J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, September 07, 2009

A Federalist Picture Book

Jacqueline Jules and Jef Czekaj’s picture book Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation acknowledges Anti-Federalist sentiment in the U.S. of A. in the late 1780s. It describes, for example, how Rhode Island refused to participate in the constitutional convention and stayed out of the new Congress until 1790. (The tiny boy playing Rhode Island in the book’s school pageant gets to have other roles as well.)

Nevertheless, the book is clearly on the side of the Federalists. It presents the country’s needs in their terms, and downplays worries about a too-strong national government or encroachments on traditional rights. Even the title Unite or Die reflects the Federalist view, implying that creating a new constitution was a matter of national life or death.

Benjamin Franklin came up with the “Join, or Die” slogan in 1754, thinking about conflict between British and French colonies. American Whigs revived it, substituting the word “unite,” while organizing against new parliamentary taxes. The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union completed that unification process for the thirteen states. Legally, those states had already become a nation, and Anti-Federalists didn’t think the nation needed a stronger central government.

During the debate on ratifying the proposed new constitution of 1787, a couple of Federalists brought out the “Unite, or Die” slogan again. James Wilson quoted it during Pennsylvania’s ratifying convention, and Fisher Ames (shown above) appears to have done the same in Massachusetts. But really the issue of the day wasn’t whether to unite, but what the shape of “a more perfect Union” might be.

The title Unite or Die and the text inside say that the U.S. of A. was not in fact united until after 1787, and was in mortal peril. Though its characters act out arguments among the Federalists, the book doesn’t leave room for argument about the necessity of a new constitution at all. Which isn’t that surprising since the Federalists won.

TOMORROW: Sidestepping awkward subjects.

1 comment:

pilgrimchick said...

That sounds very interesting. It seems to incorporate a "snapshot" (forgive the unintentional pun) of how the federalists perceived the struggle to create a nation. It is very hard to try and place oneself in this environment when there was no clear answer or obvious outcome.