The U.S. Experiments with Confederation and Federation

Example is of the first importance in politics, because political calculations are so complex that we cannot trust theory, if we cannot support it by experience. Now the experience of the Americans is necessarily an impressive lesson to England. -- Lord Acton, The Civil War in America, January 18, 1866.

Certainly the experience of the United States has been one of the most exciting and thrilling in the history of the world. -- Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller April 22, 1960.

On May 17, 1957, Secretary Dulles told P.F. Brundage, then Director of the Budget Bureau, and me: "I have long been in favor of the federal principle" for the North Atlantic democracies, and added that the United States experience with the Articles of Confederation proved that the effort of the United States and other NATO nations to make the alliance system work was an attempt "to do the undo-able." But while Secretary of State he always found some reason for putting off a little longer the calling of the convention to work out a "do-able" system ... some reason that looked important then but already has lost significance. Before Secretary Dulles got round to doing what he meant for years to do, his time on earth ran out. -- The author in the December, 1959, Freedom & Union.

Reasoning from analogy is, of course, beset with pitfalls. Many, therefore, dismiss the thought that American history can give us guidance on which remedy to try for freedom's ills today: Federal union -- or confederation, community, alliance. They forget that there is no other way to profit from experience, and that alternative lines of reasoning, which they themselves follow, have worse traps in them, and are often pure speculation or theory. They forget, too, that in the complex political field, example is, as Lord Acton point ed out, of prime importance.

Others, who are not so foolish as to brush aside reasoning from analogy, argue -- as we have noted -- that no sound resemblance can be drawn between the Thirteen States in 1787 and the North Atlantic peoples today. Granted, the differences between the two are indeed great and obvious, but they are not so great, or so obvious, as those between guinea pigs and men. Perhaps the least obvious and most significant difference between the latter two is this: The guinea pig can see no analogy between himself and man, whereas man can see enough such resemblances to save many human lives by drawing conclusions by analogy from experiments made on guinea pigs.

The experience of the Americans which Lord Acton held to be "necessarily an impressive lesson to England," certainly should be even more impressive to Americans. Had we but studied our own history with half Lord Acton's insight, followed its teachings and tried its remedy before trusting the lives of our children to pure theory, and to Old World methods that have always led to disaster, how far ahead we would be today!

Before we Americans expose our families further as guinea pigs in the trial and error laboratory of witch-doctor statesmanship, let us study more closely what we can learn from the experiments our forefathers made, first with confederation and then with federal union. There is no better way to understand the difference between confederation and federation, and how vital it is.

Our forefathers began as we have seen, by making the mistake our own generation has made. They, too, assumed that the only way to secure their own individual freedom was to make sure that their states would be free not only from foreign autocracy but from their fellow democracies. To this end their Articles of Confederation guaranteed the sovereignty of each of the Thirteen States, but included nothing else to assure the sovereignty of their citizens. By the same line of thought our generation set up for the same purpose first, the League of Nations, and, when it failed, next the United Nations and, when it proved insufficient, the North Atlantic alliance. And now that NATO also has proved inadequate, it is proposed that we seek to assure our freedom as citizens by trying next still another type of organization based on the sovereign state -- confederation.

We have already noted how much stronger than NATO the Confederation of the Thirteen was, not only in structure but in linguistic, historical and other community ties. Yet these confederated states, even when they had their common war for independence to help keep them united, suffered such chronic disunion as to make General Washington almost despair. Confederation was so feeble that, as Madison pointed out in the Federal Convention, even tiny "Delaware during the late war opposed and defeated an embargo to which twelve states had agreed, and continued to supply the enemy with provisions in time of war."

His Excellency, George C, and His Majesty, George III

Once the war was won, disunion degenerated into chaos. Although the Confederacy had the power to issue and borrow money, the failure of its member states to back it up soon made its "Continental" currency an enduring byword for worthlessness -- "not worth a Continental" -- and ruined its credit at home and abroad; it could not borrow even at usurious interest rates. Each of the Thirteen States had retained the right to issue its own currency; their money, with few exceptions, fared worse or little better. These currencies together with the tariffs by which the Thirteen sought to protect themselves from each other, proved too much for even the relatively simple business and agriculture of those days. Soon galloping inflation and depression (not so deep as we experienced in 1929-33) ravaged the states of the Confederation. This led some of them to centralize power in their state government (though far less dangerously than in the Nazi dictatorship which depression brought to the German democracy -- or than the centralization that another depression would now cause in Washington, London, Paris and the other allied sovereign capitals of Atlantica.)

By turning to Chapter I of Union Now one can get perhaps enough other details to see the situation in the Thirteen States in those days when the chief executive of a sovereign state styled himself "His Excellency George Clinton, Esquire, Governor of the State of New York, General and Commander-in-Chief of all the Militia and Admiral of the Navy of the same." Incidentally, His Excellency was one of those who bitterly opposed "sacrificing" state sovereignty to transform the Confederation into a federal union.

In our misguided day, the majority seem to regard the Declaration of Independence as His Excellency did, as if the memorable thing it accomplished was to separate us from Britain and as if the independence it declared was for the state rather than the citizen. But to other leaders of that day, whom we remember better than we do His Excellency, the separation from Britain and the establishment of Thirteen "Free and Independent States" were not ends in themselves, but merely means to establish the principles of free government and of equal individual liberty for "all men" which the Declaration began by declaring.

The Confederation's failure to serve these ends reminded these leaders that the Declaration had also asserted that "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these aims it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. The language was clear, but many of their fellow American could not believe that the unlimited sovereignty of their own state could become as destructive to life and liberty as George III's had been. They were as confused as was His Excellency, George C. There was then no threat of attack by any powerful autocrat to unite them; instead there was a depression to keep them divided. Even so, they sent their delegates in 1787 to Philadelphia and there -- in the same room in Independence Hall where they had signed their revolutionary Declaration -- their Convention devised the federal union way ... of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" ... for citizens, not states.

Creating Federal "Government Of, By and For the People"

We can see now more clearly than was possible then the essential thing they did in changing from confederation to federal union. They simply made their inter-state government a representative democracy like each democracy in it. They changed from a government of, by and for states to a "government of the people, by the people, for the people" -- thus establishing the basic difference between all federal unions and all confederations, leagues, alliances. We have become so used to Lincoln's famous phrase that we now glide over its deep meaning. That meaning had to be written in his time in blood before enough men could see it. We cannot ponder Lincoln's words too thoughtfully now.

Government of the people: All government must govern something, operate on something, maintain itself and enforce its laws against some sort of lawbreaker. Inter-state government has only two choices: It must either be a government of states as units, or a government of the people individually as units. Whereas the Confederation sought to govern sovereign armed states, the new Federal Union was organized to govern only the citizen in each state.

The framers of the Federal Constitution had learned from personal experience that a government could not effectively operate on states that a government of governments was, as Hamilton said, a "political monster." In their state governments they had not followed the absurd principle of trying to coerce and govern towns and counties as units; they governed instead the citizens in them individually. Thanks largely to George Mason, they decided to follow the same common-sense way in their interstate government. It seems simple enough, but, as Tocqueville pointed out, this had never been done before in all the world's various attempts to organize inter-state government. He ranked it "as a great discovery in modern political science."

Government by the people: Some unit must govern in any government -- and inter-state government must be a government either by the states or by the people in them individually. We have noted that the state governments governed the Confederation through their appointees, with each state accorded equal weight regardless of the number of people in it. The new Federal Union was organized to be governed on the principle of majority rule by the citizens in each state, weighed roughly as equals.

Here again the framers of the Constitution did the common-sense thing. They had tried to run none of their state governments by the grotesque confederation system, with one vote for each county, and unanimity necessary for serious action. They merely transferred to their inter-state government the system they used in their state governments, after adding safeguards against the small states being dominated by the larger ones, and against centralization.

It was this change that has allowed the Federal Union government to escape the remoteness from the people that has been the curse of all confederations, leagues and alliances, and to respond to public opinion as quickly and effectively as any democratic government must. This innovation, too, seems simple enough. Yet nothing in the Constitution threatened more to disrupt the Federal Convention than this shift in the basis of power from equal states to equal citizens. And nothing in American history was more completely forgotten by the drafters of the Geneva Covenant, the United Nations Charter and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Government for the people: Government is always made for some primary purpose, and inter-state government must either be made for the states in it or for the people, the citizens. The Articles of Confederation began, "We, the undersigned delegates of the states affixed to our names," and set out to safeguard each state's "sovereignty, freedom and independence." The framers of the Constitution made Federal Union -- as George Mason put it -- "a government for men and not for societies of men or States." They made this clear in the very first words of the Preamble:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Here, once more, they did the common-sense thing. They made their inter-state government clearly for themselves, like their state governments. None of these was organized for the preposterous purpose of keeping the town or county governments absolutely independent. Yet here, too, the framers of the Constitution were doing something new in inter-state government, correcting a fatal error and making another fertile contribution to political science.

Uniting the People and Dividing Their Governments, The Better to Rule Them

They made Federal Union a government for the people not only in their clear-cut words, but in a most substantial way. Their American forefathers had learned this way to greater freedom one hundred and fifty years before -- in the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut of 1639.

They had proved by experience that men can secure more freedom by (a) uniting instead of dividing themselves and (b) dividing instead of uniting their governors. They had learned to divide the powers of government according to whether the majority of citizens would gain more by having them local or by making them general, and to keep all who exercised these powers equally dependent on the people. Just as they employed one set of men to run their house for them another set to run their farm, and another to run their looms, they employed one set of men to govern their town, another set to govern their country, and a third to govern their state. They kept each set as directly dependent on them as are spokes on the hub of a wheel.

But, until 1787, they had not only stopped this system at the state line, but reversed it there as we still do. They had let the men elected to govern their relations inside the state govern their relations with other states, too.

In setting up our present Constitution they arranged to govern those relations also by men they chose themselves for this particular job. They returned again to the way of common sense. They centered this fourth spoke, too, on themselves as the hub, instead of on the rim of their wheel, as in the Confederation.

Then they divided the powers of government between the new Union government and the Thirteen State governments according to which would serve the people better. Wherever they agreed that they would all gain freedom by transferring a power from each state government to the Union government they transferred it -- and forbade their state representatives to meddle henceforth in their inter-state affairs. Wherever they agreed that the people would be freer if the powers of government were left where they were, they kept them there, and forbade their Union representatives to meddle in such affairs. They required the Union to guarantee that all rights not specifically given it would remain in the hands of the state governments, respectively, or in the hands of the people.1

The makers of the Constitution ended by shifting only five major powers from the state governments to the Union government. But by this shift they gained for the people these five tremendous advantages:

First, they abolished those Thirteen independent armies that were threatening to embroil them in war, and they secured a far more effective power for peace and for defense.

Second, they abolished those Thirteen fluttering currencies and gained a common, stable means of doing business.

Third, they removed Thirteen tariff walls at one blow, and gained the rich free-trade market the world envies.

Fourth, they brushed aside Thirteen barriers to communi- cations. They already enjoyed under the Confederation the freedom that a common postal service brings; they gained a cheaper, freer inter-state river and coastal service -- while clearing the way for steamship, railway, telegraph, telephone, automobile, airplane, wireless, and television.

Fifth, they avoided the many restrictions and dangers of being divided into Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, Rhode Islanders, and so on, and secured the vast freedom of American citizenship, without losing their state citizenship.

They gained all these advantages for all the 3,000,000 freemen of the Thirteen States equally -- and far more for us, their posterity, 180,000,000 strong, who now enjoy Federal Union in fifty states. I call this making "government for the people" in a great way, both in principle and in practice. This was another of the innovations that distinguish federal union from confederations, leagues, alliances and all other systems of inter-state organization. It helped make the Constitution, as one of its critics, Luther Martin, told the Federal Convention, "a perfect medley of confederated and national government, without example and without precedent."

The "Astonishing, Unexampled Success" That Followed

Such was the revolutionary experiment our forefathers made when they replaced confederation with the world's first federal union. We shall see in Chapter 7 the confusion in which this change -- which seems so simple now-was made. But first, consider the result.

The result, as Lord Acton has said, was an "astonishing and unexampled success." The inventors of federal union had thus "solved," he said, "two problems which had hitherto baffled the capacity of the most enlightened nations: they had contrived a system of federal government which prodigiously increased the national power and yet respected local liberties and authorities; and they had founded it on the principle of equality, without surrendering the securities for property and freedom."2

Can you name three of those eleven territorial disputes that were dividing the Thirteen States in 1787? Speaking on the lecture platform, I have put that question to many thousands of Americans all over the Union. I have never found a single one who could name even three. That shows how thoroughly federal union makes for peace. It settled these disputes so well they are forgotten.

Of course, there was one Civil War. We shall consider it in Chapter 8. Meanwhile we need but to note that all governments (centralized republics, monarchies, aristocracies, what not) have also suffered civil war, while leagues, alliances and confederations have had no end of wars between members. I recall no federal union that has ever been threatened with war between two member states.

So much for peace. Consider human equality and freedom. When the first federal union was established no country on earth could be rated democratic by present standards. The Thirteen States were the most advanced, but though they declared "all men are created equal," they restricted the vote to men of property, and they permitted slavery. Almost no one in them then even suggested giving women any rights. The history of our Federal Union has been the history of the elimination of the exceptions to the great principle of equal liberty which, as Lincoln said, "the great Republic ... lives by and keeps alive."

First, our Union was extended to include all white men by the establishment of manhood suffrage. Next we extended it to the slaves -- though these new citizens still, to our shame, do not enjoy equal rights in some states. And then we admitted even our mothers, sweethearts, wives and daughters to the Union's full citizenship. Meanwhile public schools were spreading out more than ever before in history, as were other opportunities equally open to all. We are still far from the ideal, but no form of government has ever brought nearly so much liberty and equal dignity to so many millions as our Federal Union has already done.

Turn to the economic side. In the first ten years of Federal Union those Thirteen poverty-stricken States quadrupled their foreign trade. The Union began with a debt load of $75,000,000 inherited from the Confederation. Then it purchased Louisiana for $15 ,000,000, bought Florida for $5,000,000 and borrowed $98,000,000 during the War of 1812. But instead of accumulating debt the Federal Union was able to pay off the debt so rapidly that, by 1835, it distributed a surplus of $28,000,000.

The One Great Change That Caused The Great Success

How are you going to account for this astounding change from war alarms to peace, from depression to prosperity, from failure to success?

Some say it was all due to economic factors, to the frontier, free land, rich natural resources. But when the Confederation possessed all that vast wilderness to the Mississippi River, it could not even borrow a dollar.

Others attribute the success to great leaders we had then -- but Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, were all alive under the Confederation; yet even they could not make that system work.

Nor did success result from any change in human nature. The same Americans were alive in 1786 and in 1790. But in 1786 they were getting into more and more depression and disputes, and in 1790 they were getting out.

How can you account for that astonishing transformation from failure to success, except by attributing it to the one great change that had occurred -- to the change in the basis of government from the sovereign states to the sovereign citizens, to this "more perfect" application of the principles of the Declaration of Independence?

And so we Americans who call ourselves Federal Unionists or Atlantic Unionists today say to you now: How much longer are we going to waste precious time, and treasure, and lives, fiddling along with the diplomatic system's leagues, alliances, confederations, which have already brought us two World Wars and a great depression, and now threaten us with worse war, depression, dictatorship?

Why is it, we ask you, that this great American invention is the one answer to the problem of peace which we Americans have neglected most? Why is it that even now the boldest among our statesmen are rated bold because they pro pose confederation -- a system which, though better than an alliance or league -- has failed in the best conditions? Why have we done so little to apply beyond our shores the 100 per cent American principles which our fathers carried steadily on, from the Atlantic to the Pacific?

True we have now -- at long last -- carried them beyond our Pacific shore by admitting Alaska and Hawaii as states in the Union. We have ended the long rule of two assumptions that never had any basis in the Constitution -- that states of the Union must be connected by land, and dominated by the white race. This is a most encouraging sign. But why then should any Americans still shy at Atlantic Union? Since we can federate with Alaska, a state that is only a few miles from Soviet territory, why can we not federate with Norway and the German Federal Republic which also adjoin the Soviet empire, to say nothing of such nations as France which are far from Moscow's frontiers? Since we can federate with the multi-racial Hawaiian Islands, why should we first go through a confederate stage with the British Isles which are much closer to Washington?

Why not at least attempt once to form an Atlantic federation before saying that we can't -- or that we must try confederation first? Why not try instead to transfer from our national democracies to a new Atlantic Union democracy those same basic powers which the Thirteen States transferred to the American Union -- since we have proved ever since 1789 that this makes astoundingly for peace, prosperity and freedom for everyone?

Why not have the Atlantic Union guarantee, as does our own Union, that all powers, not specifically given to the Federal Government, shall remain in the hands of each state in it? Why not try to organize an Atlantic Union government broadly on the same basis as our own federation and all others -- with Legislature, Court and Executive? Why not put representation in it on the same population basis as in our Union, with the same safeguards that its Senate gives the smaller states?

We run no risk in attempting this at the Atlantic Convention, we sign no check in blank. No one can tell in advance what the details of such a Constitution would provide. They could and should be worked out in the Convention. We are committed to nothing the Convention does until we have not only seen and studied the text of any Constitution it produces, but ratified it after full discussion. If we think anything in it is too risky, we can reject it then. We run no risk whatever in this process. The only real risk we run lies in delaying further to try our hands at federal union.

We, the free people of Atlantica, still possess the power to make the world immensely safer for democracy simply by changing our minds, simply by having the courage, the common sense, the vision, to do for our children what the Virginians and the Pennsylvanians and the New Yorkers had the courage, the common sense, the vision to do in 1787-1789 -- unite behind a common Bill of Rights in a Federal Union. Why should not the Americans, Britons, French, Dutch, Canadians, and other Atlanticans at least try to do this too ... today?


  1. For clarity and brevity I am including in the Constitution the first ten amendments. I consider them, moreover, as being practically part of the original Constitution since it could not have been ratified had there not been a tacit understanding to add them.
  2. Historical Essays and Studies, Macmillan, London, p. 124.

Contents -- Chapter 3 -- Chapter 5