When did the American Revolution end?
Updated: Sep 17
In these blogposts, I discuss questions and issues that students have raised in my classrooms during the previous semester. They are good springboards to classroom discussions/debates about the Revolution, American history, and history itself.
Students sometimes find it odd that American colonists went to war to safeguard local self-government, created a constitution (the Articles of Confederation) that enshrined the sovereignty and independence of the 13 states, but then soon after (4 years after the end of the war), reversed course by adopting a new constitution (the Federal Constitution) that created a strong central government and curtailed the sovereignty and independence of the 13 states.
One possible explanation for the rapid replacement of the Articles of Confederation with the 2nd American constitution is that the Articles of Confederation did not reflect the Revolutionists’ political values and the Revolution’s political ends. Instead, the Articles were merely a wartime stopgap, and as soon as the war was over, Americans went about finishing the job. In this view, the 1787 Constitution is the true end-point of the Revolution, because it reflected the desired outcome of the 1776 Revolution. According to this view, the Revolutionists envisioned a sovereign American state instead of 13 sovereign states, and they wanted a common national government with exclusive powers. The contrary explanation for this quick transition from the 1st to the 2nd constitution is that in the 1776–1781 period, Americans did not expect the US government to govern them; but by 1787 increasing numbers did. Ratification was still a very close call, but there were enough Americans who had elevated their expectations of what the "American government" should do for them. In this formulation, the 1787 Constitution was not the end-point of the Revolution; it was not part of the Revolution because it did not reflect the desired outcome of the 1776 Revolution. The Revolutionists did not want a common national government to govern them; they had envisioned 13 sovereign and independent states, not a consolidated country. They articulated this vision in their 1st constitution and achieved that goal in 1783, when the War of American Independence ended. Shays’s Rebellion demonstrates the change in mentality suggested by this second explanation. Shays’s Rebellion did not convince the citizens of Massachusetts that they needed a stronger central government to protect them from domestic unrest. After all, Massachusetts suppressed the rebellion decisively on its own, without any help from other states or from the United States of America. The reason Shays’s Rebellion strengthened Federalists in Massachusetts is that after the United States government worked with and helped local populations during the long war years, locals came to expect such assistance from the central government. Thus, when a new military or diplomatic problem arose – Shays's Rebellion in Massachusetts, Indian violence on the Western frontiers, Spain hindering American commerce on the Mississippi – local populations and local governments in these locales expected a more helpful central government than they had in 1776 (or in 1754, when they rejected the Albany Plan). The debate between the two camps of historian hinges on when exactly did Americans develop a sense of nationhood – a common identity, a familial bond, and a sense of mutual responsibility to support and come to the aid of fellow Americans. One camp sees an American identity and national bonds forming well before the Revolution and producing the Revolution. The other camp holds that Americans developed a sense of nationhood only during the war; that Americans’ sense of nationhood (an American identity, a common bond, and mutual responsibility) was a product of the harsh experiences of war, rather than a cause for the war. Their common suffering, fighting, and dying, as well as common victory, produced a new common identity and bond that had not been there in 1776.
Yet even after the war, many – perhaps most – Americans were resistant to this new national mentality. The postwar debates between Federalists and Anti-Federalists resuscitated old pre-war fears about centralized and arbitrary power. Usually such disagreements over policy preferences reflect philosophical or ideological differences, but the ratification debates were odd in that they pitted two sides who did not disagree philosophically. Federalists and Anti-Federalists shared a negative view of human nature. When George Washington (in his 1796 farewell address) warned that occupants of public offices love power and are prone to abuse it, he was not suggesting that people who are drawn to government service are power-hungry knaves. Rather, he expressed the widely held Anglo-American understanding that all people, when empowered with political power, gravitate toward abuse of power. Both Federalists and Anti-Federalists were convinced that governments are necessary (to preserve law, order, and justice), but also extremely dangerous – given that the powers of government are wielded by humans, governments virtually guarantee abuses of power, arbitrary government, lawlessness, and tyranny.
Anti-Federalists saw this as a problem that cannot be solved. Thus, since corruption and abuse in high places cannot be prevented, the most any society can do is to do away with high places. Like the Revolutionists of 1776, the Anti-Federalists accepted that governmental abuse was an inescapable fact of life, and therefore preferred to endure small local abuses from small local governments than great abuses from a powerful central government.
By contrast, Federalists tried to find a clever solution to the problem of human nature. Madison’s formulation of a central government splintered into separate branches, and limited strictly to a set of enumerated powers, was a plan to cheat history. Federalists believed that the Federal Government’s internal divisions would pit competing interest groups against one another within the structure of the Federal Government, thus counteracting the gradual and natural concentration of power that had characterized all previous governments in human history, both monarchical and republican. This “separation of powers” within the government itself (between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the Federal Government, and between the two houses of Congress) was to act as an internal structural guardrail against the consolidation of power in the central government. It was buttressed by an external and theoretical guardrail – the insistence that the central government would be limited; restricted by law, courts, local governments, and public opinion to exercising only certain enumerated powers and no others.
The ratification contest revealed that the American people were more skeptical than Madison. To draw support away from the Anti-Federalists, Federalists agreed to add to the Constitution explicit prohibitions (in the form of a Bill of Rights) as a third guardrail. These ten amendments to the Constitution overtly barred the Federal Government from taking certain actions. The Bill of Rights thus reflects the fears of eighteenth-century Americans that future Federal legislators, executives, and judges might not be mindful of Madison’s safeguards, and that the separation of powers and the doctrine of enumerated powers were insufficient to interrupt what Jefferson called “the natural progress of things” – the advance of government at the expense of liberty.
That said, modern observers need to remember that in our minds, the transition from the Articles of Confederation to the Federal Constitution was a course reversal; it is clear to us that a stronger central government by necessity weakens local governments in the context of a federal system. But this trade-off was not as clear to people like Madison and many other Federalists. They sincerely believed they could have both things at once – create a sovereign and helpful national government without losing the sovereignty of the states. They believed that with the clever mechanisms they designed within the Federal Government (separation of powers, 2 separate houses of Congress, checks, balances, the doctrine of enumerated powers, and the Bill of Rights), they were able to grant the new Federal Government necessary governing powers, but without risking a concentration of power that would threaten self-government in the states. This means that many Americans who supported the new Federal Constitution did not see it as a rejection of the republican model of self-governing states that the Revolutionists had envisioned when they ratified the Articles of Confederation. Federalists and Anti-Federalists alike believed in self-government in the states; they acknowledged the sovereignty of the states; and they feared the concentration of power in a central government. This why Federalists didn’t have serious reservations about adding a Bill of Rights to the Constitution; none of them thought that the Federal Government should be permitted to do anything the Bill of Rights prohibits it from doing. Federalists differed from Anti-Federalists (and from the Revolutionists of 1776) only in believing that their clever mechanisms could prevent “the natural progress of things” – prevent this fledgling central government from accumulating greater powers, expanding beyond its prescribed jurisdictions, and curtailing self-government in the states.
Any discussion of Madison’s role in framing the Federal Constitution requires at least a brief mention of “the Madison Problem.” At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and during the ratification contest, Madison (aged 36) was a leader and ally of the most strident Federalists, including Alexander Hamilton. But during Washington’s presidency, Madison took a 180-degree turn, becoming the leading figure in the Jeffersonian camp that opposed Hamilton, championed states’ rights, railed against the aggrandizement of Federal power, and warned against the concentration of power in the central government. Historians have tried to solve this puzzle ever since. Some point to Madison’s personal relationship with Jefferson; others explain that as Virginia’s representative in Congress, Madison came to better understand and appreciate the interests, concerns, and fears of his Virginian constituents (and southern farmers in general) vis-à-vis the central government. A simpler explanation is that when the Federal Government was only a theoretical construct of Madison’s imagination (in 1787-88), he had faith that his clever safeguards would prevent this government from becoming a source of danger to American citizens; the Federal Government would represent citizens’ interests, rather than threaten them. But after Washington's inauguration, when Hamiltonian office-holders started to actually use the machinery of government created by the Constitution, perhaps Madison’s eyes were opened to the logic of those Anti-Federalist skeptics who had insisted on a Bill of Rights and warned that centralization is a slippery slope that gets more slippery and more sloped with time. He might have discovered, as young people sometimes do, that their elders might actually know a thing or two.