Date of Award

Spring 2015

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Eliga H Gould

Second Advisor

J. William Harris

Third Advisor

Cynthia J Van Zandt


This dissertation studies the nature of the American union during the first fifty years of independence, through a close study of the New England states. Rather than focusing merely on the moment of creation of the union, it traces the dynamic change and development that occurred over time. The six New England states engaged individually and in varying combinations to both support and oppose the union for assorted reasons, at one point coming to the brink of secession, in actions that helped demarcate the forms and limits of the national union. The dissertation thus explores a wide variety of approaches to union, across a significant period of time, with a geographic focus that allows for particular trends and nuances to be followed.

It argues that, while there were variations in the form to be preferred, the colonies-turned-states consistently looked toward a higher institution in which to invest a portion of their sovereignty, reserving for themselves a near-sovereignty. None of the New England states attempted to exercise full sovereignty during these fifty years, with the exception of Vermont in the 1780s, which treated with other nations and provided solely for its own defense. In instances where New Englanders proposed alternative unions and confederacies, they were most often prompted by direct military threats, as during the Revolutionary War, or reactions to perceived waning influence, as during the late-Jefferson and Madison administrations.

Despite the consistency of their commitment to union, the concept of union remained dynamic, with the trilateral relationship of federal, state, and democratic power exhibiting itself in distinct and somewhat unexpected ways. New Englanders recognized the colony-states as the citizen’s primary guarantors against oppressive government. That assumption was the foundation of their approach to union, and in national matters New Englanders framed their interests and political calculations in terms of their states. After the New England states were tainted by threats of secession, New Englanders began to identify their national political interests through their party rather than state. Primarily, the New England states moved from an emphasis on regional and local interests during the Revolution and its aftermath, with the states functioning firmly between the people and the nation, to a national outlook that ultimately won out in the rapidly growing union. Within that trajectory, however, many ideas about the role of the union competed for acceptance, and at various times held sway.

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