Rope of Sand

The creed of States’ Rights is a myth, one that exists only in the opportunistic vacuum of political rhetoric, wishful thinking, and hubris. If exploited as the only answer to problems, remember States’ Rights have never solved a thing. Not in this country. Ours is a federal system of concurrent powers, where centralized authority hums along with state and local governments. This has been the way America has sustained itself for over two hundred years.

The American Civil War comes to mind as the most lethal challenge to centralized authority. But that conflict was certainly not the first.

Years before, American representatives, in an attempt to unify the states, designed a national government titled the Articles of Confederation.

Much like building a car while driving down the road, political leaders in 1777 attempted to forge a national government to face the uncertain, and perilous era of the Revolution. But this initial model to link the original 13 proved rather toothless in operation. The fatal flaw penned into the Articles was leaving too much power in the hands of the states. Every state mistrusted any form of centralized power that could coerce obedience, even in the face of British invasion. In fact, the Confederation Congress couldn’t even ratify this document until the end of the war.

The biggest sticking point holding up cooperation concerned vast western land claims. Clinging to previous royal charters, Virginia and New York, for example, refused to give up one acre for the war effort. Potential profits from the sale of these lands could have helped offset the expenditures of war. Congress, nearly bankrupt, and with no real clout, could do little while soldiers suffered. Poorly clad, poorly armed, suffering from a scarcity of provisions grew so dire General Washington fretted that “the game was nearly up.”

All that while Congress drifted, wringing their hands, begging for loans, and printing worthless paper money.

Worse, states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, preferred transactions with English occupiers, filling their personal coffers in British pounds and shillings. As prospects for America’s victory looked increasingly dim, the states still stubbornly defended their own turf.

Historians often use the term “rope of sand,” to describe the deficiencies and impotence of this early attempt at self governance. Lacking any real clout, inevitable bloodshed quickly followed among the thirteen jealous, quarreling fiefdoms. Navigation rights, interstate trade, and clashes over negotiable currency nearly crippled the nascent country.

In that critical moment Alexander Hamilton and James Madison jointly called for a new convention to “revise” the Articles. In reality, both men intended to completely abolish them as a last ditch effort. With the approval of General Washington, a new convention in fact assembled in Philadelphia the summer of 1787. This Constitutional Convention remedied much of the ills of the struggling nation.

This lesson from the past remains relevant. We are better together than alone. My state, for example could never bear the seasonal cost of road construction, nor of fire fighting. Recent Covid-19 policies have proven the futility, and folly of every state for themselves.

This lesson is as relevant today as in 1787.

E Pluribus Unum

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle or at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Endurance

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Three early American documents are often lumped together in our collective memory, though each is quite different from the others; The Declaration of IndependenceThe Articles of Confederation, and the enduring US Constitution. Citizens generally know something of the Declaration due to a certain celebration we observe each summer. The Articles of Confederation are a bit more elusive, and not nearly as recognized. The third, the US Constitution is revered, but its beginnings, and purpose is also shrouded in time. 

Here is a quick explanation of each missive, particularly the sequence, and the significance of each.

The Declaration of Independence: July 4, 1776. A product of the Second Continental Congress, this revolutionary document was ratified as an instrument of rebellion, after all other measures to avoid war with England had failed. In reality, the shooting had begun a year earlier in Lexington, Massachusetts, but the Declaration formalized hostilities. Debated and delayed, this document was finally adopted in July of that year. Congress made crystal clear their reasons and resolve to free themselves from King George’s arbitrary rule. Penned by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration began with a guiding statement about “Natural Right’s” shared by all humanity, and that people had the obligation to free themselves from unjust tyranny. The rest of the epistle read as a legal document condemning the King and his despotism. This document is the first of the three in forging the United States of America. 

The Articles of Confederation: September, 1777. The Articles provided America’s first national charter of government. Approved by the same Second Continental Congress in 1777, the Articles attempted to unify the original states under one government. Through this document, Congress sent diplomats abroad, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, to (beg) obtain financial support from European powers. However, at home, this framework failed miserably. More a Confederation of independent principalities, Congress had to plead for money and men from each state, who often said no. There was no power to tax, no centralized currency, and the Articles weren’t even ratified by all 13 states until a month before the war ended at Yorktown. Each state jealously guarded its own interests over any unified cooperation. Congress could do next to nothing to aid General Washington and his army. Chaos ensued after the war ended, as well. Trade wars flared, disagreements among the states spilled over into violence, and rebellions within states promised more turbulence. The ability of America to govern itself appeared doomed. The English were sure America’s failure was imminent, and they could, once again, swoop in.

The United States Constitution: May to September, 1787. Born from an earlier 1786 meeting between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in Annapolis, MD, the Constitutional Convention was organized and slated for Philadelphia in May. Both founders understood that without persuading Washington to attend this new Convention, any success was remote. Washington, tending his home at Mount Vernon, was hesitant, and tired. However, when news reached the General of an uprising in Western Massachusetts, (Shays Rebellion), Washington agreed to attend. Fifty-five delegates from all the states except Rhode Island, reported to the Pennsylvania Statehouse in Philadelphia. Most were lawyers, sprinkled with many Southern slave holders. Virginian, James Madison came prepared with a plan to replace the feeble Articles of Confederation. Much of Madison’s Virginia Plan became the basis of the Constitution. Designed for endurance, this new charter vested authority in the Central government, and the states. Termed Federalism, powers under this frame of government are shared between both authorities simultaneously. The tooling of the document, employing separation of powers, and checks and balances is brilliant, and worked well until 2016.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” both on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com