Before the Early Republic: Comments on The Culture of the Confederation Era Roundtable

Rosemarie Zagarri

Great Seal of the United States, 1782. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In March 2020, just as the Covid virus was sweeping through the country and the national lockdown was beginning, a writer for The Atlantic magazine announced, “The United States is about to find out whether the Articles of Confederation would have worked.” As President Donald Trump made clear from the earliest days of the pandemic, the federal government would not be responsible for coordinating a national response to the crisis.  Each state would be on its own, left to its own devices in securing ventilators, determining when to open up its economy, and deciding if and when its residents would wear masks. Now as the country continues to struggle to get a handle on the pandemic, we have a glimmer of insight into how the country may have functioned if Americans had rejected the strong central government created by the U.S. Constitution and had chosen instead to retain its first federal government, the “firm league of friendship” established under the Articles of Confederation.

With the benefit of hindsight, then, it seems oddly prescient that a group of early American historians gathered at the SHEAR conference held in July 2019 to talk about, and reassess, the current state of scholarship on the Confederation era and to propose new directions for the study of the period. I see at least three major themes emerging from the papers that offer promising directions for new research.

First, we need to consider the Articles of Confederation not only in its final form but also in terms of its precursors or alternatives. When previous generations of historians have examined earlier drafts of the Articles, they mainly have emphasized political issues, especially clauses dealing with apportionment, taxation, or western land claims. A plan of government, however, is much more than just a structure of government for a nation. It is also a vision of what a country should be, of who is included and excluded, and of the means for protecting and securing its citizens’ rights and privileges.

Jane Calvert tells us to look not just at the finished version of the Articles of Confederation, but at John Dickinson’s early drafts. From his proposals, a very different vision of the country’s first unified government emerges. Instead of focusing primarily on the powers of the states, Dickinson thought about the rights of individuals. His plan included provisions to secure Native American lands; to restrict the spread of slavery; and to protect religious liberty, with the explicit inclusion of women. Although these proposals never made it into the final draft, they are significant nonetheless, raising questions about the sources of Dickinson’s thinking on these issues, how and why they were defeated, and the extent to which such ideas reflected a larger body of radical sentiments emerging from the American Revolution. Far from being irrelevant, the roads not taken during the Confederation era reveal that a surprisingly wide range of social and well as political ideas were in contention at the time.

Another important theme to emerge from this panel concerns the need for increased attention to the international dimensions of the Confederation period. As both Sara Georgini and Robb Haberman suggest, it is not only possible, but necessary, to move beyond traditional discussions of foreign affairs during the Confederation era. The papers of Americans living abroad during the 1770s and 1780s can tell us about far more than international diplomacy. These commentators, including John and Abigail Adams, can tell us how critical domestic issues, including Shays’s Rebellion, trade and commerce, and foreign credit, were perceived across the Atlantic, providing an expanded context for their interpretation and underlining the close ties between America and Europe. “The emergent culture of the confederation,” says Georgini, “often had a foreign accent.”

These writings also offer rich sources for women’s historians and cultural historians. With the exception of Benjamin Irvin’s excellent book, Clothed in the Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out-of-Doors (Oxford, UK, 2014), there are relatively few cultural—as opposed to political—histories of the Confederation period. Haberman shows us this needn’t be the case. John Jay’s wife, Sarah Livingston Jay, was a powerful force in diplomatic circles in her own right, acting, one might say, as a “female politician” alongside her husband. When she returned to the United States, she played a key role in introducing elements of the “French salon” to America, a cultural phenomenon whose later development has been explored with great insight by Susan Branson and Catherine Allgor.

Finally, both Haberman’s and Terrance Rucker’s remarks remind us to think about the sources and documents of the Confederation era not just as self-evident texts, but as creating an “archive.” As an archive, these sources should be examined critically, with an eye to when and how the evidence was assembled, by whom, and for what purposes. Such an examination reveals the biases and exclusions existing within the evidentiary base. Haberman, for example, tells us that John Jay deliberately sought to preserve a record of the country’s dealings with foreign nations. But he also had other goals as well. He wished to provide legitimacy for the nascent State Department and a source of institutional memory for the young nation. More conspicuously, Jay also wished to shape the historical memory of the founding era for future generations, securing a legacy that highlighted both his own and his country’s successes abroad.

In a somewhat different manner, Terrance Rucker reveals that archival compilations contain their own limitations—limitations that his office, the Historians of the House of Representatives, is seeking to overcome. One of the most valuable sources for historians of the early United States is the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, a collection of information on the lives and political careers of all those who have served in Congress. In addition to overhauling the online version of the Directory, the historians at the House of Representatives have been working to bridge the “artificial divisions” between materials that discuss the Continental and the Confederation Congresses. In doing so, they have highlighted the political and intellectual continuities between the eras and enhanced the contributions of the Confederation Congress to the tradition of American governance. The efforts of Rucker and his colleagues remind us to keep in mind that our archival sources about the Confederation era have a profound impact on what we know and about whom. As our panelists have shown, however, new questions can be asked of traditional sources.

As the country’s recent experience in handling the coronavirus suggests, it is perhaps a good thing that the U.S. Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation. Nonetheless, there is much more yet to learn about the Confederation era. Its significance, as our panel has demonstrated, was “critical” not only in political terms but also in terms of its social, cultural, and gendered dimensions as well.