In the late summer of 1786, the Continental Congress authorized a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland to address the problem of burdensome restrictions placed by the various states on interstate commerce. Only five states sent representatives. Lacking a quorum, they were unable to conduct business. So, with time on their hands, a group of them planned a rebellion.
The first step in their plot was to send a seemingly innocuous letter—penned by Alexander Hamilton—to the Continental Congress. In this missive, he asked Congress to direct the states to appoint commissioners to gather in Philadelphia in May of 1787 to consider such changes to the Articles of Confederation as would “render the constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the union.” Congress assented to their request but limited the remit of the Philadelphia gathering to revising the Articles of Confederation.
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This essay is based loosely on some remarks I delivered at a flag raising ceremony in Arlington, Virginia on July 4, 2018.
What does it mean, “to be an American”? What defines us as a people? Some believe it is our fierce independence and dogged questioning of every new proposition, character traits often confounding to others. Baron von Steuben, a Prussian general who was enlisted by General Washington to train the raw recruits of the Continental Army, quickly encountered these vexing qualities.
Upon arriving at Valley Forge he discovered that his new charges were much different than the European soldiers he was used to commanding—men who were bred to deference and accustomed to obeying their superiors. In a letter to an old Prussian comrade after the war, von Steuben explained how he had to modify his regular approach: “You … tell your soldier, ‘Do this,’ and he does it; but I am obliged to say [to an American], ‘This is the reason why you ought to do that,’ and then he does it.” This should not have come as a complete surprise to the General since these were the same folks who had recently asked: “Why should we have to pay a tax on tea we didn’t consent to and, why don’t we have the right to elect representatives to Parliament?”
Continue reading “To Be An American”