The Crisis

Exactly eight years from the day when

"the embattled farmers stood,

And fired the shot heard round the world,"

the Continental Congress informed General Washington that the war was

over. In September, 1783, the formal treaty of peace was signed; a

month later, the Continental army was disbanded; and three weeks

later, the British army sailed from New York.

What a pathetic and impressive scene took place at a little tavern,

in lower New York, when Washington said good-by to his generals! With

hearts too full for words, and with eyes dimmed with tears, these

veterans embraced their chief and bade him farewell.

A few days before Christmas, Washington gave up the command of the

army, and hurried away to spend the holidays at Mount Vernon.

"The times that tried men's souls are over," wrote the author of

"Common Sense," a man whose writings voiced the opinions of the


Freedom was indeed won, but the country was in a sad plight.

{139} "It is not too much to say," says John Fiske, "that the period

of five years following the peace of 1783 was the most critical

moment in all the history of the American people."

Thirteen little republics, fringing the Atlantic, were hemmed in on

the north, the south, and the west, by two hostile European nations

that were capable of much mischief.

In 1774, under the pressure of a common peril and the need of quick

action, the colonies had banded together for the common good. By a

kind of general consent their representatives in the Continental

Congress had assumed the task of carrying on the war. But for nine

years Congress had steadily declined in power, and now that peace had

come and the need of united action was removed, there was danger that

this shadowy union would dissolve. Believing strongly in their own

state governments, the people had almost no feeling in favor of


{140} Just before the disbanding of the army and his retirement to

private life, Washington wrote a letter to the governor of each

colony. This letter, he said, was his "legacy" to the American


He urged the necessity of forming a more perfect union, under a

single government. He declared that the war debt must be paid to the

last penny; that the people must be willing to sacrifice some of

their local interests for the common good; and that they must regard

one another as fellow citizens of a common country.

We must not make the mistake of thinking that the Continental

Congress was like our present national Congress.

When the struggle between the colonies and the mother country

threatened war, the colonies through their assemblies, or special

conventions, chose delegates to represent them in Philadelphia. These

delegates composed the first Continental Congress. It met on

September 5, 1774, and broke up during the last week of the following


Three weeks after Lexington, a second Congress met in the same city.

This was the Congress that appointed Washington commander in chief,

and issued the immortal Declaration of Independence.

In the strict sense of the word, this body had no legal authority. It

was really a meeting of delegates from the several colonies, to

advise and consult with each other concerning the public welfare.

{141} There was war in the land. Something must be done to meet the

crisis. The Continental Congress, therefore, acted in the name of the

"United Colonies."

Many of the ablest and most patriotic men of the country were sent as

delegates to this Congress; and until the crowning victory at

Yorktown, although without clearly defined powers, it continued to

act, by common consent, as if it had the highest authority. It made

an alliance with France; it built a navy; it granted permits to

privateers; it raised and organized an army; it borrowed large sums

of money, and issued paper bills.

A few days after the Declaration of Independence was signed, a form

of government, called the "Articles of Confederation," was brought

before Congress; but it was not adopted until several weeks after the

surrender of Burgoyne, in 1777.

The "Articles" were not finally ratified by the states until the

spring of 1781.

The constitution thus adopted was a league of friendship between the

states. It was bad from beginning to end; for it dealt with the

thirteen states as thirteen units, and not with the people of the

several states. It never secured a hold upon the people of the

country, and for very good reasons.

Each state, whether large or small, had only one vote. A single

delegate from Delaware or from Rhode Island could balance the whole

delegation from New York or from Virginia.

{142} Congress had no power to enforce any law whatever. It could

recommend all manner of things to the states, but it could do nothing

more. It could not even protect itself.

Hence, the states violated the "Articles" whenever they pleased. Thus

Congress might call for troops, but the states could refuse to obey.

Without the consent of every state, not a dollar could be raised by


At one time, twelve states voted to allow Congress to raise money to

pay the soldiers; but little Rhode Island flatly refused, and the

plan failed. The next year Rhode Island consented, but New York


Although Congress had authority to coin money, to issue bills of

credit, and to make its notes legal tender for debts, each one of the

thirteen states had the same authority.

Money affairs got into a wretched condition. Paper money became

almost worthless. The year after Saratoga, a paper dollar was worth

only sixteen cents, and early in 1780 its value had fallen to two


A trader in Philadelphia papered his shop with dollar bills, to show

what he thought of the flimsy stuff. In the year of Cornwallis's

surrender, a bushel of corn sold for one hundred and fifty dollars;

and Samuel Adams, the Boston patriot, had to pay two thousand dollars

for a hat and a suit of clothes.

A private soldier had to serve four months before his pay would buy a

bushel of wheat. When he could {143} not collect this beggarly sum,

is it any wonder that he deserted or rebelled?

At one time, being unable to get money for the army, Congress asked

the states to contribute supplies of corn, pork, and hay.

To add to the general misery, the states began to quarrel with one

another, like a lot of schoolboys. They almost came to bloodshed over

boundary lines, and levied the most absurd taxes and duties.

If a Connecticut farmer brought a load of firewood into New York, he

had to pay a heavy duty. Sloops that sailed through Hell Gate, and

Jersey market boats that crossed to Manhattan Island, were treated as

if from foreign ports. Entrance fees had to be paid, and clearance

papers must be got at the custom house.

The country was indeed in a bad condition. There were riots,

bankruptcy, endless wranglings, foreclosed mortgages, and

imprisonment for debt.

The gallant Colonel Barton, who captured General Prescott, was kept

locked up because he could not pay a small sum of money. Robert

Morris, once a wealthy merchant, was sent to jail for debt, although

he had given his whole fortune to the patriot cause.

Thoughtful and patriotic men and women throughout the country felt

that something must be done.

Washington and other far-sighted men of Virginia began to work out

the problem. First it was proposed that delegates from two or three

states should meet at {144} Annapolis, to discuss the question of

trade. Finally all the states were invited to send delegates.

At this meeting, only twelve delegates, from five states, were

present. Alexander Hamilton wrote an eloquent address, which it was

voted to send to the state assemblies, strongly recommending that

delegates should be appointed to meet at Philadelphia on the second

day of May, 1787.

This plan, however, Congress promptly rejected.

During the winter of 1786, the times were perhaps even harder, and

the country nearer to the brink of civil war and ruin. There were

riots in New Hampshire and in Vermont and Shays's Rebellion in the

old Bay State. There were also the threatened separation of the

Northern and Southern states, the worthless paper money, wildcat

speculation, the failure to carry out certain provisions of the

treaty of peace, and many troubles of less importance.

As we may well suppose, all this discord made King George and his

court happy. He declared that the several states would soon repent,

and beg on bended knees to be taken back into the British empire.

{145} When it was predicted in Parliament that we should become a

great nation, a British statesman, who bore us no ill will, said, "It

is one of the idlest and most visionary notions that was ever

conceived even by a writer of romance."

Frederick the Great was friendly to us, but he declared that nobody

but a king could ever rule so large a country.

All these unhappy events produced a great change in public opinion.

People were convinced that anarchy might be worse than the union of

these thirteen little commonwealths, under a strong, central


At this great crisis in affairs, Virginia boldly took the lead, and

promptly sent seven of her ablest citizens, one of whom was

Washington, to the Philadelphia convention. This was a masterly

stroke of policy. People everywhere applauded, and the tide of

popular sentiment soon favored the convention. At last Congress

yielded to the voice of the people and approved the plan. Every state

except Rhode Island sent delegates.

It was a notable group of Americans that met in one of the upper

rooms of old Independence Hall, the last {146} week of May, 1787.

There were fifty-five delegates in all, some of whom, however, did

not arrive for several weeks after the convention began its meetings.

Eight of the delegates had signed the Declaration of Independence, in

the same room; twenty-eight had been members of the Continental

Congress, and seven had been governors of states. Two afterwards

became presidents of the United States, and many others in after

years filled high places in the national government.

Head and shoulders above all others towered George Washington. The

man most widely known, except Washington, was Benjamin Franklin,

eighty-one years old; the youngest delegate was Mr. Dayton of New

Jersey, who was only twenty-six.

Here also were two of the ablest statesmen of their time, Alexander

Hamilton of New York, and James Madison of Virginia.

Connecticut sent two of her great men, Oliver Ellsworth, afterwards

chief justice of the United States, and Roger Sherman, the learned


Near Robert Morris, the great financier, sat his namesake, Gouverneur

Morris, who originated our decimal system of money, and James Wilson,

one of the most learned lawyers of his day.

The two brilliant Pinckneys and John Rutledge, the silver-tongued

orator, were there to represent South Carolina.

{147} Then there were Elbridge Gerry and Rufus King of Massachusetts,

John Langdon of New Hampshire, John Dickinson of Delaware, and the

great orator, Edmund Randolph of Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would no doubt have been delegates,

had they not been abroad in the service of their country. Patrick

Henry and Samuel Adams remained at home; for they did not approve of

the convention.

How Rhode Island must have missed her most eminent citizen, Nathanael

Greene, who had just died of sunstroke, in the prime of manhood!

Washington was elected president of the convention. The doors were

locked, and, every member being pledged to secrecy, they settled down

to work.

Just what was said and done during those four months was for more

than fifty years kept a profound secret. After the death of James

Madison, often called the {148} "Father of the Constitution," his

journal was published, giving a complete account of the proceedings.

When the delegates began their work, they soon realized what a

problem it was to frame a government for the whole country. As might

have been expected, some of these men had a fit of moral cowardice.

They began to cut and to trim, and tried to avoid any measure of

thorough reform.

Washington was equal to the occasion. He was not a brilliant orator,

and his speech was very brief; but the solemn words of this majestic

man, as his tall figure drawn up to its full height rose from the

president's chair, carried conviction to every delegate.

"If, to please the people," he said, "we offer what we ourselves

disapprove, how can we afterward defend our work? Let us raise a

standard to which the wise and the honest can repair; the event is in

the hand of God."

The details of what this convention did would be dull reading; but

some day we shall want to study in our school work the noble

Constitution which these men framed.

The gist of the whole matter is that our Federal Constitution is

based upon three great compromises.

The first compromise was between the small and the large states. In

the upper house, or Senate, equal representation was conceded to all

the states, but in the lower house of Congress, representation was

arranged according to the population.

{149} Thus, as you know, little Rhode Island and Delaware have each

two senators, while the great commonwealths of New York and Ohio have

no more. In the House of Representatives, on the other hand, New York

has forty-three representatives, and Ohio has twenty-two, while Rhode

Island has three, and Delaware only one.

The second compromise was between the free and the slave states.

Were the slaves to be counted as persons or as goods?

South Carolina and Georgia maintained that they were persons; the

Northern states said they were merely property.

Now indeed there was a clashing over local interest; but it was

decided that in counting the population, whether for taxation, or for

representation in the lower house, a slave should be considered as

three fifths of an individual. And so it stood until the outbreak of

the Civil War.

It was a bitter pill for far-sighted men like Washington, Madison,

and others, who did not believe in slavery. Without this compromise,

however, they believed that nine slave states would never adopt the

Constitution, and doubtless they were right.

The slave question was the real bone of contention that resulted in

the third compromise. The majority of the delegates, especially those

from Virginia, were not in favor of slavery.

{150} "This infernal traffic that brings the judgment of Heaven on a

country!" said George Mason of Virginia.

At first, it was proposed to abolish foreign slave trade. South

Carolina and Georgia sturdily protested.

"Are we wanted in the Union?" they said.

They declared that it was not a question of morality or of religion,

but purely a matter of business.

Rhode Island had refused to send delegates; and those from New York

had gone home in anger. The discussions were bitter, and the

situation became dangerous.

While the convention "was scarcely held together by the strength of a

hair," the question came up for discussion, whether Congress or the

individual states should have control over commerce.

The New England states, with their wealth of shipping, said that by

all means Congress should have the control, and should make a uniform

tariff in all the states. This, it was believed, would put an end to

all the wranglings and the unjust acts which were so ruinous to


The extreme Southern states that had no shipping said it would never

do; for New England, by controlling the carrying trade, would extort

ruinous prices for shipping tobacco and rice.

When the outlook seemed darkest, two of the Connecticut delegates

suggested a compromise.

"Yes," said Franklin, "when a carpenter wishes to fit two boards, he

sometimes pares off a bit from each."

{151} It was finally decided that there should be free trade between

the states, and that Congress should control commerce.

To complete the "bargain," nothing was to be done about the African

slave trade for twenty years. Slavery had been slowly dying out both

in the North and in the South, for nearly fifty years. The wisest men

of 1787 believed that it would speedily die a natural death and give

way to a better system of labor.

It was upon these three great foundation stones, or compromises, that

our Constitution was built. The rest of the work, while very

important, was not difficult or dangerous. The question of choosing a

president, and a hundred other less important matters were at last


{152} The scorching summer of 1787 was well-nigh spent before the

great document was finished. The convention broke up on September 17.

Few of its members were satisfied with their work. None supposed it


Tradition says that Washington, who was the first to sign, standing

by the table, held up his pen and said solemnly, "Should the states

reject this excellent Constitution, they probably will never sign

another in peace. The next will be drawn in blood."

Of the delegates who were present on the last day of the convention,

all but three signed the Constitution.

It is said that when the last man had signed, many of the delegates

seemed awe-struck at what they had done. Washington himself sat with

head bowed in deep thought.

Thirty-three years before this, and before some of the delegates then

present were born, Franklin had done his best to bring the colonies

into a federal union. He was sixty years of age when, in this very

room, he put his name to the Declaration of Independence. Now, as the

genial old man saw the noble aim of his life accomplished, he

indulged in one of his homely bits of pleasantry.

There was a rude painting of a half sun, gorgeous with its yellow

rays, on the back of the president's black armchair. When Washington

solemnly rose, as the meeting was breaking up, Franklin pointed to

the chair and said, "As I have been sitting here all these weeks, I

have often wondered whether that sun behind our president is rising

or setting. Now I do know that it is a rising sun."

The Constitution was sent to the Continental Congress, who submitted

it to the people of the several states for their approval. It was

agreed that when it was adopted by nine states, it should become the

supreme law of the land.

Now for the first time there was a real national issue. The people

arranged themselves into two great political parties, the

Federalists, who believed in a strong government and the new

Constitution, and the Anti-Federalists, who were opposed to a

stronger union between the states.

And now what keen discussions, bitter quarrels, and scurrilous and

abusive newspaper articles! A bloodless war of squibs, broadsides,

pamphlets, and frenzied oratory was waged everywhere.

Hamilton and Madison were "mere boys" and "visionary young men";

Franklin was an "old dotard" and "in his second childhood"; and as

for Washington, "What did he know about politics?"

{154} The Constitution was called "a triple-headed monster." Many

able men sincerely believed it to be "as deep and wicked a conspiracy

as ever was invented in the darkest ages against the liberties of the


How eloquently did such men as Hamilton, Madison, Randolph, Jay,

"Light-Horse Harry" Lee, John Marshall, Fisher Ames, and a score of

other "makers of our country" defend the "New Roof," as the people

were then fond of calling the Federal Constitution!

A series of short essays written by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, and

published under the name of "The Federalist," were widely read.

Although written at a white heat, their grave and lofty eloquence and

their stern patriotism carried conviction to the hearts of the


"The Delaware State," as it was called, was the first to adopt the

Constitution. It was not until the next June that Massachusetts and

Virginia ratified it, as the sixth and tenth states. New York next

fell into line in July.

The victory was won! The "New Roof" was up and finished, supported by

eleven stout pillars!

On the glorious "Fourth" in 1788, there was great rejoicing

throughout the land. Bonfires, stump speeches, fireworks,

processions, music, gorgeous banners, and barbecues of oxen expressed

the joy of the people over the establishment of a federal government.

"Hurrah for the United States of America!" shouted every patriot.

{155} "The good ship Constitution" was at last fairly launched.

The wheels of the new government began to turn slowly and with much

friction. It was not until the first week of April, 1789, that the

House of Representatives and the Senate met and counted the electoral

votes for a President of the newly born nation. There were sixty-nine

votes in all, and of these every one was for George Washington. John

Adams was the second choice of the electoral college. He received

thirty-four votes, and was accordingly declared Vice President.

Thus was formed and adopted our just and wise Constitution, which,

except for a few amendments, has ever since been the supreme law of

the land. This document has been called by Gladstone "the greatest

work ever struck off at any time by the mind and purpose of man." To

it we owe our prosperity and our high place among nations.