Prior to 1765, the American colonies were largely left to govern themselves. Britain began attempting to enforce stricter authority following the end of French and Indian War in 1763. The American colonies, unfortunately for Britain, had become accustomed to self-government over the course of the previous 150 years – yes, 150 years. That extended period of self-governance resulted in stable and confident governments, as well as a collective identity separate from Britain.
The historical reasons for this period of so-called salutary neglect are still debated in historical circles, but are likely a combination of a few conscious policies, imperial malfeasance, and luck.
During the Revolutionary War, the colonies organized the first federal governmental under the Articles of Confederation. Though adopted in 1777, the Articles did not go into effect until 1781 when the last colony finally adopted them. The war ended in 1783.
The Articles of Confederation remained in place until 1789 when they were replaced by the US Constitution. For well over a decade, the American colonies managed to govern themselves (half the time in a state of war) without a strong central government.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the States returned to a condition of salutary neglect that the colonies had enjoyed prior to 1765, but without being under the umbrella of a significant central authority. Centralized governance from Britain that began in 1765 was effectively devolved back to the colonies.
“Devolution” is a word that describes the transfer of power from more centralized to less centralized governing authorities. Unfortunately, the word also has the connotation of being a kind of reverse evolution, that is, moving from more advanced to more primitive forms. This linguistic confluence perhaps explains some of our collective penchant to believe in the growth of strong central governments. More on this in later blogs.
The States ultimately concluded that their Articles of Confederation did not provide a sufficiently strong central government, and that the extremely weak Articles may have been an over-reaction to their fear of what had just occurred under British rule.
The primary complaints were that the central government had no ability to effectively mobilize a military, nor sufficient ability to protect prosperous commerce between the States and with other nations. The Articles of Confederation included no Executive or Judicial branches.
Shay’s Rebellion (a large armed uprising against perceived economic and civil liberties injustices) in 1786-87 was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
The framers of the US Constitution sought to remedy the weaknesses in the Confederation by establishing a more powerful central government. But they did not want a government that infringed on the freedoms the States enjoyed during the period of salutary neglect.
Interestingly, the Bill of Rights enshrined additional constraints intended to protect the actions of individual citizens in addition to those of State governments.
The constraints placed upon the federal government by the Constitution may have at least slowed its growth over the last two centuries plus. But there’s no question that government plays a much larger role in our lives today than it did in the colonies 250 years ago.
Some would argue that this is a good thing – the more populous, more interdependent, and more complex world we live in today requires a larger role for more collective, as opposed to individual, decision-making. After all, the largest of the thirteen colonies, Virginia, had a population of only 500,000 people. The average colony population was less than 200,000. The US has well over 100 cities with populations larger than 200,000, and over 30 larger than 500,000.
But I think the opposite is true. The more interdependent and complex a society becomes, the more it will benefit from dispersal of decision-making authority. This something I’ll explore in more detail in later blogs.
There are those who believe that the road to liberty begins with a strict adherence to the US Constitution. There are also those who believe that liberty can only be achieved through eliminating most, if not all, of government.
Both positions include elements of truth. But the reality is that neither is likely be realized without some sort of violent confrontation that most of us would reject. Neither approach embraces a politically practical way to get from here to there.
In future blogs, I plan to address, among other things, the question of whether there are some politically practical ways to reverse the trend of increasing governmental power – ways that might begin the process of devolving governance from centralized authorities to individual, civic, and local governing authorities.
Perhaps through collective discussion and creative exploration we can imagine practical approaches to achieving a world in which individual liberties are more fully realized than they are today.