In 1783, as the Revolutionary War came to a close, Alexander Hamilton resigned in disgust from the Continental Congress after it refused to consider a fundamental reform of the Articles of Confederation. Just four years later, that same government collapsed, and Congress grudgingly agreed to support the 1787 Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, which altered the Articles beyond recognition. What occurred during this remarkably brief interval to cause the Confederation to lose public confidence and inspire Americans to replace it with a dramatically more flexible and powerful government? We Have Not a Government is the story of this contentious moment in American history.
In George William Van Cleve’s book, we encounter a sharply divided America. The Confederation faced massive war debts with virtually no authority to compel its members to pay them. It experienced punishing trade restrictions and strong resistance to American territorial expansion from powerful European governments. Bitter sectional divisions that deadlocked the Continental Congress arose from exploding western settlement. And a deep, long-lasting recession led to sharp controversies and social unrest across the country amid roiling debates over greatly increased taxes, debt relief, and paper money. Van Cleve shows how these remarkable stresses transformed the Confederation into a stalemate government and eventually led previously conflicting states, sections, and interest groups to advocate for a union powerful enough to govern a continental empire.
Touching on the stories of a wide-ranging cast of characters—including John Adams, Patrick Henry, Daniel Shays, George Washington, and Thayendanegea—Van Cleve makes clear that it was the Confederation’s failures that created a political crisis and led to the 1787 Constitution. Clearly argued and superbly written, We Have Not a Government is a must-read history of this crucial period in our nation’s early life.
About the Author
George William Van Cleve is research professor in law and history at Seattle University School of Law. He is the author of A Slaveholders’ Union, also published by the University of Chicago Press. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, and his J.D. from Harvard Law School.
“Instead of asking how the Constitution came to be adopted, Van Cleve asks why the previous government, the Articles of Confederation, failed—and why it failed not only in our own modern eyes, but in the eyes of its contemporaries. Pairing an enormous amount of scrupulous research with the unique perspective of a legal scholar, Van Cleve bridges the divide between scholarship and the curious reader. He writes with smooth, powerful, unobtrusive beauty.”
“Full of new insights and judicious conclusions, We Have Not a Government significantly improves our understanding of why the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the Constitution. Van Cleve has written the first systematic treatment of the ‘critical period’ in generations, carefully and exhaustively examining all the major elements of this important concept. It strongly resonates with contemporary concerns over the unfolding political crises of stalemate governments in both the United States and the European Union. It is an important achievement.”
“Van Cleve’s superb new study offers a compelling account of the crisis of sovereignty that transformed the new and loosely United States of America. Deeply researched and powerfully argued, We Have Not a Government charts the decline and fall of the Articles of Confederation, thus illuminating the extraordinary circumstances in which the federal Constitution was drafted. This is the clearest, most sharply focused, and persuasive account of the stalemate of government in the Confederation and the states that precipitated the ‘grand bargain’ at the Philadelphia Convention that saved the union. It will be recognized as a landmark in the literature.”
“We Have Not a Government provides a focused explanation of the reasons the Articles of Confederation, the nation’s first federal constitution, went lurching toward collapse. . .Van Cleve patiently examines the specific matters of public policy that vexed national politics in the mid-1780s. He draws sharp conclusions and generally takes decided stands on matters that historians still actively dispute. . .What Van Cleve does demonstrate, persuasively, is that the genuine crisis of the Confederation required creating a “staggeringly powerful” national government through a “grand bargain” that went well beyond what any state might have asked for itself.”
“[Van Cleve] describes in great detail the varied and complicated issues faced by the impotent, insolvent Congress. . .This detailed and well-researched history and analysis will appeal to scholars and serious popular history buffs.”