American Legal History
Unification and/or the "Free and Independent States"

The Declaration of Independence (ostensibly a document declaring the separation of a singular people from a sovereign state) asserts “that these United colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states.” It then proceeds to bestow on these colonies the powers and privileges of sovereign states. The strength of the sentiment these words carry is matched only by their apparent impracticality. Surely, Jefferson was aware that anything but colonial unification would likely have ended in renewed imperial rule (English or otherwise) even if the revolution were to succeed. The incongruity (often referred to as ambiguity) in Jefferson’s congressionally approved words seems difficult to overlook. It certainly makes me scratch my head as to what to make of post-Declaration colonial unification when the contemporary state of it even Jefferson couldn’t clearly articulate. Below are some of my thoughts, none of which are conclusory. It is little more than an exercise in proffering the evidence we have already seen that might tend to establish to what exent the Colonies were unified at the time of the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

Garry Wills, as we have seen, discusses the Declaration against the presumptive backdrop of inter-colonial isolation. He assumes that where colonial interrelation exists it is the result of the Empire’s will, acquiescence, or facilitation. We have, however, already encountered secondary texts that belie Wills’s supposition. Both Edmund Morgan and Professor Moglen talk of inter-colonial trade practices. Morgan, in the “Toward Slavery” chapter of American Slavery, American Freedom calls attention to the slave trade “interlopers” working out of New England and New York and delivering slaves to Virginia via the James River, and in "Commercial Law in War and Peace," Professor Moglen notes the difficulties the Empire had regulating trade between New York, the other colonies, the Caribbean, and the native population, even post-1691. Beyond trade contact, we have also seen evidence of a shared political and moral identity within the colonies. While Morgan, in Inventing the People, seems to suggest that the success of popular sovereignty in the early American political system was inorganic – which would suggest nothing more than the fiction of colonial unification – it could equally be said that the opposite proposition inheres in Morgan’s argument: that the very possibility that popular sovereignty could be applied across the Colonies and wrangled from amongst colonists from New England to Virginia presupposes at least some surface-level unification.

On the other hand, much of the primary evidence we have met has felt claustrophobically local. This feeling extends to the Virginia and Pennsylvania Constitutions of 1776. Beyond simply declaring rights on behalf of their citizens, the documents imbue their respective states with total sovereignty within their borders, presumably as a targeted prophylactic measure to ward off future control by a centralized authority. Revisiting the notion that a centralized authority (and some amount of unification) was undoubtedly understood to be required to separate (and remain apart) from imperial control, what then did the drafters of the state constitutions have in mind for the central government? Surely, a unified state with a toothless centralized authority would not be able to successfully protect the declared rights of the many “independent” and “sovereign” in moments of internal discord. What control would the central government have over new territories to the west, beyond the mountains?

What I’ve set out above is informal and largely incomplete. I would welcome any thoughts on how to reconcile this ambiguity surrounding the actual unification of the Colonies at the time of the drafting of the Declaration.

You have framed a question about the complex history of the 1780s from your interpretation of secondary and primary sources that discuss or represent events from the 1640s to the 1770s. The first step would be to "zoom in" on the period you are actually trying to learn about. So you should first gain a synoptic view of that time by consulting secondary works specific to the period and the question, from which you can then follow references, to both more specialized secondary and primary sources. A good place to start would be Richard M. Morris, The Forging of the Union, 1781-1789 (1987).

-- BenjaminMarcu - 07 Oct 2016



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r3 - 10 Oct 2016 - 14:03:46 - EbenMoglen
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