In the War for Independence, America’s treasury and military were tiny compared to Great Britain.
From her start, was America one nation or thirteen nations? How did the thirteen original colonies unite to match the power of the British? In fact, it was only by at least four strokes of incredible luck (or you could say divine miracles) that the U.S. won the war:
- The American soldiers demonstrated unbelievable doggedness and willingness for self-sacrifice in the face of starvation, exposure, and crushing odds;
- George Washington was a brilliant military leader, especially with his use of counter-spies, deception, and surprise;
- Benjamin Franklin obtained a great deal of cash, troops, and ships from the King of France;
- John Adams pushed France for even more ships and acquired multiple desperately needed loans from Dutch bankers.
The British foot-soldiers who fought and drastically out-numbered the American revolutionaries were not even British citizens. A vast supply of contract armies was available for hire. And a vast supply of money was available to Great Britain’s King George III. The hired soldiers were called Hessians. That is, they were mostly from Hesse-Cassel and Hesse-Hanau, which would later become parts of the nation of Germany.
From independence (1776) to the U.S. Constitution (1789), the United States were in fact not one nation, but thirteen nations.
The states cooperated somewhat during the war with Britain, but afterward all the incentives for cooperation vanished. The continental government became totally useless, so the leaders of the revolution abandoned it. Instead they applied their talents within the real centers of power, those uncooperative states. Most everyone knew a disaster was coming.
National bankruptcy, international dishonor, piracy, serious interstate trade restrictions, loss in property values, fluctuating currencies, and civil violence were all widespread throughout the thirteen states. And the real social leaders were applying their talents only in the states. So the continental government was reduced to “a debating society of inferior men”. (Murphy 1967, 40)
Without a new constitution, America would probably have become at least two or three or even thirteen warring nations. The most likely division at the time was a three-way division between New England, the middle states, and the southern states. James Madison was deeply afraid this was America’s fate:
The bulk of the people will probably prefer the lesser evil of a partition of the Union into three more practicable and energetic governments. (Madison 1787)
Many believed that if the original colonies did not become one nation, rather than thirteen nations, they would be swallowed by England, France, and Spain.
Each of those European nations was vastly richer and had massively larger naval and land forces than America.
Of course, a two-way division of the American states was attempted in 1861, when the southern states seceded from the union. That sparked the American Civil War. But the hostility between north and south did not even begin in the same century as the Civil War. It began before the War for Independence because of significant economic differences. That is, the South remained agricultural, while the North became more and more industrial. And they had vastly different ideas about what the national government should do, and what role the state governments should play.
Imagine that the South had succeeded in the Civil War and remained separate. Can you imagine the subsequent wars between North and South over which one would acquire the western states?
Do you believe the states could ever survive if they divided? Did the U.S. Constitution save America by uniting the states into one nation from thirteen nations? Is that strong central government still necessary today?
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Madison, James. 1787. “From James Madison to Edmund Pendleton, 24 February 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-09-02-0151. [Original source: The Papers of James Madison, vol. 9, 9 April 1786 – 24 May 1787 and supplement 1781–1784, ed. Robert A. Rutland and William M. E. Rachal. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1975, pp. 294–296.]
Murphy, William P. 1967.The Triumph of Nationalism. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, Inc.