Disunion Among Ourselves: The Perilous Politics of the American Revolution


June 26, 2023
by John Gilbert McCurdy Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: Disunion Among Ourselves: The Perilous Politics of the American Revolution by Eli Merritt (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2023)

In many ways, the history of the United States is one of union and disunion. From the Civil War to rumors of secession in the present, it has long been an open question of whether America would be one nation or many. Eli Merritt’s Disunion Among Ourselves takes a deep dive into the origins of this ongoing drama, documenting “the centrifugal force of disunion” that the founders faced and how they overcame it (page 3). Merritt argues that the men who sat in Congress between 1774 and 1783 were constantly preoccupied by fears that the states would descend into conflict over borders and resources that would shatter the Union. As a result, “the American Union was an unwelcome alliance formed by bitterly conflictual colonies”; in other words, the creation of the United States was “a shotgun wedding” (p. 3).

Merritt’s story begins with the First Continental Congress. Meeting to decide on a response to the Coercive Acts, the delegates found themselves enmeshed with questions of how to work together. Sectional divisions surfaced quickly, with Southerners fearing that New Englanders would try to force Puritanism on them. Amid such suspicions, the delegates could agree on little, including whether representation should be based on population (and if so, if the enslaved should be counted) or by colony. Accordingly, when Pennsylvanian Joseph Galloway proposed a constitution to permanently bind the colonies, the plan was indefinitely tabled while the delegates fought over what to exclude from the proposed embargo on exports.

The intransigence of Virginia plays a large role in Merritt’s narrative. Shortly before arriving for the first Congress, John Adams determined “to place Virginia at the head of everything” (p. 31). Understanding that he and other New Englanders were viewed as “obstinate, hot-headed zealots,” Adams deferred to the largest colony (p. 32). The first president of Congress, commander in chief, and author of the Declaration of Independence were all Virginians because Adams knew that this would bind the Southern colonies to the cause of New England. Yet such deference also emboldened Virginia to make intemperate claims that nearly doomed the Union. Virginia demanded that tobacco exports be omitted from the embargo, and it refused to surrender its expansive western land claims that included everything north of the Ohio River.

The commencement of hostilities at Lexington and Concord pushed the members of the Second Continental Congress to reconsider a permanent association. They entertained the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union authored by Benjamin Franklin, but there was still too much distrust among the representatives. Thomas Jefferson spoke for many when he concluded that the colonies must unite for defense, but “to preserve a military Union, a constitutional Union must wait” (p. 97). For this reason, Congress limited itself to what it could accomplish without incurring division. “Not a single delegate in Congress thought it prudent or preferable that the thirteen colonies should declare independence firstand only afterward bind themselves into a constitutional Union,” but, Merritt observes, “they had no choice” (p. 114). It was only by careful maneuvering — which Merritt labels “subterfuge” — that the thirteen states unanimously declared independence (p. 136).

In the summer of 1776, Congress took up the Articles of Confederation, initiating a five-year-long process of debating and ratifying the nation’s first constitution. Merritt offers a nuanced and insightful account of this troubled document. Sectional divisions emerged immediately when the initial draft required taxes to be laid proportionally by population, but that limited representation in Congress to one vote per state. Fears of a tyrannical Congress also caused North Carolina representative Thomas Burke to make the case for states’ rights, and he “called for a single state nullification power, one affirming a state’s authority to override any act of Congress that contravened its interests” (p. 187). These divisions delayed ratification of the Articles of Confederation until 1778, and unanimous approval until 1781.

Disunion Among Ourselves spends considerable time documenting the divisions caused by western land claims and border disputes. Soon after it declared independence, Virginia insisted on border set out in its 1609 charter and opened a land office to sell property in Trans-Appalachia. Other states also claimed western lands, but one by one they surrendered these claims, hoping that the United States collectively might enrich its treasury through their sale. Virginia, however, would not join the others, and this stubbornness caused Maryland to refuse to ratify the Articles of Confederation. Indeed, it was not until 1781 when a British army invaded Virginia that the Old Dominion finally released its western claims. “Afraid and humbled,” Merritt writes, Virginia changed its tune in a hope that it might “save the United States — and itself” as well as cause the Continental Army to rescue it (p. 277).

The delicate diplomacy required to bring France and Spain into the Revolutionary War also sparked sectional divisions. New England insisted that any peace protect Americans’ fishing rights at Newfoundland, while the Southern states demanded access to the Mississippi River and adjacent lands. Ultimately, unity was forged with the “Mississippi-Fisheries Compromise — or the Compromise of 1779” by which Congress insisted that both sections’ demands be honored in any negotiations with Britain or America’s allies (p. 233).

Yet a bargain struck in Congress was only the first step. Spain was highly suspicious of the new nation and worked to hinder American expansionism. Spanish diplomats like Juan de Miralles y Trajan repeatedly rebuffed claims to the Mississippi, and the French diplomats agreed. Nevertheless, Congressional delegates and American ambassadors stood firm in their insistence on access to the great river because they feared that abandoning a principal Southern objective would threaten the Union. As the war dragged on, however, even some Southerners abandoned this demand. In late 1780, after the southernmost states had fallen to the British, two Georgia representatives “arrived to raise the white flag on the long-contested river” (p. 269). They proposed conceding the Mississippi and a strip of land along its eastern banks to Spain in exchange for money to fight the British. Fortunately, the fortunes of the Continental Army improved before Congress approved the plan.

George Washington’s victory over Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown “should have been a time of relief and renewed confidence in the United States,” Merritt observes, but instead, divisions again threatened the Union (p. 293). Congressional delegates fell out over whether Vermont should be a state, although opposition to its admission came not from Northern states that claimed the territory, but from Southern ones that feared adding another New Englander vote to Congress. Virginia also threatened to revoke its surrender of western claims when it discovered agents and land companies were profiting from sales. It was only when Congress declared that western lands would enrich the nation’s treasury alone that crisis was averted.

Merritt also examines the complex diplomacy that led to the Treaty of Paris. In a novel twist, he argues that John Jay was the true “Washington de la Negotiation” (p. 309). The New Yorker and former president of Congress spent three years in Spain observing the duplicity of European monarchs. Accordingly, when Congress instructed Jay and the other peace commissioners to submit to French directives, he knew to ignore this. It was Jay who met with British diplomats without the allies, and it was Jay who successfully lobbied for both fishing rights in Newfoundland and navigation of the Mississippi River.

Merritt concludes with the ratification of the Treaty of Paris and George Washington’s resignation as commander in chief. Although this is a fitting end, the question of whether the states would remain united or not was still open at the close of 1783. Curiously, Merritt does not explore the remainder of the Critical Period and conclude with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution which put to rest many, but not all, of the nation’s divisions.

Disunion Among Ourselves is a masterful account of the torturous process that led to the creation of the United States. It is an unabashed political history drawn almost entirely from the Congressional record and correspondence of the founders. This approach has both its strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, there is much here that historians often underplay, such as the importance of the Mississippi-Fisheries Compromise, how Virginia almost wrecked the Union, and the selfish motives of Spain. Students of the Revolution will be well served by reading this book, and instructors — including this one — will find a lot of fascinating information for lectures on the War for Independence.

A focus on politics also makes the book an engaging read. Merritt’s prose is lively, and his narrative is filled with descriptions of the founders that make the men in powdered wigs seem very human. Here, we see the inner workings of Congress and the horse trading that led many to compromise their values. Merritt invites us to contemplate what might have happened, and he leaves one surprised that the United States ever became a single nation.

On the other hand, the absence of perspectives from outside of Congress and the diplomatic corps imposes limits. The American people do not make an appearance other than as an abstract ideal in the mouths of great men. It would be interesting to know how fishing rights and western territories looked to the men who fought for independence and aspired to citizenship, not to mention those who were kept out of the polity like women and African Americans. Although the book does not need to be any longer, some attention to the work of social and cultural historians could have delved into the practical application of Congress’s debates.

Oddly, slavery does not play a large role in Disunion Among Ourselves. Rightly, Merritt observes the anachronism of assuming that sectional divisions in the Revolutionary era pivoted on the morality of human bondage. Instead, slavery was often discussed in the context of taxation, with New Englanders suspicious any time the enslaved were not taxed but their trade was. Yet given the primacy of slavery in current historiography and the national division that followed in 1861, Merritt’s lack of interest in the institution seems peculiar. He might have responded to Robert D. Parkinson’s Thirteen Clocks: How Race United the Colonies and Made the Declaration of Independence which argues that racism helped Americans overcome their divisions. By not doing so, Merritt misses a golden opportunity to contextualize race as one of, but not the only, concern of the founders.

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  • Recent Revolutionary War scholarship has overly focused on the war’s military aspects to the detriment of understanding the politics among the states and within the Continental Congress. While noting your well-reasoned caveats, I look forward to reading Merritt’s work. This is a great review!

  • Based upon this review, I’ll approach this book with trepidation. There seems to be some creative revisionism.

    For example, the journals of the Virginia legislature show that debate on cessation of western lands had been going on for months prior to any invasion, leading to a bill that was first voted 30 Dec 1780, passed on 1 Jan, 1781, and solemnized by the Governor Jefferson’s signature on 2 Jan 1781. Though unknown ships had entered Hampton Roads 30 Dec, they had not been identified to the Governor or legislature as a hostile threat before the western land cessation act was passed and signed. The only message Jefferson had received on 1 Jan stated 27 sets of sail had entered the Chesapeake. Virginia’s commitment to transfer land was completed before the ships were known to be hostile, and before the intent of that fleet as anything more than sheltering from an ongoing Atlantic storm was known. Assertion that Virginia only agreed to cede land because she’d been invaded is wrong on both fact and intent.

    Similarly, the Virginia Convention adopted a set of resolves on 5 August, 1774, which were delivered to the first Continental Congress. Item 5 of those resolves pledged that unless American grievances were not redressed by 10 August, 1775, Virginia “will not, after that day, directly or indirectly, export tobacco or any other article whatever to Great Britain…”. Virginia delegates then voted with the rest of Continental Congress to adopt those resolutions in Oct 1774. That’s another factual contradiction to the authors claim that Virginia intransigently refused to embargo exports of tobacco.

    Perhaps the author is generalizing and there is more to be had in context… hmmm.

    1. Jim, On page 256, a few pages earlier than the reviewer’s quote, Merritt states that Virginia ceded western lands to the federal government to garner, Maryland’s vote to ratify the Articles of Confederation and “thereby, cement the Union.” As evidence, the author quotes VA congress member Joseph Jones in a message to Thomas Jefferson, “If we suffer it to pass away I fear it will pass away.”

      I’m finding Merritt’s political disunion thesis compelling.

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