* We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution
By George William Van Cleve
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Pp. xix, 390. $30 hardback.
The end of the Revolutionary War brought the United States independence, but it also ushered in a series of trials and difficulties that the Confederation government struggled to address. Debt, an economic depression, belligerent European powers, restrictions on commerce, and sectional rivalries combined in making the mid1780s perhaps the most challenging peacetime years in our country's history. In We Have Not a Government, the Seattle University School of Law professor George William Van Cleve examines these turbulent years, celebrates the demise of the Articles of Confederation, and laments the confederal features that remain in our Constitution.
Van Cleve first turns to the issue of debt and taxation. Historians estimate that the war cost the Confederation and state governments 165 million [pounds sterling] or in today's dollars $21.6 billion. America gained freedom but risked drowning in fiat money, bonds, and loans. The Confederation government had no independent power of taxation and depended on requisitions from the states. Van Cleve acknowledges that it was a financial burden for the states to comply with Congress's requests for funds, but he ultimately concludes that it was really selfishness on the states' part, not the economic depression that followed the devastating war, that led to low levels of compliance: "[T]he evidence suggests that although the depressed economy played a role, Americans' strong desire to pay as little in taxes as possible" was the real problem (p. 77).
On multiple occasions, Congress asked the states to grant it the power to levy a tax on imported goods. It came close to success but was blocked by Rhode Island in one instance and by New York in another. Unfortunately, the articles required unanimity for such an alteration. This unanimity requirement killed the impost and impaired other possible reform efforts that could have led to reformation, rather than rejection, of the confederal system.
Van Cleve also recounts how Congress struggled to persuade the "defeated" British troops to leave fortifications in the western country. The Treaty of Paris prohibited government impediments to creditors seeking to recover debts. Despite clear treaty provisions, state legislation targeted British merchants and effectively...