Hostile Colonies and States United

The American Revolution involved two groups fighting the British: the conservatives, who reluctantly left British control as it guaranteed their power and wealth; and the radicals who wanted to overturn the aristocratic colonial structure as well as British rule from afar. The latter desired sovereign States with a weak central government, the former desired the reverse.

The author below notes “the writing and ratification of the Articles of Confederation is merely the first chapter in the constitutional history of the United States. In the years to come, section was to be arrayed against section, class against class, and party against party in an effort to determine the province of the central government and that of the States.”

Bernhard Thuersam,


Hostile Colonies and States United

“The fundamental difference between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of 1787 lies in the apportionment of power between the States and the central government. In the first the balance of power was to the States, and in the second to the central government. The first constitution was one of a federal organization; the second was in essence that of a national government, although political realities demanded the retention of federal features.

The difference between the two was the result of the shifting balances of political power within the thirteen States, which enabled first one party and then the other to write its desires, its beliefs, and its interests into the colorless language of a constitution.

Hence it was the nature of union, and not its desirability, that was the major issue between the parties in 1776. The conservatives wished for the recreation, as nearly as might be, of the system that had existed before the Revolution.

The radicals tended to desire a union chiefly for the purpose of carrying on the war, but a union that would not infringe upon the sovereign authority of the individual States. They believed profoundly that only under such a system was democracy possible.

The greatest obstacle to a union of almost any kind was the States’ independence of one another. The colonies had been founded individually and had developed different traditions and attitudes in spite of a common heritage of language, law, and government.

Their relations with each other were often unfriendly, especially after the middle of the eighteenth century, as a result of rival land claims. Actual warfare had been prevented only by the external power of Britain, which subdued them but did not eliminate their animosity toward one another.

Above all, the radicals believed that the independence of the States was the guarantee of the kind of government they desired. Speaking broadly, it was democracy they wanted, and they knew full well that the kind of democracy they wanted was incompatible with centralization. Their experience with the British Empire had taught them that much, and they were not soon to forget the lesson.”

(The Articles of Confederation, an Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774-1781, Merrill Jensen, University of Wisconsin Press, 1940, excerpts pp. 109-110; 116-117)

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