Why the Omission? Exploring the Articles of Confederation in Early Histories of the Revolution

I’ve been digging into the earliest histories of the American Revolution. Specifically David Ramsay’s The History of the American Revolution in Two Volumes (1789) and Mercy Otis Warren’s The Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (1805).

Ramsay’s history contains 667 pages, Warren’s history 700 pages.[1] In all of those pages, Ramsay devotes almost two pages to the Articles of Confederation, Warren a single, short paragraph.[2]

What does it mean that the first historians of the American Revolution–a man and woman who lived through and experienced the event–devoted so little time and space to the United States’ first constitution?

In fairness to Ramsay, he does summarize why the Second Continental Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation: “the act of independence did not hold out to the world thirteen sovereign states, but a common sovereignty of the whole in their united capacity. It therefore became necessary to run the line of distinction, between the local legislatures, and the assembly of the states in Congress.” (332) He also reflects on the powers granted to the “assembly of states in Congress” by the Articles of Confederation.

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Notes from the Field: Sint Eustatius, the “Golden Rock,” Part 2

Known as the “Golden Rock,” Sint Eustatius supplied the slave and free trade needs of the 18th-century Atlantic World.

Part one of this three-part series offered an overview of the history of Sint Eustatius. This post discusses my visit to the island.

Visiting Sint Eustatius

Tim and I traveled to Statia to explore its history, scuba dive in its reefs, and to relax. Like most tourists, we stayed in Lower Town in one of the two hotels on the beach (there are only two hotels on Statia) and climbed the steep Bay Path when we wanted to visit Upper Town.

Not much remains of Lower Town. At the height of Statia’s “golden years,” approximately 600 warehouses lined the shoreline to greet and trade with ships. Today, the Statian shoreline is mostly beach. A few modern buildings and a few restored warehouses now used as hotels and shops stand interspersed among the partial stone remains of many warehouses.

 

View from Fort Oranje. Note stone ruins along beach, in the 18th-century those ruins would have been the foundations of stone warehouses.

Scattered stone warehouse ruins along Gallows Bay shoreline

 

Upper Town also has many ruins of buildings that once stood in the 18th and 19th centuries. Fort Oranje anchors the town and from it spreads a core of historic houses and government buildings and a newer modern town. The historic buildings all share common features. Ground floors are constructed with either brick or native volcanic stones and upper floors with wood. Many who occupy historic buildings still use kitchens and ovens constructed by the Dutch during the 18th century.

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Notes from the Field: Sint Eustatius, the “Golden Rock,” Part 1

Reading about the history of vast early America is great. But every so often I find it necessary to go out into the field and see the places I read about. This is, in part, how I came to spend last week in Sint Eustatius, the “Golden Rock” of the 18th-century Atlantic World.

This post begins a three-post series about Sint Eustatius, its history, and my visit to the island.

 

Historic Overview of Sint Eustatius

A small, volcanic island in the Lesser Antilles, Sint Eustatius (also known as Statia) stands in between the islands of Saba and Saint Kitts. Archaeological evidence suggests native peoples lived on Statia prior to the 17th century. However, when the French attempted to settle the island in 1629, they no longer lived on Statia.[1]

French settlement of Statia lasted only a few years. The French feared Spanish attacks and they discovered that Statia lacks a natural source of water.

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Must…Avoid…Research Rabbit Hole…Or, Were the Articles of Confederation a Failure?

Were the Articles of Confederation a success or failure?

I finished reading Merrill Jensen’s The Articles of Confederation (1940). It’s the first book I’ve read for my new book project about the Articles of Confederation and it’s the last book historians have written specifically about the Articles and how the Continental Congress drafted them.

Jensen spends most of his conclusion discussing whether or not we can view the first constitution of the United States as a success or failure. He states that “the fact that the Articles of Confederation were supplanted by another Constitution is no proof either of their success or their failure. Any valid opinion as to the merits of the Articles must be based on a detailed and unbiased study of the confederation period.”[1] I agree.

The only way to assess the success or failure of the United States’ first constitution is to study them in action. And this bring us to the point of Jensen’s book: Jensen intended for The Articles of Confederation to establish the context and knowledge he needed readers to have so they could best understand the book he wanted to write, The New Nation: A History of the United States During the Confederation, 1781-1789 (1950).

Jensen’s question and point are interesting, but are they the question and point I want to answer and make in my study of the Articles?

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Sounds of History: What Did Early America Sound Like?

What did early America sound like?

boston-harbor

A view of part of the town of Boston in New-England, Paul Revere, 1770. Courtesy of Norman P. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library

This recurring thought has recently moved from the back of my brain to its front.

I’m fortunate to live in Boston, a city that attempts to preserve vestiges of its early American past even as it builds around them. Living in a place with many visual reminders of the 18th and 19th centuries provides ample reminders to pause and listen for early America.

In recent weeks it has become typical to find me standing at the corner of State and Congress Streets, for example, staring down State Street at the Long Wharf, tuning out the cars in the foreground, and trying to imagine what it sounded like when ships pulled into and out of port and dockworkers loaded and unloaded cargo holds. Or standing on a lawn on the Common trying to imagine the sounds the British military encampments made in 1768 and during the 1770s.

I’ve even started pacing the sidewalks in my neighborhood in areas where the sidewalk transitions from granite cobblestones to brick pavers. I’m wearing modern shoes, but the sounds my shoes make as they make contact with these different materials sounds different. What would it sound like if I wore period shoes?

Sound shapes our world, mostly in unconscious ways. It drives our experiences in part by establishing context and setting expectations.

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