In a parallel universe, the United States of America is somewhere still governed under the Articles of Confederation. Here’s what happened in this other United States: To the dismay of the Federalists (called “Nationalists” or “Conservatives” at the time) the proposed Constitution of 1787, which would have replaced the Articles of 1781, was defeated in four crucial state conventions and never became the framework of the American union.
The hard political battle pitted radicals (called anti-Federalists) against conservatives and the radicals won, barely. The “United States, assembled in Congress”, remained the political subordinate of the states.
“Congress could function only within an area of precisely delegated and carefully limited authority,” noted a historian of the parallel world. “It was a creature of the state governments and thus, ultimately, of the electorate of the states.”
After early ratification by five state conventions (Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut) in 1787, the constitution was looking like a nationalist slam dunk. Until the Massachusetts convention, that is. The radicals rallied against the conservatives.
The Massachusetts radicals were the same people who had fought against the coercive intrusions of the British government, and they fought the constitution on the same grounds, fearing it would create a similar bullying government.
The Massachusetts conservatives won ratification by a mere nineteen votes. But they were first made to permit suggested amendments, intended to preserve as much power to the states and to individuals as possible. Without that concession—and the nationalists were reluctant to give even that much—the Massachusetts convention might have rejected the constitution.
Spirited radical opposition in Massachusetts stirred radicals elsewhere. Rhode Island submitted the constitution to a state referendum, where it was defeated decisively: 2708 against, only 237 in favor.
Following adoption by Maryland and South Carolina, ratification was next defeated in New Hampshire. The narrow vote (57 against, 47 for) nonetheless prevented it from becoming the ninth state needed to bring the Constitution into effect.
The loss of Virginia in June, 1788, and in New York a month later ultimately scuttled the nationalist constitution.
In Virginia, Patrick Henry had his say against the Constitution and then remained uncharacteristically quiet. He instead worked privately with other delegates to secure its defeat. Instead of popping up at every opportunity to hear his own voice, his restraint possibly saved the radical cause; he could be so irritating. Still, the result was slender: 89 against, 79 for ratification.
Learning from the Virginia failure, New York Federalists sensed coming defeat. They were right. Three expected Federalist votes shifted to the “no” column and ratification lost, thirty against, twenty-seven for. The New York anti-Federalist argument was simple: There can be no union of only nine states.
The North Carolina convention saw little reason to proceed. It assembled July 21 and upon notice of New York’s action, adjourned August 4, having never voted.
So the Constitution was defeated. To quote the earlier historian,
[Radical] distrust of centralization, of government spread over a large area, was the product of both political theory and practical experience. The rise of radicalism [anti-Federalism] had been checked often enough [by conservatives] to teach the radicals that central governments, however democratic in form, were fundamentally undemocratic in action.
And then what happened? The parallel United States, in Congress assembled, continued on, noticeably different from our present timeline:
• No one became an “officer holder.” The president of the United States, assembled in Congress, could serve only one year in three and no state delegate to Congress could serve more than three years in six.
• The “executive power” of the Congress devolved to departmental secretaries, who attended sessions and could be openly questioned. A “committee of states,” one member from each state, acted for Congress when it was in recess.
• Erroneously advised that his attendance at the constitutional convention would ensure adoption, George Washington ended up staying at Mt. Vernon. He slowly realized that holding slaves was a financial disaster. He never sold a slave and never separated families; soon he had more dependent slaves than active workers. Upon his death in 1799, his will granted freedom to the slaves he owned.
• Washington’s example was a lesson not lost on other prominent slave owners. Enough of them followed suit to lead the states themselves, one by one, north and south, to choose emancipation.
• State representation in Congress remained “one state, one vote.” The southern states never gained the inordinate legislative clout embedded in the defeated constitution. It provided that three-fifths of the slave population could be counted for representation in congress and the electoral college. Without that incentive, slavery held no political advantage for the southern states and contributed to its ultimate demise.
• The Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and adopted by Congress, prohibited slavery within the territory. The slave-holding states made no protest. It hardly mattered since there was no gain in expanding slavery, economically or politically. The Ordinance eventually added five states and part of another to the confederated union, each admitted on an equal footing, creating a template for future states.
• State land claims ceded to the Congress, along with land acquired by treaty at the end of the Revolutionary War, became the financial engine of the United States. Land sales soared and enabled the Congress to pay off the national debt, and funded it well for many years thereafter. Later revenue sources were agreed to by the states.
The anti-Federalist cause in the parallel world narrowly held out against the Federalists, but it did hold out. Their victory meant that the central government of the Confederation remained subordinated to and dependent upon the member states that made it.
The fun of exploring alternative history isn’t seeing history as it was, but as it should have been.
When not visiting alternative timelines, Russell E. Saltzman lives in Kansas City, Missouri.