Yes – The Constitution was Necessary

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Subtitle: The Matter of the Mississippi River.

A not inconsequential percentage of Article V opponents, like those in the John Birch Society, identify as Anti-Federalists. They question the 1780s need for the vigorous government of our Constitution.

Those familiar with the era know of Shays’ Rebellion. According to modern Anti-Federalists, Shays’ was the pretext for nationalists like George Washington and James Madison to justify the 1787 Philadelphia Convention. There were other problems facing the infant United States to which the Articles of Confederation proved inadequate. For instance, most of the great European and New World ports were closed to American shipping and the English and Spanish did their best to discourage American settlement of the Old Northwest and Southwest Territories respectively.

Central to the situation in the Southwest was the matter of the Mississippi River.

Background. While Great Britain ceded in the 1783 Treaty of Paris all claims to lands south of the Great Lakes, east of the Mississippi and north of Florida, to the United States, they retained frontier forts from Lake Champlain to Michilimackinac and influenced the Indian tribes and the fur trade. Their presence in the NW Territory virtually shut off American immigration. As a practical matter, there was little reason to parley with ambassadors from a country that couldn’t raise revenue, exclude unwanted shipping, or build a fleet. With whom, the Brits asked, should they negotiate, the States or Congress? Britain didn’t bother to send an ambassador to the US until 1791.

Foreign Secretary Lord Carmarthen informed John Adams he would not deliver the frontier posts per the treaty until the US paid its prewar debts.

Just as awful, there was little impetus for Britain to change the situation in commerce in which she had an outrageous balance of trade. The states continued to treat former loyalists horribly and passed laws that impeded debt collection.

Not a dozen years before, America shipped vast quantities of flour and fish to Mediterranean ports. Upon our Declaration of Independence, Barbary Pirates immediately took advantage of our unprotected merchantmen. They all but shut down shipping and held dozens of American sailors for ransom. For only 120,000 guineas, the Tripolitan ambassador in London informed John Adams, America could buy a peace treaty, if an additional bribe was paid to him.

America was too poor to either pay or fight. Solutions awaited the formation of real government.

So, Northern shipping by 1787 was, for over ten years, demoralized by war and economic depression. American merchants not only did not have the protection of restrictive British Navigation laws and the Royal Navy, all British ports including the West Indies were closed to the US. British ships, on the contrary, carried the agricultural exports of the South as well as those of NJ and CN. Our Confederation government did not have the power to regulate commerce nor enact Navigation Laws. Northern carrying interests by 1787 were desperate.

Southern eyes instead turned westward as settlers flooded to lands that would become KY, TN, AL, MS. Their long-term prosperity ultimately depended on ports to export their agricultural products. Spain had closed New Orleans to Americans only recently, in 1784, which accelerated the widespread economic depression. Not only Great Britain, but neither Spain nor our former ally France had an interest in seeing the young nation prosper.

Spain. Where John Adams had some success establishing commercial treaties with Holland, Portugal, Sweden, and Prussia, no emissary found success in their Spanish dealings. Throughout the revolutionary war, Spain neither recognized our independence nor saw advantage in a treaty of alliance and had less regard for us after the war than the little she had when we fought her enemy. Her objectives were somewhat contradictory in that she was eager to watch Americans humiliate Great Britain but certainly wasn’t jazzed about the principles of our Declaration of Independence spreading to her sparsely settled nearby colonies.

The Mississippi River. The US, UK and France accepted joint use of the Mississippi River. That was all well and good, except Spain wasn’t a party to the treaty and couldn’t care less about its terms. Spanish colonial policy was monopoly and seclusion. Keep Americans and their radical ideas out! Spain notified Congress in the summer of 1784 that Great Britain had no right to give what she did not have, the Mississippi River. Spain warned of the confiscation of foreign vessels upon arrival in New Orleans.

What’s more, while Spain carried on diplomatic talks about the river, she maintained her presence in the Old Southwest. She intrigued with Indian tribes to make life difficult for our pioneers, and conspired w/Americans through bribes and threats/promises to separate them from the eastern states. It was by no means certain in the mid-1780s that the westward pioneers would join in Union with the US.

In the early summer of 1785, Spanish minister Don Diego de Gardoqui arrived in Philadelphia to treat with the US concerning southwestern boundaries and commercial matters. Spain was ready to open much of her empire, less New Orleans, to American shipping in exchange for a twenty-five year US quitclaim to the Mississippi River. This was, of course, enticing to northern shipping interests.

Gardoqui’s counterpart, John Jay of NY, was instructed, in accordance with Article IX of the Articles of Confederation, by the vote of nine states, to insist on free navigation to the mouth of the River and to possession of lands north of 31 degrees N. Latitude, which approximates today’s northern Florida boundary.

Considering our impotent Congress, Spain held all the cards. Jay reported to Congress in February 1786 that access to New Orleans could only be secured by arms; as far as our interests were concerned, Spain didn’t recognize any right at all to the southwest or the Mississippi. Gardoqui delivered unambiguous threats. We owed money to Spain and the king had influence over the Barbary Pirates.

With talks at an impasse, Jay in August 1786 asked for further guidance from Congress after he reported that Spain still stood fast to her original proposal. Since the American government was broke, could not force the issue by arms, and New Orleans was already closed, Jay thought a twenty-five year relinquishment of all access to the Mississippi was not out of the question.

Without commercial connections, there would be no reason for the inhabitants of the Southwest to cement themselves to the US. After twenty-five years of commercial relations w/Spain, why bother with a loose confederation of weak States?

Spanish agents in the southwest fomented distrust and pressed Americans to secede and join Spain. Additionally, thanks to efforts of northern shipping interests to keep New Orleans closed to Ohio and Mississippi river commerce, the western counties of Virginia (Kentucky) voted almost en-bloc in 1788 against ratification of the Constitution. James Wilkinson, a Continental Army officer, swore allegiance to Spain and worked for her interests in the Southwest.

Heated debate followed in Congress. Southern states were solidly opposed while northern states just as unanimously voted to relieve Jay of his previous instructions. On August 30th 1786, with twelve States attending in Congress, seven voted to temporarily cede rights the Mississippi. But, there was a problem. Weren’t nine necessary to alter Jay’s commission, since nine were needed to ratify any treaty he signed? This bold violation of Article IX to the Confederation nearly triggered dissolution of the Confederation. On the vote of seven states, John Jay was instructed to give away American rights to the Mississippi if he deemed it necessary to conclude the treaty.

Fortuitously, the quick Annapolis convention, which led to the Philadelphia Convention of May 1787, commenced shortly thereafter on September 11th 1786.

James Monroe, VA delegate to Congress, warned, “Jay and his party are determined to pursue this business as far as possible, either as a means of throwing the western people and territory without the government of the US and keeping the weight of population and government here, or of dismembering the government itself for the purpose of a separate confederacy.”

The economic situation was so awful that one half of the country voted to betray the other half. It was in the shadow of this hostile background of distrust that our Framers sat down some nine months later to craft our Constitution and save the American experiment in free government. It was remarkable they met at all and what they produced in the face of assorted tribulations was something of a miracle.

General Reference: McLaughlin, A. C. (1905). The Confederation and the Constitution. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers.

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