The Articles of Confederation and the Constitution
The Problem of the Constitution. Why was the Constitution written? Was the Constitution a
counterrevolution? Was the first revolution the American Revolution which separated the colonies from
Britain and gave rights to the people while the Constitution was the second revolution that took power away
from the people and secured it to a small wealthy group of middle class merchants and bankers? Was there
a critical period of American history that was cured by the Constitution?
The first historians to deal with the issue of the Constitution were collectively known as "patrician" historians.
George Bancroft's work, History of the United States from the Discovery to the Present( 1880), is best known
for this school of thought. His history is characterized by super charged patriotism. He perceived a critical
period in American history from 1981 to 1789. Therefore the Constitution was the best political stroke of
genius that cured most ills the United States was experiencing during the critical period..
Some weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation during 1781 to 1789: -Congress found that it was
impossible to pass any laws (9 votes out of 13 were required to pass a bill into law) -no executive or national
judiciary -Congress had no power to collect taxes(Congress could ask the states for money but had no
authority to collect) -Every state had its own foreign diplomats to foreign countries (foreign nightmare)
-rivalries between the states over matters of commerce (states fought with one another e.g. New York state
took advantage of its good harbors and heavily taxed other states whose goods went through New York
harbors). -each state printed its own money (hindered economic development of the nation as a whole)
-Congress had no power to raise an army (military weakness to crush rebellions like the Shay's Rebellion)
Not all historians agreed with the Bancroft thesis. For example, Merrill Jensen wrote The New Nation in 1950
which strongly supported the thesis that there was no critical time period just prior to the writing of the
Constitution (Therefore...why the Constitution)
Merrill Jensen could have been the product or prisoner of historiography but was not. He is writing in the
1950's after World War II and at the beginning of the cold war. People who wrote during this time (1940 to
1960) are called cold war, consensus or neo-conservative historians. Collectively, their histories reflect a
bias in favor of the United States at a time of international tensions. Consequently, America can do no
wrong. Everything we ever did was for humanitarian/patriotic reasons. Jensen did not reflect this school of
history and regarded the Constitution as nipping democracy in the bud.
Merrill Jensen claims that the years 1781 to 1873 (the first few years of the new nation) were probably very
difficult for the new nation and appear to be worse if you only look only at America through the eyes of
disgruntled politicians and soldiers. After 1783, however, Jensen maintains the US was trading profitably with
the West Indies, France, Holland, Sweden, Prussia and Morocco (wheat and tobacco). Also, states were
beginning to cooperate with one another in terms of interstate trade, banks were being chartered and the
Northwest Ordinance (allowing geographical areas become territories and then
Another way to answer these questions is to look at the Progressive Movement in US History from 1900 to
1917.(Yes..those are the correct dates)
The progressive reform movement is defined as government becoming more responsive to the needs of the
people immediately after the industrial revolution. Progressives passed legislation like child labor laws,
minimum wage laws, maximum hour legislation, and laws protecting the immigrants as well as women(hey,
history isn't perfect). Periodically, the Supreme Court would interpret the Constitution on behalf of big
business and declare these laws designed to help the people as unconstitutional. This led some to question
whether or not the Constitution was written for the people or for a particular interest group.
One such writer/historian was Charles Beard who authored An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution.
(1913) By the way, Beard's thesis was not challenged until the fifties with the publication of two important
books: Robert and Katherine Brown's Charles Beard and the Constitution: A Critical Analysis of an
"Economic Interpretation (what an original title-wow) and Forrest MacDonald's We the People. (For all the
women in the class-Katherine Brown did all the writing and research and Robert received all the credit. Same
thing with Charles and Mary Beard).
Beard concluded that the Constitution was written by and for the personalty group (correct spelling) and that
the 55 men (lawyers) who met at Philadelphia in 1798 to write the Constitution wrote that document to protect
their interests. Therefore the founding fathers were not patriotic men full of lofty ideals of life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness but a consolidated economic group aspiring to reconstruct the national government to
protect themselves and all those affected with money and public securities.
Was Beard correct... Yes and No (Ha ha) Really!
Economics did play a role in the formation of the Constitution. Historians like Forrest MacDonald say that it
was not classes but geographical locations that determined whether or not people supported the
Constitution. Generally speaking, if you fared well financially under the Articles of Confederation, then you
generally did not support the Constitution. If you were hurting financially under the Articles, then you tended
to support the Constitution. In substance, it is not economic classes that predisposed you to ratify or not
ratify the Constitution but where you lived within the state and how successful you and your geographical
area fared under the Articles. Remember MacDonald stressed the importance of states and how you fared
under the Articles where Beard simply stressed the importance of classes (personalty v.s. realty). The
historical evidence appears to support the MacDonald thesis.
I remember being in graduate school and wondering..ok.. Now that I have read the literature on the
Constitution...I asked...who is right. In your case, after reading Issue Six, who is right?
My instructors never did tell me who is right. Maybe no one is absolutely right. History reflects the time in
which it is written. I would suspect that historians writing today, being in part influenced by good economic
times, might find that the Constitution has something to do with the good economy and then might find
evidence historically to show that this political document was a stroke of genius.