On this date 233 years ago, delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the United States Constitution. Since that time, it has become part of the U.S. foundation myth that 13 colonies alike in ideals and aspirations came together on July 4, 1776 to create one nation, fought off an empire, and went on to forge national principles into that document 11 years later, with high ideals and little dissent.
In fact, the decade between the independence of 13 suddenly sovereign nation-states and the adoption of the Constitution was a period of great turmoil. The 13 new nations were bound together only by the loose Articles of Confederation, an association with little more governing power than today’s United Nations has over its member states.
And the United States were, in actuality, barely united states. In his 1939 classic Union Now, Clarence Streit says the era of confederated America was a time when “New York was protecting its fuel interests by a tariff on Connecticut wood and its farmers by duties on New Jersey butter, when Massachusetts closed while Connecticut opened its ports to British shipping, when Boston was boycotting Rhode Island grain and Philadelphia was refusing to accept New Jersey money, when the money of Connecticut, Delaware and Virginia was sound, that of all other States was variously depreciated and that of Rhode Island and Georgia was so worthless that their governments sought to coerce the citizens into accepting it.”
Seven states had their own navies, and all 13 had their own militias and occasionally threatened neighbors with invasion. “Pennsylvania and Connecticut almost went to war over the treatment of Connecticut citizens who had settled in Pennsylvania,” Jerry Tetalman and Byron Belitsos write in their 2005 book One World Democracy — and in fact some 2,000 people died in skirmishes before full-on war was averted. “New York and New Jersey exchanged cannon fire in New York Harbor over who would collect taxes from incoming boats.”
It was the shared realization that disaster was imminent that led the independent nations of former British America to call the 1787 Convention — which opened with the idea of federation barely under consideration.
Sovaida Ma’ani Ewing of the Center for Peace and Global Governance writes in her 2015 book Building a World Federation, “In the days preceding the union, the former colonies were rife with skepticism about the possibility of creating an American federation. Many believed that insuperable barriers stood in the way of such an achievement” due to “too much distrust, and too many differences, both in how the former colonies were governed and in their habits.”
No less a source than Thomas Paine wrote, “If there is a country in the world where concord, according to common calculation, would be least expected, it is America. … It would appear that the union of such a people was impracticable.”
Necessity, not idealism, led to the drafting and adoption of the Constitution, ensuring free commerce and movement and putting conflicts between the states to be solved in courtrooms, not on battlefields. There is a lesson for the democratic nations of the world in the experience. Indeed, Ewing argues that “unifying the nations of the world” into a democratic federation “might prove to be less complex than what the nascent American states faced.”
Streit, writing with the world about to embark upon the bloodiest war in human history, wrote, “Can it still be said that the difficulties of transition to Union were simpler then than now? That it was then more practical to risk establishing Union without a transition plan to risk delaying Union until such a plan was made? That it is now more practical to delay Union at the risk of catastrophe than to adopt it at the risk of having some transition difficulties? Common sense answers, No.”