil list together, which does not require more than one hundred thousand dollars a year. I have inclosed you a schedule, which will give you a full view of the requisitions of congress, the payments, and balances due.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 5, Document 14
The University of Chicago Press

The Works of John Adams. Edited by Charles Francis Adams. 10 vols. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1850--56. See also: Butterfield; Cappon; Warren-Adams Letters

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