In the mid-1700s, Colonial America consisted of thirteen colonies. Each of these had received a charter. Each was autonomous. Each had a governor. Most had some form of (state) legislative bodies. Facing the occupation of a British army in the northern colonies and the patrol of the ports and shipping lanes up and down the Atlantic seaboard by the world’s greatest naval power, the Colonies faced dire prospects in their struggle for just treatment and representation.
The British parliament and King had little regard for the political sensibilities of their colonial subjects. The colonies were more like business interests; resources to be mined, profits to be made.
As conditions worsened, resistance to British rule gained momentum. In 1774, two years before the Declaration of Independence, a special gathering was assembled. Known as the Continental Congress, it was the first group of representatives composed of delegates from each colony joined for the purpose of communicating and coordinating resistance measures among the thirteen autonomous colonies.
We must remember that there was no federal government, no seat of power, no Washington, DC. There was no Department of Defense, no Internal Revenue Service, no Treasury, no National Bank.
This fledgling idea of American Federal political power was born of the necessity of thirteen colonies with no central direction to unite in coordinated resistance to a common foe. That same need; the ability to coordinate resistance to a common enemy, is still one of the strongest necessities of a Federal government, having the requisite authority to do so.
The mandate of the Continental Congress was to coordinate an effort to resist the British. But doing so in the pre-Revolutionary Colonial period was a daunting task. It was a time of disjointed, competitive, non-cooperation between thirteen Colonial governors, desperate to hold power for themselves. It was more like an NCAA athletic conference, composed of individual member universities competing for the best athletes and honors, than anything we know today.
The colonies even made trade and treaty agreements with foreign States individually. There was no oversight of inter-colonial commerce, no regulation of weights and measures, no single currency. There was no existing Judicial body to hear disputes between colonies other than the British Parliament and the Crown. There was no national taxation. There was no nation.
These realities are lost to us who have lived our entire lives as citizens of the United States of America. We have grown up in the shadow of a powerful Federal government operating from Washington, DC. The Revolutionary period is a collection of stories from our early civics classes in school. July 4th is a reason to shoot off fireworks and drink beer in the summer. We know the names of men like Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson. We have vague notions of them doing some heroic things. But we live as if our government and our country just grew this way; as if it has always been here; as if it will always be here.
But at the time of the framing, there was no Washington, DC. There were no Senators. There was no House of Representatives. There were thirteen autonomous colonies that were forced by history, geography, and circumstance to unite themselves or face annihilation and dissolution at the hands of Great Britain.
Despite these obstacles, the desire to resist British tyranny was so great, that the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It somehow succeeded in the effort to field a Revolutionary army, adopt a code of conduct, pay the soldiers, authorize officers, including the appointment of George Washington, and raise funds for the materiel necessary to the war effort. This was a Herculean task.
At the end of the war, there were large war debts to pay, there was a standing army to disband, and there were new treaties to be established with foreign nations, some of which involved the assimilation of new lands won by virtue of the Revolution’s military victory.
Faced with these post-war challenges, the Continental Congress first sought to strengthen the existing Articles of Confederation, largely under the efforts of South Carolinian, Charles Pinckney. But a stubborn resistance to consolidated political power persisted after the Revolution was won on the battlefield. There was not even a way to compel attendance at the meetings of the Continental Congress.
In 1787, efforts turned away from the too flimsy Articles of Confederation. A Constitutional Convention was convened in Philadelphia to the create a new, more robust government suited for the temperament of the newly liberated Colonies and able to meet the challenges at hand. A more perfect Union wasn’t just poetic language, it was a very practical necessity.
The need for a more perfect Union presupposes a distribution of political power between State governments and the newly established Federal government. None of the delegates from the several colonies were going to completely give up Colonial (State) power. The framers also were genius in that they cooked in checks and balances even at the Federal level so distrustful were they of consolidated, concentrated, centralized power. They had just spent fifteen long, hard, perilous years fighting a tyranny. They weren’t about to establish a new one.
These historical truths and historical forces have always been in competition, seeking a balance of power and influence. The need for preservation of states rights; the requirement of a limited, yet potent federal authority; the creation of a strong executive, but one with clear boundaries and checks all were on the minds of the framers.
Having lived through the Revolutionary War, after cobbling together an army to resist a British invasion, the framers experienced firsthand the inefficiencies and limits posed by unilateral, disjointed actions undertaken by individual states. And they foresaw the possibility of other national, existential difficulties. They envisioned and created a national federal authority with enough clout to coalesce, and coordinate, and legislate resistance to a common foe.
Federal power was birthed in resistance to a common enemy. A more perfect Union is still needed in the face of a common enemy. These truth have not faded away with the passage of time. We are living them to this day.