Question for US constitutional experts and historians

IANA American or historian and I am curious about the nature of the US and its founding principles.

Does anyone know if there was an intent of the founding fathers to actually create a/one country or was their intent to create something analogous to the present-day EU, that is (originally) 13 separate countries loosely associated and/or coordinated by the president and Congress.

The founding fathers did originally envision a loose confederation of republics (“a league of friendship”) and layed it out in the Articles of Confederation in 1777, but after barely a decade, the arrangement proved so unworkable they ditched the Articles in favor of the federation established in the US Constitution.

And was that federation intended to be simply a better organized version of the original confederation or an actual one country?

It was intended to give the central government certain supreme powers over the individual states. Debate over the extent and specifics of those powers have resulted in numerous rebellions and a massively bloody war, but mostly just lots and lots of decisions made by the Supreme Court which itself is an instrument of the Federal Government. Seeing as the usual venue of last resort is part of the central government is pretty telling of where the founding fathers who drafted the Constitution thought ultimate authority rested.

Commentary from the Mount Vernon website:

Three years after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, many Americans including George Washington began to argue that the perpetual union was in danger. On January 18, 1784, Washington wrote to Virginia governor Benjamin Harrison that the government was “a half starved, limping Government, that appears to be always moving upon crutches, & tottering at every step.”6 Washington and other Americans had witnessed several crises during the United States’ early years under the Articles, leading to a belief among many that preventing the nation’s collapse required revisiting the Articles. On June 27, 1786, John Jay confided in Washington that “Our affairs seem to lead to some crisis . . . I am uneasy and apprehensive—more so, than during the War.”7 In Jay’s opinion, one many leading Americans shared, the national government’s weakness led to serious problems that threatened the nation’s survival.

Under the Articles, the US government had no power to raise taxes independently. It needed the unanimous consent fo the states, since they were the ones with taxing powers. And the US government couldn’t regulate interstate commerce. New Jersey was a barrell “tapped at both ends” - New York levied export taxes on goods going into New Jersey, Pennsylvania levied import taxes on those goods leaving New Jersey into Philadelphia. The US couldn’t raise an army without the consent of the states.

There was no real US executive, or US courts.

Those were all things that the US Constitution addressed, to create a strong federal government that was not dependent on state action to get anything done.

That’s not the model of the EU, which cannot legislate without the consent of the member states, and has no central executive, independent of the member states.

The term “one country” is ambiguous, I would say. Is a federation “one country”? you can get (and give) different answers to that question, when compared to a unitary state like France.

As a side note, one of the differences between the U.S. and many EU countries is that the former doesn’t have a national government - it has a federal government. And the powers of the federal government are fairly limited when it comes to citizens. The laws a person is subjected to can vary considerably depending on the state they’re in.

This was by design, of course. It gives citizens the freedom to pick which government works for them (and there are fifty to choose from, currently). Assuming, of course, they don’t mind moving. Competition from other states also incentivizes the fifty governments to treat their citizens well.

The founding fathers weren’t a monolith. Some of them wanted the United States to be a loose federation of sovereign states. Others wanted the United States to be a single country with a strong central government.

There is one useful measure of this: at what level is international relations conducted? If at the federated level, that’s one country, regardless of the degrees of limited autonomy (or even sovereignty) afforded the constituent parts.

This is certainly central to my question. And note, I have no weird conspiracy theorist agenda behind this. I’m Canadian and mulling over alternate histories as my own thought experiment.

Bearing in mind what Little_Nemo says in the quote and that there might not be a clear-cut answer, given other reasonable and realistic historical circumstances, is there a possibility that it could have become a loose federation of sovereign states? Or IOW, could we in Canada have had, instead of one largely monolithic friendly southern neighbour, several powerful southern neighbours, only some of whom were friendly?

The chief distinction between a confederation and a federal government is that usually the former is simply the incarnation of the agreement between its members, and only lasts as long as no great controversy divides the confederation. A federal government by contrast is a sovereign entity that exists in its own right, exercising co-authority with its member governments. On a sliding scale of independence versus central rule, a federal government is the next most centralized government beyond a confederacy. Now obviously there’s a lot of wiggle room there and there can be strong confederacies and weak federal governments, but that is how in principle it works.

In the Federalist papers the authors recount the history of the various leagues and alliances of ancient Greece and point out how they all eventually unraveled because ultimately there was no central authority beyond the member states that themselves were often the cause of unity crises. The authors claiming that a federal government was necessary if the United States were to stay united. Given the realities of distance, travel and communication time, different interests and different founding charters of government, it’s unlikely any more centralized non-tyrannical government could have worked; while the later American Civil War showed that a looser confederation would have simply broken apart.

That’s a formal definition based on international law. It doesn’t really speak to how the people of that country feel about it, in my experience. Ask some québécois and they’ll say Canada is two countries. Some First Nations will say Canada is many countries.

Try reading

These sources tend to indicate that the serious minded people in the ruling/influential classes really wanted the collective of the states to operate as one entity in the big-scale national policy areas rather than every one going their own way unless absolutely forced to fall in line.

But at the same time many of them figured that the way they did it in their state was the right way to do it. Which continued to be the case in US politics ever since.

Or you would have smashed them completely in 1812 and not needed to bother with them for a while.

Tough to assess the powerful neighbors angle. Almost for certain New England and the Deep South states would have split on their own way early in the game and Og knows if the “Northwest” (modern midwest) could have developed the same way or who would have ended up owning the Louisiana. Half of what’s to your South could have stayed Mexico.

In my opinion, an ongoing federation was an unlikely possibility. The problems that arose from a loose federation style government were apparent within ten years of the United States achieving its independence and they weren’t going to disappear. At some point the necessity of addressing those problems was going to outweigh the desire to maintain the status quo.

If there hadn’t been a movement to form a single central government, the other possibility was the federation system breaking down and the states becoming completely separate countries. That would led to conflict between these countries, which would have created opportunities for Britain and other European powers to intervene.

However, IMHO, each of those countries, after not too long, would have had a population advantage over a nascent Canada (remember, your civil war ended two years before the establishment of Canada).

What if the US went that way early, by the time of Canada’s formation, there could possibly have been 20 middle powers to our south, not all of them necessarily friendly to Canada.

I’ve read that the contemporary understanding of “perfect” in “a more perfect union” was “complete.” They understood that the confederation failed at every aspect of creating a nation, meaning a unified state that could withstand the almost certain attacks from global powers. The continual pleas for men and money from the individual states during the war should have made this obvious, but the practical, political, and philosophical problems of trying to make colonies with separate histories and cultures behave as a unit meant that only a real-time failure with desperate consequences could force their hands.

Did they want this outcome? Some did, to be sure. You can find any opinion you care to search for among the founders. Making a true nation state out of historically separate colonies had never been accomplished earlier, not even tried to my knowledge. Doing something so ahistorical was distasteful to a group so steeped in history. It says everything about how catastrophic their situation must have seemed for them to ever consider it, let alone make it happen.

It seems fair to say that there were some who wanted one and some who wanted the other, but the experience of the 1780s shifted the consensus toward a higher degree of federalism.

Here’s a link to an article about the Anti-Federalists. The most notable one was Patrick Henry, but there’s speculation in the article about which other notables wrote the Anti-Federalist Papers under pseudonyms.