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Image Regional Cultures in the New Republic: The Constitutional Coalition, 1787-95

After the achievement of independence, the four regional cultures found themselves in conflict with one another. Even during the war, the Continental Congress divided into factions which were not primarily ideological or economic, but regional and cultural in their origin. Three voting blocs appeared: an “eastern” bloc of colonies settled by New Englanders; a southern bloc centered on tidewater Virginia; and a midland bloc which consisted mainly of delegations from the Delaware Valley. A leading historian of the Continental Congress has found that regional conflicts among these cultures were the leading determinants of Congressional voting on major issues from 1777 to 1785, such as oversight of the army, the taxing power of Congress and navigation of the Mississippi River.20

So strong were these regional identities in the new Confederation that the British secret agent Paul Wentworth reported that the American states comprised not one but three republics: an “eastern republic of Independents in church and state”; a “middle republic of toleration in church and state”; and a “southern republic or mixed government copied nearly from Great Britain.” Wentworth asserted that the differences among these American republics were greater than those between European states. “There is hardly any observation, moral or political, which will equally apply,” he believed.21

The Constitution of 1787 was an attempt to write the rules of engagement among these regional “republics” of British America. The purpose of the Constitutional Convention was to create an institutional consensus within which four regional cultures could mutually agree to respect their various differences. In the Great Convention itself, some of the most important compromises were not between states or sections or ideologies, but between cultural regions.

A case in point was the question of representation in the new government. Edmund Randolph’s “Virginia plan” was accepted as a basis for discussion, but required major modification before it was generally acceptable. The result was a series of compromises between big states and little ones on the two branches of Congress. Not so familiar, but equally important was another compromise between cultural regions. Randolph’s plan envisioned a national polity such as Virginia possessed—an oligarchy of country gentlemen who dominated the legislature by long tenure and infrequent elections. This system was alien to New England. Roger Sherman explained to the Virginians, “ … in Connecticut, elections have been very frequent, yet great stability and uniformity both as to persons and measures have been experienced from its original establishment to the present time; a period of more than 130 years.”22

On this question the little state of Connecticut and the large state of Massachusetts voted together against Virginia. The result was a regional compromise of high complexity. Several generations of political scientists have misled us into thinking that the “great compromise” was mainly intended to mediate between large states and little ones. But the more serious task was to reconcile different political cultures in the four regions of British America. Regional compromises were also necessary on questions of representation, taxation, economic policy, slavery and ideas of law and liberty. In the great convention, as in the Continental Congress, the strongest voting patterns were regional in nature.

One region, the backcountry, was largely unrepresented in the convention. The federal Constitution was enacted mainly by a coalition of cultural elites from New England, Virginia and the Delaware Valley. It was generally opposed by the backsettlers, and by dissenting minorities in the various regions. Opposition came from boundary cultures between the major regions—notably the Clintonian elite of New York, the Chase faction in Maryland and Rhode Islanders of every description. But the dominant coalition of three regional elites supported the Constitution, and secured its ratification.

In 1789, the coexistence of the regional cultures was further protected by the Bill of Rights. A case in point was the first sentence of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This deceptively simple statement was another regional compromise of high complexity. Its intent was to preserve religious freedom of Virginia and Pennsylvania, and at the same time to protect the religious establishments of New England from outside interference. As time passed its meaning was enlarged; a measure which was written to protect regional pluralism became a basis for national libertarianism.23

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