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PART III. THE NEW REPUBLIC
THE CRITICAL PERIOD
The entrance of the United States into the family of 40. The new nations was a critical step. The acknowledgment of our independence by Great Britain provoked, rather than settled, the most important questions. It remained to be seen, as Washington said, whether the Revolution should prove a blessing or a curse to America. There were enthusiastic voices raised to proclaim the event as the opening of a new era in the history of the world, and there were dire prophecies of anarchy and destruction. The Reverend Richard Price of London, who had followed our cause with sympathy, wrote the following optimistic admonition in 1785:
Having, from pure conviction, taken a warm part in favor of the British colonies (now the United States of America) during the late war; and been exposed, in consequence of this, to much abuse and some danger; it must be supposed that I have been waiting for the issue with anxiety-I am thankful that my anxiety is removed; and that I have been spared to be a witness to that very issue of the war which has all along been the object of my wishes. With heartfelt satisfaction, I see the revolution in favor of universal liberty which has taken place in America; a revolution which opens a new prospect in human affairs, and begins a new era in the history of mankind; -a revolution by which Britons themselves will be the greatest gainers, if wise enough to improve properly the check that has been given to the despotism of their ministers, and to catch
the flame of virtuous liberty which has saved their American bretheren. . . .
Perhaps I do not go too far when I say that, next to the introduction of Christianity among mankind, the American revolution may prove the most important step in the progressive course of human improvement. It is an event which may produce a general diffusion of the principles of humanity, and become the means of setting free mankind from the shackles of superstition and tyranny, by leading them to see and know "that nothing is fundamental but impartial enquiry, an honest mind, and virtuous practice . . . that the members of a civil community are confederates, not subjects; and their rulers, servants, not masters. — And that all legitimate government consists in the dominion of equal laws made with common consent.” . . .
Happy will the world be when these truths shall be everywhere acknowledged and practised upon. . . . It is a conviction I cannot resist, that the independence of the English colonies in America is one of the steps ordained by Providence to introduce these times; and I can scarcely be deceived in this conviction, if the United States should escape some dangers which threaten them, and will take proper care to throw themselves open to future improvements, and to make the most of the advantages of their present situation. . . . They have begun nobly. They have fought with success for themselves and for the world; and in the midst of invasion and carnage, established forms of government favorable in the highest degree to the rights of mankind. But they have much more to do. . . .
The present moment, however auspicious to the United States if wisely improved, is critical; and, though apparently the end of all their dangers, may prove the time of their greatest danger. . . . Should the return of peace and the pride of independence lead them to security and dissipation - Should they lose those virtuous and simple manners by which alone Republics can long subsist Should false refinement, luxury, and irreligion spread among them; excessive jealousy distract their governments; and clashing interests, subject to no strong controul, break the federal union The consequence will be, that the fairest experiment ever tried in human affairs will miscarry; and that a
REVOLUTION Which had revived the hopes of good men and promised an opening to better times, will become a discouragement to all future efforts in favour of liberty, and prove only an opening to a new scene of human degeneracy and misery.
Another English divine, Josiah Tucker, Dean of Gloucester, in 1781 addressed to the distinguished Necker, ex-controller general of the finances of France, a series of letters entitled Cui Bono? or an Inquiry as to the benefit that could arise to America, or to any other nation, from the war. Tucker sees only anarchy and ruin ahead for the presumptuous new nation. In his sixth letter he writes:
England being thus laid low, and humbled to the Dust, and the American stripes interlaced with the Lillies of France, everywhere triumphant; what is next to come to pass?-Why truly, after this TOTAL SEPARATION, the Mass of the People on the other side of the Atlantic, will begin to awake out of their Golden Dream, and reflect on their present Situation, by comparing it with the past. They will do this the sooner, because all their Fears and Dreads about that fell Monster, the tyrannical Power of England, will then be at an End; and the Hobgobling Stories of Racks and Chains, and Tortures, and Deaths, and raw Heads, and bloody Bones, will affright no longer. . . .
Great indeed, and glorious were the things that had been promised! They were to be the happiest of all People, provided they would shake off the galling Yoke of Britain, and assert their unalienable Birthrights, their native Independence. When that happy Day should come, all Grievances, and all Complaints would cease forever... all Jealousies, and Discords, and Factions, would be banished from such a State; and Harmony and Concord, Peace and Friendship, everywhere prevail. These honors and blessings were reserved for America !
WELL, the heavy Yoke of Britain being thus thrown off [Oh may Britons have the Wisdom, and the Fortitude never to yoke with the Americans again as Fellow-Subjects, on any Terms
whatever] it is natural to ask, What have these Revolters gained by their long-wished-for Change, after so much Parade and Bluster? They have gained, what necessarily follows the Breach of Promises never intended to be fulfilled (if indeed such Acquisitions can be called GAINS) they have gained a general Disappointment, mixt with Anger and Indignation. For now they find that all the fine Speeches, and alluring Promises of their patriotic Leaders, meant nothing at all—but to amuse and to deceive. Now they feel that the little Fingers of their newfangled Republican Governors are heavier than the whole Body of the limited and mild Constitution of Old England. And as they despised and rejected [like the Frogs in the Fable] the Government of one King Log, they are now obliged to submit to the Tyranny of an hundred King Storks. . . .
As to the future Grandeur of America, and its being a rising Empire, under one Head, whether Republican, or Monarchical, it is one of the idlest, and most visionary Notions, that ever was conceived even by Writers of Romance. For there is nothing in the Genius of the People, the Situation of their Country, or the Nature of their different Climates, which tends to Countenance such a Supposition. On the contrary, every Prognostic that can be formed from a Contemplation of their mutual Antipathies, and clashing Interests, their Difference of Governments, Habitudes, and Manners, — plainly indicates, that the Americans will have no Center of Union among them, and no Common Interest to pursue, when the Power and Government of England are finally removed. Moreover, when the Intersections and Divisions of their Country by great Bays of the Sea, and by vast Rivers, Lakes, and Ridges of Mountains;-and above all, when those immense inland Regions, beyond the Back Settlements, which are still unexplored, are taken into the Account, they form the highest Probability that the Americans never can be united into one compact Empire, under any Species of Government whatever. Their Fate seems to be, A DISUNITED PEOPLE, till the End of Time.
A saner view of the promise and the danger in the new situation of America was taken by Tench Coxe of
Philadelphia, a distinguished writer of financial and commercial pamphlets. On May 11, 1787 (exactly two weeks before the Constitutional Convention began its work with George Washington in the chair), Coxe read a paper before the Society for Political Enquiries, at a meeting at Benjamin Franklin's house.
There are in every country certain important crises when exertion or neglect must produce consequences of the utmost moment. The period at which the inhabitants of these states have now arrived, will be admitted, by every attentive and serious person, to be clearly of this description. Our money absorbed by a wanton consumption of imported luxuries, a fluctuating paper medium. . . foreign commerce extremely circumscribed, and a federal government not only ineffective, but disjointed, tell us indeed too plainly, that further negligence may ruin us forever. . . .
The foundations of national wealth and consequence are so firmly laid in the United States, that no foreign power can undermine or destroy them. But the enjoyment of these substantial blessings is rendered precarious by domestic circumstances. Scarcely held together by a weak and half formed federal constitution, the powers of our national government, are unequal to the complete execution of any salutory purpose, foreign or domestic. The evils resulting from this unhappy state of things have again shocked our reviving credit, produced among our people alarming instances of disobedience to the laws,1 and if not remedied, must destroy our property, liberties, and peace. Foreign powers, however disposed to favor us, can expect neither satisfaction nor benefit from treaties with Congress, while they [Congress] are unable to enforce them.2. . .
1 For examples of this state of anarchy, see Muzzey, An American History, p. 139.
2 When our first minister to England, John Adams, attempted to treat with the foreign Secretary, Lord Carmarthen, he was met with the ironical request for thirteen ministers from the American States. See Channing, History of the United States, Vol. III, p. 465.