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THIRTEEN OF BRITAIN'S seventeen mainland North American colonies had won independence, having banded together to face a common threat to their respective political institutions, traditions, and liberties. They had created a joint military command, the Continental Army, and a sort-of treaty organization, "The United States of America," under the Articles of Confederation. Each of these American states was sovereign and independent, having agreed only to delegate defense, foreign trade, and foreign policy duties to their shared body, the Congress, which had fled from place to place during the conflict. Nobody really knew what this United States was or what it should become or even if it should continue to exist at all.

These new states' citizens didn't think of themselves as "Americans," except in the sense that French, German, and Spanish people might have considered themselves "Europeans." If asked what country they were from, the soldiers who now occupied Yorktown would have said "Massachusetts" or "Virginia," "Pennsylvania" or "South Carolina." For years to come, newspaper editors across the former colonies would refer to the new collective not as a nation but as a "league" or as the "American states" or "Confederated America," unsure of what it was or how long it might last.

The ethno-cultural landscape—with all its implications for nationhood—was even more complex. The descendants of English Puritans dominated most of New England and upstate New York; those of Southern English gentry and their indentured servants and slaves populated the Chesapeake country; those of the English slave planters of Barbados controlled life in the Deep Southern lowlands. The legacy of the Dutch colony of New Netherland had shaped the development of the area around New York City, while that of William Penn's Quakers had begat an ethnic and religious mosaic (with a German plurality) up and down the Delaware Valley. The backcountry was overwhelmingly Scots-Irish, in constant friction with the coastal societies that usually governed it. If a nation can be described as a people with a sense of common culture, history, and belonging, there were, in effect, a half dozen of them within these "United States," and outside New England there wasn't a single state that wasn't divided between two or, in the case of Maryland and Pennsylvania, three of them.

In the run-up to the war, one of the biggest arguments against leaving the Empire had been that a shared 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 the colonies 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." In Maryland Reverend Jonathan Boucher warned New Englanders would become "the Goths and Vandals of America," conquering their neighbors. The Founding Father John Dickinson of Pennsylvania predicted 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." Leaving Britain, he added, was tantamount to "destroying a house before we have got another, in winter, with a small family."

Wartime regional divisions were so profound that, in 1778, the British secret agent Paul Wentworth reported there would be not one American Republic, but three: an "eastern republic of Independents in church and state," a "middle republic of toleration in church and state," and a "southern . . . mixed government copied nearly from Great Britain." The differences between them, Wentworth argued, were greater than those between the nations of Europe. Even after the war the 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." 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, that appears to be always moving upon crutches and tottering at every step," Washington wrote in 1784, and added in 1786: "I do not conceive we can long exist as a nation without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole union in as energetic a manner as the authority of the different state governments extends over the several states." Everyone realized, Jefferson would later recall, that "these separate independencies, like the petty States of Greece, would be eternally at war with each other."

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was called in response to this growing crisis and yielded a legalistic remedy: a stronger federal government constrained by elaborate checks and balances between its monarchical, aristocratic, democratic, and priestly components—the presidency, Senate, House, and Supreme Court—and vis-à-vis the states themselves, which arguably remained sovereign little nations. The whole point was to ensure no one block of colonies—no one regional culture—would be able to force its will on the others. The word "nation" was conspicuously absent from the constitution that was drafted.

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