At the Humanities Texas teacher institute "Shaping the American Republic to 1877" at The University of Texas at El Paso, historian Gordon S. Wood gave this fascinating lecture on "The Articles of Confederation and the Constitution."

Wood is an emeritus professor of history at Brown University. He received his B.A. from Tufts and his Ph.D. from Harvard. His works include The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969), which won the Bancroft Prize and the John H. Dunning Prize in 1970, and The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1993. His latest book, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. Professor Wood frequently contributes to the New York Review of Books and The New Republic. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

Gordon S. Wood, "The Articles of Confederation and the Constitution"

I want to talk about the origins of the Constitution. As a historical problem: why do we have the Constitution? If you look back at 1776, no American in his wildest dreams imagined the kind of strong central government that emerged from the meeting in Philadelphia in 1787. All theory was opposed to it. Montesquieu, the great French theorist, said there could be no large republic—that it would simply fall apart. Republics had to be small in size. And Americans' experience with a far-removed, distant British government made it almost inconceivable that they would create such a government. . . .

They had the Articles of Confederation. If you want to understand the Articles of Confederation, think of the present-day European Union, in which the states come together under a treaty. All that holds the European Union together is a series of treaties made among independent states. Think of the United States in that sense—thirteen states came together to form a league, a union, and that was the United States. There was a very literal meaning of the "United States" at the time. That was what they could conceive of, and there was nothing like a national government. So how does it happen that in a decade's time they change their minds so dramatically? That’s a historical problem. How do you explain that?

Now, the Federalist explanation—and the Federalists is the name that the promoters of the national constitution gave themselves, quite shrewdly, because they really were nationalists, not federalists. . . . The Federalists had an explanation that was best expressed in a book written a hundred years later in 1888. John Fiske, a popular historian, wrote a book called The Critical Period of American History. He said that society was falling into chaos and anarchy, with the country's finances near ruin. The confederation government was collapsing, and the various state governments were beset by debt. . . . It was a desperate situation, said Fiske, retrieved only in the eleventh hour by this group of high-minded Founding Fathers who came in and saved the country from disaster.

Now, the trouble with this interpretation, which was the general interpretation through the nineteenth century . . . is that there was no near-collapse of the society or the economy. There was no anarchy, no financial crisis. In fact, it seemed as if there was no real critical period after all. You have a series of studies, beginning in the 1890s after Fiske's book and running through the Progressive period of American history, up through about 1950, which were critical of the so-called Federalist interpretation. . . . They showed that the "critical period" was not so critical. The states were moving to solve the credit crisis and paying off their debts. There was economic dislocation and unsettlement, but not a desperate situation. The country was coming out of it by 1785, and many of the Federalists knew that as well. The commercial outlook was not bleak. Americans could move goods freely amongst themselves and were trading with much of the world at that time. It was a time of great excitement, of exuberance. People were crossing the Appalachians, and Kentucky was settled in this period with about twenty thousand white settlers. There was a tremendous outburst of energy and a great sense of elevation of sprit and exuberance in society.

Of course, the population was growing. In fact, a British demographer named Jim Potter did a study twenty-five years ago that showed that the fastest growing decade in population in all of American history was the 1780s. And this is not a time of great immigration. The population growth is coming from people marrying earlier and having an extra child. If you lower the marriage age by two years, the population jumps. The reason people were marrying earlier is that their outlook was good. They thought they were going to be okay. So, there was a fast-growing population in a time of great exuberance, excitement, and prospects. I think the pursuit of happiness that Jefferson talked about was being fulfilled for lots of Americans in the 1780s.

So if that's all true, why the Constitution? What happened? The Confederation was not doing too bad a job. Economic conditions weren't all that desperate. Why did the Constitution have to be created? That is a major problem that we take for granted, of course, because we live with it and assume it had to be. Most people collapse that decade between 1776 and 1787. Some students don't realize that there were two different things: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, separated by ten years. So what happened in those ten years to change all these minds?

The question is not easily answered, and the problem led the Progressive historians—that is, starting with people like Charles Beard and going up into the present time,—to suggest that the making of the Constitution was something of a fraud, something foisted on the American people by a tiny minority who had certain kinds of commercial or economic interests. There was no justification, no social or economic reality for this traumatic change, so it had to be in the nature of a conspiracy. "The critical period," wrote Charles Beard, "was perhaps not so critical after all, but a phantom of the imagination produced by some undoubted evils, which could have been remedied without a political revolution." And so this notion of a conspiracy, "a sense of crisis," writes Jackson Turner Maine, who wrote into the 1970s and 80s, "was conjured up by the Federalists when actually the country faced no such emergency."

The crucial document in this whole interpretation is Charles Beard's book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, written in 1913. This book created a sensation. It is probably the most important book in American history ever written. . . . At the time, it made the Founding Fathers seem to be a bunch of cynics who were looking after their bankbooks and not looking after the welfare of the country. You can't imagine how much of a controversy this created. . . . Beard was probably the most prominent historian of the period. His interpretation, known as the Progressive interpretation, was based on a Progressive's notion of reality: that politics went on in the back room . . . and that what really counts is what’s below the surface, not what people say. . . .

I think we can combine the Federalist interpretation, the John Fiske interpretation, with the Progressive interpretation. I think the two, if you look at it rightly, complement one another. There is some truth in both of them. I think what you have to do is see the problem of the 1780s as two sets of problems. One, a national crisis, a crisis of the confederation. . . . The other: a problem within the states. If you separate these two, I think you can analytically see the situation. They come together. There are really two reform movements in the 1780s. One, a national reform: to change the Articles [of Confederation]. The other, to do something about what is happening in the states. By 1786 and 1787, those hitherto separate movements come together and coalesce to create the setting for the Convention of the summer of 1787.

One way at looking at the Confederation Congress is as a substitute for the Crown, as many Americans did. Congress was given all the powers that the Crown hitherto had had, which is the power to declare war, to create post offices, to deal with the Indians—a whole host of problems that belonged to the Crown alone. They don't have to get permission from Parliament, the legislature. The things they can't do, which the Crown couldn't do in England, is to tax or regulate trade. Congress does not have either of those two powers simply because it was a substitute for the king in American's minds. That is the best way to think of the Confederation Congress. They do some things, like wage and declare war and print money, but not to tax or regulate trade.

Eventually a consensus is reached by 1786 among political leaders that those two powers have to be given to the Confederation Congress. They cannot continue without some kind of tariff power, maybe five percent, on goods imported into the United States. And they should have the power of commercial regulation so that it can develop the Navigation Acts to retaliate against the British, who were not doing anything to help our trade.

A series of interest groups came together promoting reform of the Articles. The army interests, who realized as early as the war that there had to be greater power in the national government in order to win the war. . . . Then you have the public creditors—people who had lent money to the United States—whose bonds are virtually worthless. If those bonds are going to be paid off, they have to have a strong government that has taxing power. . . . Third, there were commercial interests, who wanted the central government to have commercial regulatory power. There were a number of people who wanted that. Of course, artisans in the cities who were manufacturing goods wanted to stop competition from English-manufactured goods. They need tariff protection—prohibitory tariffs—so they need a strong central government. So there were very strong supporters in the urban areas of strengthening the central government with the additional amendment of regulatory power. There were various other commercial interests, interests in interstate commerce who found it chaotic that Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York all had different navigation systems. That made it very difficult for trade. And then there were Southern farmers who were trying to sell staple crops abroad. They needed to be able to retaliate against England in order to open up markets in England for their tobacco and rice. So you have a number of interests who say, look, you've got to strengthen the Confederation.

And then there were the international problems, foreign policy problems. A number of individuals had come to the conclusion that the United States was being humiliated internationally. The Barbary pirates . . . in the Mediterranean were seizing our ships and enslaving the sailors. We had enslaved sailors that we could not ransom because the government had no money. This is just humiliating. . . . Britain refused to get out of the Western posts: Detroit, Niagara, and so on. This was humiliating; the territorial integrity of the United States was not being respected. They didn't even send a minister to the United States. The Spanish in the South did the same kind of thing. There were two treaties drawn up. In one treaty, the treaty with Britain in 1783, set the boundary at the thirty-first parallel, approximately the present Florida boundary. But in a separate treaty, Britain gave the Floridas back to Spain—they had held them for two decades; they had gotten them as a result of the Seven Years' War—gave them back with no boundary specified. So the Spanish are claiming a boundary up to the Yazoo River, about a hundred miles north of the thirty-first parallel, including most of the present-day states of Alabama and Mississippi. That controversy with Spain was causing a problem, and we had no way of dealing with it because there was no power in the national government. In 1784, the Spanish controlled the mouth of the Mississippi, and they closed it to American trade, which was frightening to all those farmers who were flooding into Kentucky, and who expected to send their goods down the Mississippi out to markets abroad. The Spanish were controlling the West, and that created a real problem. There was a sense of the Spanish being able to break up the United States and the westerners would go to Spain rather than stay with the eastern states.

So you have all these problems mounting up, and by 1786, I think every political leader was willing to have two amendments added to the Articles of Confederation: a taxing power and a commercial regulatory power. I think that was in the cards. People expected the Articles to be revised. This gave some Federalists—or nationalists, if you will—an opportunity. . . . There was an opportunity for many nationalists, who had other problems with the states, to use the federal problem—that is, the problem of the weak Confederation—to take advantage of that to accomplish even greater reforms. A lot of the Anti-Federalists were willing to have this meeting in Philadelphia . . . but they did not expect any great thing to come out of it. They expected some reform of the Articles, and Congress expects the same thing, that is, the Confederation Congress endorses the meeting but expects amendments to be added.

They don't expect what they got: a total overhaul of the whole system, throwing out the Articles, and a new Constitution. Almost nobody expected that kind of change. . . . So in order to explain what happened, to explain the Virginia Plan, which is a working model of the Convention, you have to go to the second level of problems that I mentioned, the problems within the states. The Constitution—it's the same Constitution we have— is not a league, it's not the E.U., it's not a bunch of separate states coming together in a treaty. It’s a totally new government that operates directly on individuals, and that is not what most people expected.

[James] Madison, of course, is crucial. His experience in the Virginia legislature filled him with fear of what was happening. . . . He writes a series of papers for himself to work out what's going to be in this new government. He essentially draws up the Virginia Plan. The multiplicity, the mutability, the changeability, and the injustice of state laws was the most serious problem facing Americans. We’ve got to create a new national government, which will take power away from the state legislatures and create a system which will prevent this kind of abuse. Now, the reason this is serious is that Madison comes to the conclusion that the majority of people are supporting this. This isn't done by some alien force—these representatives in the state legislatures are elected by the people. They are responsive to their constituents, and they are raising the most serious crisis a republican government can face. You have to understand that republican government is new in the world. There are no republics like this anywhere in the world. We would call it democracy. Can democracy work? Are the people capable of governing themselves? That's the issue that's raised by the crisis within each of these states. State legislatures, which are democratically elected, are creating injustice. How do you avoid majoritarian tyranny?

In 1775, that issue was raised by the Tories in a debate with John Adams. Daniel Leonard of the Tories says, look, this Congress you're creating is going to create tyranny. John Adams says that's ridiculous. Tyranny is created by kings, by monarchs. A democratic despotism, he says, is a contradiction in terms. The people cannot tyrannize themselves. Ten years later, James Madison and a bunch of other Federalists are saying, we were wrong; the people can commit tyranny. That fear of tyranny within the various states leads Madison and the other Federalists to create this extraordinary Virginia Plan, which in its original version has a negative over all state laws. Madison felt that was crucial. It creates this national government that is somehow going to solve the problem within the states. These two reform movements come together and create this situation. You have in the convention almost all nationalists. There were a couple of Anti-Federalists, but as soon as they see the Virginia Plan and they read it and see its implications, they walked out. So the whole convention is dominated by the Federalists.

Historian Gordon S. Wood speaks in El Paso.
Signed copy of the Constitution of the United States of America. Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, National Archives.
Charles Wilson Peale, Portrait of John and Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader and their Daughter Anne. Philadelphia Museum of Art; The George W. Elkins Collection.
The Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781.
John Vanderlyn, Portrait of James Madison. Courtesy of the White House Historical Association.