Who were the nationalists, what prompted them to seek a new government, and did they succeed?
The nationalists were mostly military officers, diplomats, and officials who had served in the Continental Congress. Their political outlook was thus more national, rather than state or local. Shay’s Rebellion prompted leaders who had a more national view to seeking as stronger more central government.
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Nationalists, although having attempted to increase the powers of the Confederation government since 1781, had little success. Nationalist leaders were concerned with the fact that without tax revenue or state contributions, Congress was unable to pay the interest on the foreign debt. To nationalists, this seemed like the American republic was on the verge of collapse.
In 1786 the nationalists had another reason for wanting to seek a new government. This new reason was the financial weakness and debtor policies of the states. In Virginia for example, legislatures were granting tax relief to various groups of citizens. This lowered the public revenue and delayed the redemption of the state debt. Because of this, “the sanctity of public debts was also in jeopardy since many state governments approved some form of relief from debtors.”
In 1786, the nationalists called a commercial convention in Annapolis, Maryland to discuss tariff and taxation policies. However, only twelve delegates from five states came. The Philadelphia meeting, to many nationalists, seemed like the last opportunity to save the republic. In January 1787, nationalists passed a Congressional resolution that supported the revision of the Articles of Confederation to make them “adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.”
There were fifty-five delegates representing every state (except Rhode Island) at the Philadelphia convention. Many of the most famous Patriots such as Jefferson and Adams were not in attendance. Many of the delegates that attended favoured nationalism.
The Virginia Plan called for supremacy of national authority and that the central government had the power to legislate in all cases to which the separate states couldn’t and to overturn state laws. It also called for a national republic that drew authority from all people of the United States. The Virginia Plan asked for separation of powers: a lower house elected by voters, an upper house elected by the lower house, and an executive and judiciary chosen by the entire legislature. This would increase the power of the national government, but delegates from the less populous states believe that this would give a few large states control of the entire central government.
Small state delegates believed in a plan created by William Paterson. His New Jersey Plan would transform the Confederation by giving the central government the power to raise revenue, control commerce, and make binding demands upon the states. However, it protected state power by allowing each state one vote in a unicameral legislature. The Great Compromise modified the Virginia Plan so that the upper house, or Senate, would have two members from each state, regardless of its population. The House of Representatives would have a number of representatives based on population as determined every ten years.
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