Fears of Disunion

Fears of Disunion
Fears of Disunion
The 1780s seemed to many to be a truly critical period for the newly independent United States. By 1787 proposals for disunion had circulated throughout the states, and suspicions of disunionist conspiracy gripped the nation. Between 1781 and 1788, when the country functioned under the Articles of Confederation, economic dislocation and diplomatic difficulties converged to threaten the survival of the fledgling nation.

Domestic political stalemate rendered Congress unable to take corrective measures. The thirteen states simply could not agree on a course of action. As the decade progressed, the states divided into regional factions, and fears grew that the country would break apart into regional political entities.

Regional Factionalism

The American regions had always perceived differences among themselves. Virginians and Massachusetts Puritans were already trading insults by the 1650s, and throughout the colonial period people stressed the forces of climate, geography, economy, religion, manners, and customs that bound them together within each region but differentiated them from their extraregional neighbors. New England, the South, the Mid-Atlantic, and the western frontier all brought different, and often opposing, needs and expectations to the confederation government.

By 1787 it seemed to many that such differences simply could not be resolved, that one government could not serve the needs of all. Despite increasing similarities of all regions over the eighteenth century, opposing regional interests and identities had fully crystallized by the time of independence, and people from different regions began to see each other as enemies.

Flare-ups of regional tension occurred throughout the decade. Alexander Hamilton noted in 1781 that support for the war tended to be regional in correspondence to the area under duress by British forces at any given time. Early in 1783, as Congress debated the perpetual problem of revenue, accusations flew that certain states were benefiting at the expense of others.

Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts warned that states with common interests were seeking their own confederation because of the impasse. James Madison of Virginia clearly understood that Gorham was talking about regional divisions, for he worried to his fellow Virginian Edmund Randolph that such an occurrence would make the southern states easy prey for New England.

Regional hostility exploded in 1786 over diplomatic negotiations with Spain. Southerners insisted that Spain grant the United States navigation rights to the Mississippi River, while New Englanders sought commercial privileges with the European nation.

When Spain offered a commercial treaty at the expense of navigation rights, New Englanders favored the arrangement, while southerners believed that New England was literally trying to sell them down the river. For their part, when the South blocked passage of the proposed treaty, New Englanders fumed that the South meant to strangle their commercial lifeline.

Fears of Disunionist Conspiracy

The idea that separate governments might better serve the American regions received increasing attention in New England during the confederation period. At first used as a warning in an attempt to garner interregional cooperation, some New Englanders seriously contemplated the benefits of separate governments based on regional affiliation. They pointed to the opposing interests of the regions and the resulting political stalemate.

New England alone, however, could pursue its own interests without southern interference. Following up on Gorham’s 1783 remark in Congress, Massachusetts politicians wrote among themselves in 1785 about the possibilities of regional confederations within the Articles government. During the diplomatic crisis of 1786, their tone became more serious as the concerned leaders began to contemplate outright disunion in their correspondence.

Such contemplation inflamed the fears of those who perceived a disunionist conspiracy. During the heated debate over diplomacy in 1786 James Monroe of Virginia began a letter campaign to warn fellow Virginians of intrigue. Men in Massachusetts were scheming, he proclaimed. Plans were underfoot to break up the United States into regional governments.

Should circumstances progress far enough, he asserted, it would be necessary for the South to go to war with New England over Philadelphia, a commercial center the South badly needed. Monroe was not alone in his fears. The respected Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush wrote to an English correspondent that autumn of specific plans to divide the union into three confederacies, Eastern, Middle, and Southern.

In late 1786 and early 1787, political leaders from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia worried among themselves about the prospect of disunion and competing regional governments, and David Humphries of Connecticut shared similar concerns with George Washington.

Even foreign observers noted the possibility. As early as 1784 Richard Champion, a British writer, predicted that the United States would break up into three distinct republics, and advocated a foreign policy based on the prospect.

Regarding the regional stalemate over Spanish diplomacy in 1786, the French minister to the United States wrote his government that the South and New England were engaged in a power struggle. He suggested that navigation of the Mississippi River provided only the occasion, not the cause, of the regional hostility and disunionist schemes.

Providing further fodder for conspiracy theories of disunion, concrete proposals for breaking up the United States into several governments circulated in the spring of 1787 in the newspapers of all states. The articles asserted that the regional divisions of climate and geography could never be overcome by positive law, and therefore the regions should form separate political entities.

Specifically directed to the upcoming Philadelphia Convention, one recommended that the convention consider regional governments, rather than revising or replacing the Articles of Confederation. In Philadelphia, the delegates did not consider disunion, but made continual reference to the possibility as the undesirable alternative.

At the Philadelphia Convention, the idea of disunionist conspiracy provided a bogeyman to attack. Perceptions of conspiracy fears also shaped the ratification debates. Federalists asserted that failure to ratify the new Constitution would result in disunion, new regional power structures, and interregional competition and warfare.

Thus Anti-Federalists, Federalists claimed, supported disunion because they argued against ratification. Anti-Federalists protested their innocence, but fears of disunion lay deep enough for Federalists to continue to use the issue, and they often focused their arguments more on the evils of disunion than the virtues of the proposed Constitution.

The accusations of disunionist conspiracy subsided with ratification, but continued to surface throughout the early years of the Republic, most notably in the turmoil occasioned by the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, the Hartford Convention of 1814, the nullification crisis of 1832, and in the decade preceding the Civil War.