JEFFERSON’S DECLARATION WAS a bold, inspiring piece of prose. But what did it really mean? By what means would Americans achieve the independence they had proclaimed? And, equally important, how would they put into practice the lofty ideals that had served as their rationale for independence? Jefferson and his fellow Americans had set for themselves the formidable task not only of winning independence by force of arms against the world’s greatest military power but also of remaining true to the principles that had motivated their epochal decision to seek independence. The most formidable challenge—one that would persist for many decades after independence was achieved—was that of bringing the reality of social, economic, and political arrangements within the independent American states into harmony with the promise contained in Jefferson’s preamble: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Those hopeful phrases would prove a powerful inspiration for Americans for many generations to come, but the precise meaning of those words remains a subject of immense dispute among Americans right up to the present day.

Americans had made substantial progress toward meeting the promise of equality and of the “pursuit of Happiness” during the years since the founding of their colonies. In 1630 John Winthrop, the governor of the newly created Massachusetts Bay colony, lectured the first settlers of that colony, as they made their way to America aboard the ship Arbella, that “God Almighty in his most holy and wise Providence hath soe disposed of the condition of mankind as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie, others mean and in subjection.” In Winthrop’s view, inequality was not merely the natural state of mankind but, indeed, a divinely ordained one. Much would happen in America between 1630 and 1776 to undermine that hierarchical formula for the proper ordering of society. The combined influence of European Enlightenment ideas and the economic opportunity offered by the bountiful American landscape would bring to England’s American subjects a greater degree of prosperity, liberty, and personal independence than any of the original colonizers of America ever could have imagined. Yet in a whole range of categories—the institution of African slavery; the relationship between Europeans and Indians in America; the systematic legal subordination of women; and indeed the significant social and legal distinctions existing even among free white men—Americans in 1776 had only barely begun to recognize the logical imperatives of Jefferson’s lofty phrases.

Thomas Paine, in urging Americans to make the fateful commitment to independence, had held out the promise that:

We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation similar to the present has not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months.

“To begin the world over again,” with new forms of government and habits of freedom that would extend the principles of liberty across all of America—what a remarkable opportunity! And as the former British colonies began to create governments as independent states, they took a few tentative steps in that direction. Perhaps the most immediate, and revolutionary, change occurred in the way in which Americans conceived themselves. John Adams, observing the events surrounding independence, remarked:

Is not the change we have seen astonishing? Would any Man, two years ago, have believed it possible to accomplish such an Alteration in the Prejudices, Passions, Sentiments of these thirteen little States to make every one of them completely republican . . . ? Idolatry to Monarchs, and servility to Aristocratical Pride was never so totally eradicated from so Many Minds in so short a time.

In what seemed like a heartbeat, Americans cast aside their only previous source of common identity—as subjects of an English king—and embraced a new identity as “citizens.” As a South Carolina physician, David Ramsay, analyzed it, the change “from subjects to citizens” was immense: “Subjects look up to a master, but citizens are so far equal, that none have hereditary rights superior to others. Each citizen of a free state contains, within himself, by nature and the constitution, as much of the common sovereignty as another.”

“By nature and the constitution”—but what was a constitution? The other vitally important thing that Americans came to recognize in the aftermath of their struggle with the English king and parliament was that the English constitution—an unwritten hodgepodge of statutory law, legal precedent, and custom—was not an adequate safeguard of a people’s liberties. As the newly independent American states began to create their own governments, they came to realize that written constitutions, explicit both in the powers they delegated to the government and the fundamental rights that all citizens were to enjoy, were the only secure means of protecting liberty and promoting the public good.

As they crafted their revolutionary state constitutions, America’s political leaders, most of them born to positions of privilege and carrying within them a residual affection for the ways of the traditional order, made some forward strides in recognizing the promise contained in Paine’s optimistic call to “begin the world over again.” Most states included in their new constitutions bills of rights specifically spelling out those “unalienable Rights” to which Jefferson had referred in the Declaration of Independence. Some states passed laws making it easier for free white males to vote. Most states, however, retained at least some form of property qualification for voting. With the threat of monarchical tyranny still fresh in their minds, most state constitutions moved to weaken the executive branch and to strengthen the lower houses of assembly, the one branch of government whose authority derived most directly from the people. With the expansion of the powers of the state legislatures, most states increased the number of representatives serving in those legislatures. And the characteristics of those serving in the legislatures began to change as well; although public service in high office continued for the most part to be the preserve of the wealthy and wellborn, it became more common for men of moderate wealth and social status to be elected to public office as well.

America did not, however, become an egalitarian society overnight. The institution of chattel slavery continued to be entrenched in the independent southern states. Women, free blacks, and white males who did not own property continued to face legal impediments to full citizenship. And the combination of ethnic hostility and hunger for western lands caused Euro-Americans to continue their warfare against American Indian cultures. In all of these senses, the American Revolution fell short of the promise of equality contained in the Declaration of Independence. The American Revolution was, at least by the terms of the challenge that Thomas Paine had issued in Common Sense, an unfinished one.

America has struggled to fulfill the commitments to democracy, equality, and liberty made in the Declaration of Independence for all its history, but the struggle for independence presented another challenge as well: how should Americans proceed in organizing a union among the American states? In answering that essential question, the Americans faced a troublesome dilemma. On the one hand, one of the central causes of the American Revolution was the justifiable fear of an overly centralized government imposing its will from afar. Certainly among the logical conclusions to be drawn from the struggles against British rule leading up to independence were that it was necessary to keep government small; to keep it weak; and, most importantly, to locate that government physically close to the people, so those exercising political power could be closely watched. Yet the imperatives of fighting and winning a war against one of the world’s most formidable military powers demanded that the thirteen colonies, each of which had in the past enjoyed closer ties and more cordial relations with the imperial government in London than they had with one another, called for an energetic government with the power to compel the states to cooperate in the common cause. It was one thing to declare independence; it was quite another to secure it. The success of the military aspect of the Revolution required the mobilization of an army drawn from all the colonies; the battles of that Revolution crossed state boundaries; and, most important, the financing of the war required a degree of sacrifice among Americans, in the name not of any individual state but of the “united States,” far greater than anything the British had ever demanded of them. How would the former British colonies in America, unused to any form of continental union and indeed often ignorant and suspicious of one another, reconcile their desires for local autonomy with the demands of their drastically changed circumstances?

America’s patriot leaders knew that some form of central government was necessary if they were to achieve their independence. Indeed, the resolution proposing independence first introduced into the Second Continental Congress by Richard Henry Lee on June 7, 1776, explicitly presented the notion of an intercolonial union as a necessary accompaniment to independence. But what form would that union take?

The general outlines of a plan of union began to be considered as early as June 11, 1776, before the Declaration of Independence had even been adopted. At that time the Continental Congress appointed a committee, chaired by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, to draft a “plan of confederation.” Dickinson’s initial draft of that plan was a bold one. It acknowledged that the newly created states should have control over their “present Laws, Customs, Rights, Privileges, and peculiar Jurisdictions,” but it then added the important proviso that the states’ law-making powers “shall not interfere with the Articles of this Confederation.” Equally important, Dickinson’s draft gave to the proposed confederation’s government the exclusive power of “Settling all Disputes and Differences” between or among the former colonies. And, in what would prove to be its most contentious feature, the draft also gave the confederation’s Congress the power to make all decisions relating to the disposition of any western lands secured during the Revolution.

Debate on Dickinson’s draft of the Articles of Confederation unfolded sporadically in the Continental Congress between July 1776 and October 1777. Many of the powers that Dickinson proposed to give to the central government were stripped away by delegates fearful that their states were giving up too much of their own power. The resulting Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was not really a proper constitution but, rather, a peace treaty among the thirteen separate states. It amounted to little more than a “league of friendship,” a form of alliance in which “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” Although it gave the proposed government enormous responsibility—to provide for the states’ “common defence, the security of their liberties and their mutual and general welfare”—it denied that government most of the powers necessary to carry out those responsibilities. The Confederation government lacked the power to tax; it could only “request” voluntary contributions of money from the independent states in order to support the war effort. It lacked the power to regulate commerce among the states—an omission that sometimes caused the states to behave more like quarreling nations than members of a single nation. The Articles of Confederation also failed to provide for a chief executive capable of giving energy and focus to the new government. The representatives in the only functioning branch of the government, the Continental Congress, took their orders from their state legislatures, with one of the consequences being that apathy within the Congress was so great that it would sometimes go for weeks, even months, without meeting.

The proposed Articles of Confederation were submitted to the individual state legislatures for their approval in November 1777; it took another three and a half years, until March 1781, before the proposal received the necessary unanimous approval from all thirteen states—yet another indication of the inclination of the states to jealously guard their sovereignty and to zealously protect their provincial interests, often at the expense of the good of the aspiring nation as a whole.

In the meantime, General George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental army, as well as the civilian leaders in the Continental Congress, were left to fight a war and attempt to hold an informal union of the states together without an officially sanctioned frame of government. The task of fighting and winning a war against Great Britain would have been daunting in any circumstance, but armed with the power only to “request” contributions of men, matériel, and money from the individual states, General Washington’s job was made even more difficult. The war effort during those early years was as successful as it was in part because of Washington’s leadership, but also—and equally important—because of the bravery and self-sacrifice of those among his men who, even when the terms of their enlistments were up, stayed to fight on. It benefited as well from the lack of decisiveness of the British army—an army hampered both by a long line of supply, stretching across the Atlantic Ocean, and a hesitant ministry back at home, which on the one hand wished to put down the colonial revolt but on the other was reluctant to make the sort of full-fledged military and naval commitment that would have brought the rebellious colonies to heel.

America’s commitment to liberty and independence was accompanied by a surge of utopian idealism in 1776, with the state governments enthusiastically pledging to contribute to the common cause. But as the optimism of 1776 confronted the reality of a bloody and protracted war, officials in the Continental government found it increasingly difficult to persuade the states to live up to their obligations.

America’s eventual victory over the British, who surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781, seemed nearly miraculous; it owed as much to timely French military aid and English indecision as to America’s military prowess. And even after victory had been achieved and the American union under the Articles of Confederation received official sanction from all thirteen states, the task of holding that fragile union of states together proved formidable. It was a task made more difficult still by the fact that the new Continental government had accumulated a substantial debt both to private individuals and foreign nations in the course of the Revolutionary War. Once the war was over and peace had returned, the state governments were even less interested in contributing their fair share to help the Continental government meet its obligations. By 1785 and 1786, with France and Holland clamoring for repayment of the monies owed them, the financial condition of the young American republic seemed even more perilous.

Nor was the weakness of the central government the only problem. Many of the men who made the journey to Philadelphia in 1787 also believed that the revolutionary state constitutions were seriously defective. Those state constitutions were noble experiments; indeed they were the world’s first written constitutions. But they seemed to many to have given the popularly elected legislatures of the states excessive power at the expense of the executive branch of government. Many of the members of those state legislatures had pursued policies which, though popular in the eyes of the people who elected them, served to undermine the financial stability of the young republic and, in a few cases, the public order as well.

Fears about the weakness and irresponsibility of the state governments were given frightening expression when, in the late fall of 1786, a discontented group of western Massachusetts farmers, including one Daniel Shays—after whom the uprising came to be named—took up arms in rebellion against the policies of the Massachusetts state government. Although Shays’ Rebellion was quickly put down, men like Virginia’s James Madison and George Washington began to worry that the very fabric of government and society was beginning to tear, and as they watched a somnolent Continental Congress that seemed powerless to accomplish much of anything, that worry turned to despair. General Washington, upon receiving a letter from his friend and neighbor Henry Lee asking him to use his “influence” to set things in the country right, exploded in frustration: “You talk, my good Sir, of employing influence. . . . Influence is no government. . . . Let the reins of government be braced and then held with a steady hand, and every violation of the Constitution be reprehended: if defective, let it be amended, but not suffered to be trampled upon whilst it has an existence.”

Most Americans at that time were too preoccupied with their own lives to worry either about the weaknesses of the Continental government or about an unsuccessful uprising of farmers in Massachusetts; but for those who worried about the fate of America, not as a loose collection of states but rather as a single nation, those developments seemed profoundly troubling. In 1776 most Americans believed that the greatest threat to liberty was to be found in the overriding power of a distant, centralized government. But the men who provided the energy and intellect behind the movement for a new constitution—their hopes and fears shaped by the challenges and frustrations of fighting a long, costly war and of securing peace and public order at home—had come to believe that the lack of “energy” in the Continental government posed an equally formidable threat to liberty. As they prepared to meet in the Pennsylvania State House—the same building in which Americans had declared their independence in 1776—they were in a mood to launch a second revolution in American government.

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