A Groundhog’s State of the Union
The U.S. Constitution of 1787 permits the President “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The current Presidential assessment of the “State of Union,” with U.S. military and economic resources vastly stretched, surely will suggest bold legislative measures that will challenge even the most seasoned Congressional Delegations. Why then would President George W. Bush choose February 2nd, Groundhog Day, to deliver such a pivotal address?
Perhaps President Bush knows that Punxsutawney Phil’s first trek to Gobbler's Knob on February 2nd, 1887 shadows a more significant date in U. S. History, February 2nd, 1787. On this fateful Friday, 218 years ago, another President was elected and presided over the most important legislative session in American History despite only serving a 9 month term in office. His election on February 2nd marked the beginning of the old Presidency’s end and the dawn of a new constitution that has governed the United States of America into the 21st Century. To understand the significance of this date and bask in its luminosity, we must revisit one of the darkest years in U. S. history.
In 1786, ten years after the Declaration of Independence, five years after victory in Yorktown and two years after the Peace Treaty ratification with Great Britain, the United States government was about to collapse upon its disintegrating Confederation Foundation. Deficiency in the funding of the federal government due to the Revolutionary War debt and a poorly written constitution had plagued the United States Confederation Government to virtual extinction. The unsettled economic conditions were manifested in the people's distrust of socially prominent politicians. The confederation laws passed by the "Carriage Class" were perceived as being grossly unfair to farmers and working people throughout a nation. Hundreds of letters and petitions poured into New York complaining about excessive taxes on property, polling taxes that prevented less fortunate citizens from voting, unjust rulings by the common plea courts, the soaring costs of lawsuits, and the lack of a stable currency all landing on then President Nathaniel Gorham’s desk. The first constitution that formed the United States in Congress Assembled, a Federal Government consisting of only a single branch, was called the Articles of Confederation. The first constitution’s “Perpetual Union” was, for all intents and purposes, a dismal failure by its 5th birthday.
The State governments were also insolvent constantly wrangling over border disputes as public land sales posed the only reasonable opportunity to raise capital in the debt ridden economy. As coincidence would have it, nowhere was this anger more conspicuous than in President Gorham's home state of Massachusetts. To comprehend the seriousness of post Revolutionary War U. S. finances, one only has to examine the public debt of Massachusetts in 1786.
In 1775 the Massachusetts Colonial debt amounted to approximately 100,000 pounds for 240,000 people who rebelled over British tax schemes levied to pay off the French and Indian war obligations. By 1786, only 11 years later, the people of “No Taxation Without Representation's” private debt amounted to over 1.3 million pounds plus 250,000 pounds due to the officers and soldiers of the Massachusetts State militia. Additionally the citizens’ proportion of the federal debt was estimated in 1786 to be at 1.5 million pounds. The Massachusetts population, meanwhile, had only increased to 270,000 people. Consequently the debt per citizen had ballooned from .42 pounds in 1775 to 11.30 pounds in 1786, a 270% increase! The American Dollar Currency wasn’t worth a Continental let alone a shilling. The time was ripe, especially with John Hancock failing to take office as the 8th Confederation U.S. President in 1786, for a national uprising.
Rebellion wasn’t anything new to the Confederation which actually assembled in New York because it was forced to flee Philadelphia in 1783 after its own military held the government hostage in Independence Hall. On this fateful June day, U.S. President Elias Boudinot and the Pennsylvania Supreme Council jointly called out the Pennsylvania Militia to free Congress from mutineers but only a lone General heeded their summons. It was Arthur St. Clair, in Philadelphia conducting other business, who confronted the military insurgents and reported their demands to be paid, fed and clothed to Congress. The General recommended a no negotiation policy. Congress agreed and they along with President Boudinot were eventually permitted to leave Independence Hall amidst a military line of threatening and jeering soldiers. The Confederation Government then fled to Princeton, New Jersey. Never again would the United States in Congress Assembled return to Philadelphia.
Now three years later, a more serious mutiny gripped the nation. Massachusetts was clenched in a rebellion so monumental that the United States in Congress Assembled was forced to table talks on revising the ailing Articles of Confederation. On October 21st, 1786 the federal government finally passed a resolution to militarily crush the rebellion but the appropriation was skillfully mislabeled as "Indian defense." The legislative strategy was to mask the seriousness of situation in hopes of playing down the severity of Shays’ Rebellion.
Despite the October resolutions, the 6th United States in Congress Assembled was unable to raise the money for the troops to protect the citizens of Massachusetts. This, many members believed, was a good omen as the major part of the debate centered around fielding a formidable Army that could not be paid after they ended the rebellion. The Congress also faltered on enacting legislation to call for a Philadelphia Convention to revise the Articles of Confederation as recommended by the Delegates from Annapolis Summit.
In November, the 7th United States in Congress Assembled was unable to act on the National State of Emergency failing to achieve a quorum. President Gorham’s term expired on November 13th. A United States in Congress Assembled quorum was also not convened in December ending 1786 with the Confederation administration financially insolvent, the leading revolutionary state of Massachusetts in rebellion and no duly elected President to direct the affairs of its unicameral federal government.
The Confederation Government, even with the advent of a New Year, failed to achieve a quorum all throughout January. Finally in February, one hundred years to the day before the first Groundhog Celebration, the United States Confederation Congress reconvened. The Delegates promptly turned to the duty of selecting a President of the United States in Congress Assembled amidst an unprecedented peacetime financial, military and constitutional crisis. On February 2nd, 1787 the Delegates elected George Washington’s friend and fellow Revolutionary War General, Arthur St. Clair, the 9th President of United States in Congress Assembled.
The first item President St. Clair brought before the collapsing congress was the September 1786 recommendations of the Annapolis Proceedings of Commissioners to “Remedy Defects of the Federal Government:”
" … use their endeavors to procure the concurrence of the other States, in the appointment of Commissioners, to meet at Philadelphia on the second Monday in May next, to take into consideration the situation of the United States, to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union; and to report such an Act for that purpose to the United States in Congress assembled, as when agreed to, by them, and afterwards confirmed by the Legislatures of every State, will effectually provide for the same…"
President St. Clair and Congress quickly enacted the proposed legislation to convene a Convention that would be chaired by George Washington and produce the U.S. Constitution of 1787. This Constitution would go on to establish the current U.S. Presidency and the yearly precedent of a State of the Union Address that has echoed in the halls of Congress for 215 years.
While the 1787 Constitutional Convention was in session President St. Clair and his Congress decided to dust off Thomas Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance that was the blueprint legislation for U.S. national expansion into the West. This ordinance had failed enactment for nearly three years. The lack of a body of laws to govern the vast territory north and west of the Ohio River ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Paris stifled westward expansion and the ability of the Confederation Government to sell federal lands to settlers and retire the Revolutionary War debt. It was a combination of the dire need for federal money and President St. Clair's leadership that the Confederation Congress, on July 13, 1787, passed one of the most far reaching acts in American history, the Northwest Ordinance.
The world was now put on notice that the land north and west of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi would be settled and utilized for the creation of "… not less than three nor more than five territories." Additionally, this plan for governing the Northwest Territory included freedom of religion, right to trial by jury, the banishment of slavery, and public education as asserted rights granted to the people in the new territory. This ordinance was and still remains one of the most important laws ever enacted by the government of the United States.
The Northwest Ordinance was herald by Daniel Webster many years later,
"We are accustomed to praise lawgivers of antiquity ... but I doubt whether one single law of any lawgiver, ancient or modern, has produced the effects of more distinct, marked, and lasting character than the Ordinance of 1787."
The current U.S. Constitution, without the amendments, arrived in New York on September 20th, 1787. Its destiny was subject to the debate and vote of the United States in Congress Assembled, the very body the new constitution sought to disassemble. The great deliberation that ensued is forever lost due to the veil of secrecy that surrounded the Confederation Congress in those formative years. We do know however that Washington’s trusted friend, Arthur St. Clair, presided over the debate. In less then eight days Congress passed the legislation to send the Constitution to each state for ratification. The United States in Congress Assembled after eight days of deliberation chose not to change even one word of the text.
The Journals of the United States in Congress Assembled reported on September 28, 1787:
Congress having received the report of the Convention lately assembled in Philadelphia Resolved Unanimously that the said Report with the resolutions and letter accompanying the same be transmitted to the several legislatures in Order to be submitted to a convention of Delegates chosen in each state by the people thereof in conformity to the resolves of the Convention made and provided in that case.
Unlike the Articles of Confederation this constitution required the assent of only 2/3rd’s of the States to ratify a new form of federal government.
February 2nd, 1787 resulted in the election of a President who, in less than one year, presided over the United States Confederation Government that passed the Northwest Ordinance and enacted legislation convening the Constitutional Convention, accepting their recommendations and transmitting the most important body of laws in U.S. History for ratification.
Paradoxically, 100 years later, Western Pennsylvanians would not adopt this date as one of respect for the achievements of this Keystone Presidency. Instead in 1887 they would march a groundhog up a hill, spin a tale of shadow and lore only to obliterate the Presidential legacy of their most important Western Pennsylvania citizen, Arthur St. Clair. A twist of fate that could only happen, with no malice, in America.
Perhaps President Bush knows February 2nd is not a day of just Groundhogs and shadows. Perhaps President Bush knows February 2nd 1787 was the day our nation turned to Arthur St. Clair and elected him President of the United States to save the crumbling confederation. Perhaps President Bush wisely seeks, by the selection of this day, an 18th Century rhetorical frame that will cause scholarly reflection.
If not, perhaps the media outlets will seize upon the significance of this date and eloquently report this 218 year story to their audience. After all, it took the United States of America thirteen years to establish a constitution capable of governing its people. This story, if properly told and circulated, might just provide the People of the United States with the wisdom and a renewed patience to support Iraq and Afghanistan’s painstaking struggle for freedom.
In either case, February 2nd, 2005 was a superb Presidential choice to address “We the People” and report on the State of the “Perpetual Union” of the United States. If you agree please pass this essay on to others.
I remain your most obedient and humble servant,
Stanley L. Klos
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