The Almost Civil War of 1789
The colonies had fought one another before. As states, they created the Constitution to avoid doing so again.
Last month, I introduced the American nations: the 11 rival regional cultures that comprise the United States and explain so much about our fissures, be they cultural or political, in the distant past or the immediate present. Many readers understandably look to this paradigm to make sense of our present predicament — and rightly so — but it also tells us much about who we are as a country and how we came to be this way. A good starting point: the revolutionary era and the early republic, when the colonies were thrust into an ad hoc alliance against an external threat that ultimately forced the “Founding Fathers” to build a lasting union, ensuring they didn’t collapse into war with one another.
We often think of the 13 colonies as merely the gestational stage of the United States: the embryonic form of the revolutionary nation that would inevitably be born in 1776, a republic-in-waiting populated by “Americans” yearning to be free. Nothing could be further from the truth. For the older regional cultures — particularly the seven established in eastern North America prior to the creation of the United States — the norm was conflict, not cooperation. The constitutions — both the 1781 and 1789 versions — were devised for much the same reason as the formation of the European Community and European Union: to keep rival neighbors from going to war with one another in the face of an existential threat from the east.
In the colonial era, the regional cultures found themselves on opposing sides of numerous conflicts. Calvinist New England and the planters of the Chesapeake Tidewater took opposing sides in the English Civil War of the 1640s, a struggle that drove hundreds of Royalist nobles to seek fortunes and estates in Virginia, which widened the gulf with the Yankees. New Netherland and the three British-settled regions were engaged in three imperial wars against one another between 1652 and 1674, when the Dutch colony was finally and unhappily subsumed into New York and what would become New Jersey. Appalachian and New England settlers clashed in the late 1760s and early 1770s over who had the rightful claim to northeastern Pennsylvania in what historians call the Pennamite-Yankee Wars. When the cultures weren’t at war, they were competing with one another for land, settlers, political influence, and capital.
One of the biggest arguments against leaving the empire was that British identity was one of the few things keeping the colonies at peace with one another. In 1764, one anonymous letter to the editor of the New York Mercury warned that if they achieved independence, “the disputes amongst ourselves would throw us into all the confusion, and bring on us all the calamities usually attendant on civil wars.” Founding Father John Dickinson of Pennsylvania warned that an independent British North America would collapse into “a multitude of Commonwealths, Crimes, and Calamities — centuries of mutual Jealousies, Hatreds, Wars and Devastations, until at last the exhausted Provinces shall sink into Slavery under the yoke of some fortunate conqueror.”
Wars of Colonial Liberation
The colonies revolted all the same, of course, but the struggle of 1775–1782 wasn’t an effort to create a united, revolutionary, continent-spanning republic. Rather, it was a profoundly conservative action, fought by a loose military alliance of four American “nations” whose goal was to either preserve or reestablish control over their respective cultures, characters, and power structures.
The four rebelling nations — Yankeedom, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, and the Deep South — didn’t trust one another and certainly didn’t wish to be bound together as a single republic. They were gathered in a temporary partnership against a common threat: the British establishment’s ham-fisted attempt to assimilate them into a homogenous empire that would be centrally controlled from London. Two other nations — the Midlands and New France — didn’t rebel at all, and New Netherland actively supported the Loyalist cause. This was no revolution, as Clark University historian Thomas Barrow argued back in 1968, but rather a series of overlapping wars of colonial liberation.
When the wars for independence began, the only structure the colonies shared was a diplomatic body called the Continental Congress. This was essentially an international treaty group whose member states passed resolutions by a majority vote. If a treaty party didn’t stand by its obligations, there wasn’t much the other members could do about it, short of imposing their will by military force. To enforce their will and to better fight off the British threat, the treaty parties created a joint military command, much like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization did a century and a half later. They called this the Continental Army, and, with much international bickering, it was placed under a supreme commander: George Washington.
But during the wars, it became clear that the treaty group needed more powers if it was to provide for the alliance’s military needs and, more important, maintain peaceful relations between the member states. John Witherspoon of (New Netherland) northern New Jersey warned his congressional colleagues that “disunion among ourselves is the greatest danger we have.” Richard Henry Lee of (Tidewater) Virginia argued that a formal union was vital for ensuring “internal peace.” If the colonies remained separate after the war, Witherspoon added, there would be “a more lasting war, more bloody and more hopeless war, among the colonies themselves.”
Allied, Not United
Out of these fears of disunion and intracolonial conflict came the first U.S. constitution, the Articles of Confederation, drafted in the midst of the war and not ratified until 1781. Due to the distrust between the nations, this document did not create a nation-state, or even a unified federation. It created a political entity much like the current European Union—a voluntary alliance of sovereign states that had agreed to delegate certain powers to a common administration. Reflecting the conservative nature of the American leaders, the powers outlined were essentially those previously handled by the British crown: foreign relations and the making and waging of war. The member states could continue to govern themselves as they always had, without taking on new responsibilities. The Continental Congress would take over the role of the British Parliament (or today’s European Parliament), passing alliance-scale legislation concerned with diplomacy and war, leaving most powers with the individual states. Each state could reject any congressional measure it didn’t like without threat to “its sovereignty, freedom, and independence.” Like the EU, confederation institutions didn’t derive from or serve “the people,” but rather the member states, as represented by their own sovereign legislatures.
Regional divisions were so profound that, in 1778, British secret agent Paul Wentworth reported there would be not one American republic, but three: an “eastern republic of Independents in church and state” (i.e., Yankeedom), a “middle republic of toleration in church and state” (New Netherland and the Midlands), and a “southern…mixed government copied nearly from Great Britain” (Tidewater and the Deep South). The differences between them, argued Wentworth, were greater than those between the nations of Europe. Even after the war, London papers reported “that the States consider themselves thirteen independent provinces, subject to no other control than their own assemblies. The authority of Congress, to which they submitted but from necessity during the war they have now almost generally thrown off.” This was a development Brits considered alarming, because these small confederations would be easy pickings for Spain, London’s rival. Edward Bancroft, a postwar British spy, predicted the American confederation would surely splinter, leaving only the “question whether we shall have thirteen separate states in alliance or whether New England, the middle, and the southern states will form three new Confederations.”
One thing was clear to the confederation’s elites in the aftermath of the war: Unless a more formidable union could be negotiated, the United States would soon fall apart. “I predict the worst consequences from a half-starved, limping government, always moving upon crutches at every step,” Washington wrote in 1784. “I do not conceive we can long exist as a union without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole union in as energetic a manner as the authority of state governments extends over the several states.”
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was called in response to this growing crisis and yielded a compromise Constitution blending aristocratic (the Senate), democratic (the House), and monarchical (the presidency) elements, with a priestly case (the Supreme Court) appointed for life to interpret the sacred texts.
Delaying a “War Between the States”
Drafting a new Constitution was one thing; getting the states to ratify it was another: Public opinion in some of the regional cultures opposed the loss of sovereignty of the governments they controlled. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist №8, argued vehemently for them to do so, as he saw the alternative to be dissolution and civil war. In this “War Between the States,” he said, “the populous states would, with little difficulty, overrun their less populous neighbors,” only to find it difficult to retain their conquests in the face of other “desultory and predatory” rivals. Hamilton’s pleas did not convince many skeptics.
Indeed, resistance to the 1789 Constitution followed regional lines to a remarkable degree. A close examination of the geographical distribution of voting results at the various state ratifying conventions shows that delegates from Yankee areas, including those in the northern part of Pennsylvania and on eastern Long Island, generally supported the constitutional changes, as did those representing New Netherlanders, Midlanders, Deep Southerners, and Tidewaterites.
Opposing them — be it in Pennsylvania or the Carolinas — were the people of Appalachia, whose delegates rejected the Constitution everywhere save Virginia, along with the Scots-Irish enclaves in New Hampshire and the disgruntled Yankee and Scots-Irish farmers of western Massachusetts and upstate New York.
The vote in New York state was a cliffhanger, prompting New Netherlanders to threaten to secede and join the new union on their own if delegates from the Yankee interior countries did not ratify the new Constitution. The effects on “the islands of [Manhattan], Long Island, and Staten Island will be almost ruinous,” one editorialist warned. “If Staten Island were to associate herself with New Jersey and the islands of New York and Long Island with Connecticut, these two respectable states and the new union would be bound to defend them.” In the end, the threats likely won the day. On July 26, 1788, New York accepted the new Constitution by a vote of 30 delegates to 27, ensuring the practical existence of the new union.
Even so, the challenges of national unity continued. Greater Appalachians, suspicious of government of all sorts, had for years been taking up arms against overrule by colonial and state governments controlled by other regional cultures. The western part of North Carolina — now eastern Tennessee — rebelled against their Tidewater-controlled state government in 1784, declaring a sovereign state of Franklin, where apple brandy and animal skins were legal tender and lawyers were prohibited from elected office. In western Pennsylvania, Appalachian areas drove state and federal authorities out of their territory, burning offices and springing neighbors from debtors’ prisons. In August 1794, 9,000 Appalachian Pennsylvanians marched on the Midlander city of Pittsburgh, compelling its surrender; a week later, they staged an independence conference in a open field, attended by 226 delegates from Appalachian Virginia and western Pennsylvania. There, they raised a new flag and discussed reaching out to Britain and Spain for protection. They were dispersed by none other than General Washington, who marched on the region at the head of 10,000 Midlander and Tidewater troops.
For its part, Yankeedom pondered leaving the union in the early 19th century. It had become clear that its cultural ethos and political priorities would not carry the day in Washington, D.C., where Tidewater gentlemen like Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe appeared to have locked down the presidency. In late 1808, Massachusetts Senate President Harrison Gray Otis contemplated a region-wide convention of New York and New England to be held to find “some mode of relief that may not be inconsistent with the union of these states.” Newspapers carried reports that New England’s political leaders were preparing “to form a northern confederacy, separate from the United States, in alliance with Great Britain, and eventually connected with Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Canadas,” most of which were Yankee-settled.
The War of 1812 was extremely unpopular in and economically devastating to New England, pushing many in the region over the edge. Massachusetts officials minimized the Commonwealth’s participation in the conflict, even going so far as to thwart federal efforts to liberate eastern Maine from British occupation. Boston bankers refused to loan money to the federal government, while residents of Newburyport flew a modified American flag with just five stars, one for each New England state. Resistance culminated in a December 1814 convention in Hartford, where New Englanders discussed dismantling the union and approved a set of demands for constitutional reforms that would, in effect, restore Yankee power and influence over the federation. The union might well have cracked had not news arrived from New Orleans of a decisive military victory over the British there, led by a fiery Appalachian named Andrew Jackson.
That war, it is said, smelted the federation together while convincing Britain and other potential rivals that the United States was truly here to stay. But the regional divisions remained—fault lines in the soul of the country, quiet at some times, shaking the very foundations of the republic at others. We’ll turn to those divisions in the next installment of “Balkanized America.”