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So from the quick rush through the lives of the Presidents ICA I have posted earlier we can see that these are not intermarried to each other in the way we see the early post constitutional Presidents are, and indeed their origins are wider and more varied then we see again.  Indeed after St Clair no other President was found to have been born on foreign soil.  St Clair’s example was perhaps not much to encourage them to look there in the future .  The question of whether Chester Arthur was born in Canada or not can be discussed later.   

Indeed they show considerable variation.  We see one the grandson of French immigrants, and others who were of a diverse background.  One just walked in as an immigrant and rose to President.   Far from being a small closed interrelated elite they show greater breadth and spread of origin then we shall ever see again.

These Presidents of the Confederation were all important men.  If the standard explanation is right we should expect to find continuation of their families in the Senate, or the House of Representatives.  Reference should appear in articles on these Presidents, or generally on their politically important families.  For most we find nothing.  They vanish from the scene and are expunged from the collective memory of their country and their historians[i].  Whatever happens after their time has effectively wiped the slate.  A new dispensation prevails.  Politically it has become a tabula rasa: a world scoured clean.

So what happened? And why did things change?

Since the conclusion of the war with Britain some years previously the States had fallen to squabbling amongst each other.  Connecticut claimed almost one third of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania disputed its common border with Virginia and was so worried about the ambitions of New York state imposing tariffs that she insisted on her own access to the Great Lakes.  New York wanted bits of Rhode Island and plucky little Vermont kept threatening to leave the Union altogether. 

Debts remained uncollected.  Property was being threatened.  There was the ever present aristocrat’s nightmare of mob rule and the established families felt they were in danger of losing control.  In their quarrel with George III these big families, to further their own selfish interests had seen fit to encourage the revolutionaries and worse the lower classes in their assault on the mother country with the inevitable consequence of a rejection of all lawful authority and the refusal of the people to pay taxes or settle debts.  All this resulted in a collapsing currency and a large flock of chickens coming home to roost.  Clearly something needed to be done.  The Articles of Confederation were failing and what was needed was a Constitution and firm central government. 

Washington was moved to act in this.  Since the war he had carefully nurtured the image of a modest selfless hero, poor but grand.  A Cincinnatus figure returned from the wars for his nation to plough the fields of his farm, removed from the hurley-burley of the political stage.  One has though that sneaking feeling that he had not been much sought after.  None of Congress had exactly beaten a path to his door to drag him off to be one of the Presidents in Congress Assembled.  He loved his estates at Mount Vernon but they had bad soil and poor crops and he never used enough fertiliser.  Indeed the property was not efficient, was beginning to run to seed and had started to deteriorate and need repair. 

It is one of the interesting little asides of American history that the estates of the early Presidents: Mount Vernon, Monticello et al were in their day far more tired, run down, and downright dilapidated then they appear to us today.  Their modern conservators have lovingly put them back together, cleaning, repainting, imaginatively restoring them to a state and manner they never had in life but which they feel the houses should deserve; being the homes of the illustrious fathers of their country rather than as they really were.

Seeing the Confederation was too weak to raise the money needed to pay the nation’s debts Washington wrote gloomily of its status that “we are no more than a rope of sand and shall be as easily broken”.  The outcome was never clear to those who sweated over how to overcome the inadequacies of the Articles.  Jefferson with his pursuit of happiness for all but slaves and other human fractions[ii] wrote of the need to revise and amend “but” he worried “what may be the consequences of such an attempt is doubtful yet something must be done or the fabric must fall, for it certainly is tottering”.  Of all the states Virginia saw it must take the lead.  Since its leaders were already an oligarchy they were more organised and coordinated and able to move faster than other interest groups and so they requested a meeting of representatives of the thirteen states at Annapolis capital of Maryland in September 1786 to report on the trade and commerce of the United States and nothing more.  This was to be billed simply as an economic summit.  However nothing daunted Alexander Hamilton from New York State arrived with a draft constitution.  But only five delegates had turned up and the matter was never quorate.  Hamilton allied himself with Madison of Virginia for their mutual plans for a strong federal government and a second assembly was set for May 1787.

Between the first, and the second of these assemblies matters moved quickly and the worst occurred.  There was outright rebellion in the form of Shay’s revolution……

to be continued 


[i] In Stanley Weintraub’s Iron tears: Rebellion in America 1775-1783  Simon & Shuster London, this Pennsylvania State University professor lists only Hancock in his index and there more as a signer of the Declaration that as a President ICA.

[ii] At the time that the Electoral College was being established the weighting of votes was dependent on the numbers of people in each state.  The Southern slave States’ populations were swollen with the black slaves they had, and in an effort to reduce this number and thereby reducing the Southern States influence there was a contrivance put forward by the North whereby the slave’s value as a number on the census was reducible.  The compromise agreed was why slaves were counted as only a fraction of their whole.  The black slave had no vote in any event.

Copyright David Macadam 2010

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