Union may not have been quite the simple good old cause that proponents of the new Constitution made it out to be. But however separate and distinct the American colonies were in their foundations, temper, and internal self-government, they had shared a long history under a common imperial authority. For over a century and a half that central authority in Britain had set policy on war and peace, commerce, westward expansion, and the like. Hence the crisis that issued in a revolutionary declaration of independence not only involved colonial resistance to an old central authority, but also almost necessarily entailed the burden of creating a new continental authority. In that concrete sense the problems of union were rooted deep in the colonial past, in the nature of the British empire, and in the central conflicts of the Revolution. So while many abstractions figured in the debate over union, they were abstractions grounded in persistent historical and geographical facts.
The first halting efforts by Americans to make "out of many, one" were beset by much the same difficulties and considerations that vexed the United States down to the eve of civil war. Union, indispensable for the survival of the parts, threatened to engulf and devour them. The considerations of self-preservation and political effectiveness that argued for a union of all the colonies or states militated by the same token against a partial union or several confederacies; yet the heterogeneity of the colonies or states made some less comprehensive grouping appear the surer and safer project. Further, in seeking as they did a union that would legislate for its parts, the Americans resigned themselves to the kind of tension that attends complex solutions. Theirs was to be neither alliance nor amalgam. The parts as parts would continue; but the parts would not and could not be more than parts of a greater whole.
One great constitutional manifestation of this effort to combine goals that do not sit easily together will be examined in ch. 8 under the heading Federal v. Consolidated Government. But that formulation already presupposes some kind of union, and it is with that first step that one leaves the world of simple solutions and simple troubles.
The tentative early proposals of the Albany Commissioners (no. 1) for a union with certain limited but significant purposes and powers of legislation already contain the germ of much that was to follow. Franklin's explanatory "reasons and motives" (no. 2) lay bare the inherent difficulties, complicated by the need to accommodate the great third party, the imperial government, through its crown representative. Though the plan tries to avoid uncertainty and controversy by eschewing any legislative prerogatives beyond "such only as shall be necessary" for enumerated purposes, and denies any intention that the general government "interfere with the constitution and government of the particular colonies," it nevertheless leaves unsettled the boundary between the general and particular governments. In truth, the subject admits of no mathematical exactness or finality. Patrick Henry, ever wary and sniffing consolidation from a distance, accordingly could later trace the Americans' success in resisting British tyranny to the failure of the Albany plan: American liberty had flourished in the absence of concentered governmental strength and energy (see Elliot 3:172--73). Therein, he thought, lay a great cautionary lesson.
With growing colonial protest and resistance to intrusive central authority, Americans were led to create their own institutions for common action. And as independence became their more or less openly avowed object, they were led to give their ad hoc union constitutional form. The tension between the whole and parts persists in Franklin's 21 July 1775 draft of the Articles of Confederation (see Journals 2:195--99). Under that plan Congress may "Make such General Ordinances as tho' necessary to the General Welfare, particular Assemblies cannot be competent to," yet at the same time each of "The United Colonies of North America" continues to "enjoy and retain as much as it may think fit of its own present Laws, Customs, Rights, Privileges, and peculiar Jurisdictions within its own Limits." The proposal moves a long way toward national union by permitting the delegates to vote as individuals rather than as a single colonial delegation; in this sense it partakes less of the character of a mere league than either John Dickinson's subsequent draft of 12 July 1776 (see Journals 5:546--54) or the final version of the Articles of Confederation (see ch. 1, no. 7).
Most or all adherents of the revolutionary cause understood, at some level, that henceforth they were no longer simply Virginians or New Yorkers, but Americans. The Continental Congress's letter transmitting the proposed Articles to the state legislatures for ratification (no. 4) drew upon this awareness even while trying desperately to augment it. Stressing simultaneously the many elements that divided the Americans and the considerations that made those diverse folk "brethren and fellow-citizens," Congress seemed to be confessing in one breath the greatness of the task and the modesty of their proffered means. As the event proved, their urgent appeal to feelings of union was neither superfluous nor especially effective: the Articles finally were ratified only after a delay of more than three years and only after one of those divisive elements (conflicting state claims to Western lands) had been resolved.
The shortcomings of the Articles were widely remarked on, not least by those who came to be called Anti-Federalists. But those deficiencies did not point ineluctably to a single remedy. Here lies the core of the debate over the Constitution, for not all could accept the explicit premise of those who agitated for a change and led the fight for the Constitution's ratification: that "a more perfect Union" required a government differently constituted (nos. 5, 6). Even among some later self-styled Federalists it was a question whether union on republican principles was possible, whether general laws, equitable to all, were within the reach of a legislature elected by a highly diverse people. Perhaps a more perfect union might better be approached through disunion, followed by reunion of the more neighborly and kindred states (Rush, no. 7; see also Benjamin Lincoln to Rufus King, 11 Feb. 1786, and J. T. Main, The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution 283--84 ). Madison would soon rebut this misgiving by turning it on its head. Union on republican principles is not only possible but essential to a just and lasting republic (see ch. 4, no. 22). As for the Anti-Federalists, a more perfect union on national grounds threatened rather to suffocate the states or reduce them to nonentities (see ch. 8). In the extreme case, a most thoughtful Anti-Federalist was prepared to accept division as the lesser evil (Centinel, no. 18). A more moderate alternative would be to recognize the diversity of state interests in the very structure of government. But here again there were deep differences. Madison relied on the competition of interests both within and outside the national legislature (see ch. 4, no. 19, and ch. 10, no. 16), anticipating that heterogeneity among and within the states would temper political extremes and make for a firmer union. Similarly, Hamilton sought to show how the very diversity of circumstances in the country might promote a useful economic complementarity (no. 23). The Impartial Examiner (27 Feb. 1788), in contrast, thought to reconcile or unite those interests by accommodating the states in the critical respect--by leaving the power of the purse in their several hands.
With suggestions such as this latter being bruited about, Publius held it far from "superfluous to offer arguments to prove the utility of the Union" (no. 9). The "proof" consisted, as is characteristic of the Federalist Papers, in an adroit appeal to fears and hopes, to calculation and sentiment. It was either union on the terms of the proposed Constitution, or "dismemberment" of the already existing union. (See also C. C. Pinckney, no. 19; Jay, no. 22.) Union was the old cause, the source of much of the greatness that America already had achieved (see ch. 4, no. 22). Those who advocated, or failed to forfend, separation were the true innovators and would unwittingly deprive America of its due influence for good in the world. Their heedlessness might have even more perilous consequences, for they seemed oblivious of a lesson attested by "the accumulated experience of ages": fences make bad neighbors. Wars were not merely a royal disease; and commerce, far from pacifying men, had only changed the objects of war. In this sense America was like unto all the nations. But more particularly (Hamilton went on with obvious relish), America fairly bristled with peculiar circumstances that made even more likely its becoming a bloody theater for hostile pretensions and legitimately differing interests. Unless, that is, an effective superintending power could hold all these in check (nos. 10, 11).
Beyond these urgent concerns lay another case for union, at once self-serving and philanthropic. Union was the precondition for America's becoming a nation, forming a national character "adapted to the principles and genius of our system of government" (Wilson, no. 17). Union under the Constitution promised to help "diffuse those generous federal sentiments, without which, we never can be a happy and flourishing people." As used here by A [Massachusetts] Federalist, "federal" is contrasted with the crabbed, parochial sentiments fostered by the existing state constitutions (no. 16). A united America would somehow be greater and finer than the sum of its parts.
Again, one man's dream was another's nightmare. A firmer union might open the way to America's becoming a great nation whose growing territory, population, resources, and wealth would enable it to exert its power--and the power of republican example for the world. Alternatively, a firmer union might tempt a people to a career of national splendor, glory, and domination at the sacrifice of liberty and quiet domestic happiness. (See chs. 8 and 9.)
Such promises or anticipations bent under the weight of earthier concerns. When a state or region felt its interests slighted or threatened, its rightful influence waning or denied, its very necessities jeopardized, visions of a grand collective future were small solace. These resentments and alarms were given voice in turn by each of the great parts out of which union was so painfully being formed: the Mississippi Valley (George Nicholas to James Madison, 31 Dec. 1790), New England (Pickering, no. 24), and the South. The last, being the keenest and most fearsome challenge to the principles of union, elicited the most profound restatements of the Founders' understanding of what they had wrought. (See also James Madison to Edward Everett, 28 Aug. 1830; and Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States 1:§§ 321--40, 361--72 .) "The happy Union of the States" might indeed be "a wonder; their Constn. a miracle" (as Madison exclaimed in 1829), but the record of surviving documents points unequivocally to the tireless efforts of politically adroit men who knew what they wanted and why.
The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 7, Introduction
The University of Chicago Press
Easy to print version.