“The Articles of Confederation, if one considers the circumstances of the times, were a remarkable creation.”
–Rowland L. Young (1)
Many Americans do not realize that the United States has had more than one constitution in its history. They take pride in the current U.S. Constitution written in 1787 but forget the Articles of Confederation written in 1776 and 1777. However, there is much to be learned from our first constitution. Before we look at the details, let us make sure we familiarize ourselves with confederal government and how it differs from other forms. This is especially important given our history: when the Southern states seceded from the Union beginning in 1860, they formed themselves into a confederacy, so there must be something attractive about the confederal form to Americans.
Confederal, Federal, and Unitary Governments
Political scientists often classify governmental systems into one of three types: confederal, federal, and unitary. Governments are placed into one of these categories based on the relative power distribution between the central government and whatever the subordinate governments are called. We call these subunits states, while other countries might refer to them as provinces, cantons, departments, laender, or something else. In a confederal system, the states are very powerful relative to the weak central government. Indeed, the central government usually only carries out those functions that the states deem can be more efficiently run from one point. The states retain all other powers. Currently, there are no individual countries that have confederal governments. Some people see the European Union, a collection of European countries, as some form of confederacy, but it is a collection of sovereign nation-states. Historically, confederacies tend not to survive—either because they are defeated by external enemies or because they fragment internally. A unitary system is the opposite of a confederal system, in that the central government is very powerful relative to the states. Often, the states exist merely as central government administrative units with little autonomy to conduct their own policies. The majority of the world’s governments are unitary. England, France, Israel, Sweden, and Japan are countries with unitary governments. In a federal system there is more of a power balance between the central government and the states, although in practice, the balance is often tilted in favor of the center. Under our current Constitution, the United States is one of several other federal governments: Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, India, and Nigeria come to mind. As a rule, large diverse countries tend to have federal governments.
The Articles of Confederation
The idea of unifying the American colonies is older than most people imagine. In 1697, William Penn proposed just such a union. In 1754, Benjamin Franklin put forward his Albany Plan of Union, which proposed a national legislature to raise a military when needed, to make decisions on war and peace in North America, to deal with disputed western lands, and to levy taxes on the colonies. Franklin’s proposal was not accepted. When Franklin joined the Second Continental Congress in 1775, he put forward yet another proposal for an Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, which was not taken up. After the Declaration of Independence, however, Congress appointed a committee to draft a document for a confederation and chose John Dickinson to lead it. Dickinson would later become known as “the penman of the Revolution.” That committee used Franklin’s proposal as a starting point but produced a document that gave the states much more power than Franklin had originally proposed. (2)
Dickinson’s committee wrote the Articles of Confederation on the assumption that the best way to preserve individual liberty was to fragment political power among the thirteen states. Congress submitted the Articles to the states to ratify in 1777, but disputes over western land claims delayed it being formally adopted. Finally, in 1781, Maryland became the thirteenth state to ratify it. These Articles remained in effect until superseded by the Constitution.
At the national level, the government under the Articles of Confederation had no president or supreme court, as we understand them today. The central institution was a unicameral—one chambered—Congress in which each state had one vote. Nine of the thirteen states needed to consent for most congressional actions, and amendments to the Articles required unanimous approval in Congress.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the central government’s limited power and weakness caused many problems for the new country, which is perhaps the most important thing to know about the U.S. under the Articles. Specifically, Congress could not perform the following:
Tax people directly—Under a requisition system, the central government relied on the states to collect taxes and forward the money to Congress. The requisition system did not work. The states gave Congress less than one-third of the tax revenue they were obligated to pay. This revenue deficiency required Congress to keep floating more debt, which adversely affected Congress’s ability to pay off those debts. By 1786, according to lawyer and historian George William Van Cleeve, “the Confederation’s financial position was unsustainable.” (3)
Raise a sufficient military force—The Confederation’s financial situation naturally impacted its ability to fight the Revolutionary War. About one-third of all free men served in the Continental army or the state militias. In addition, about 5,000 African Americans served—free and slave. And Van Cleeve noted that “at least twenty-thousand women worked to support the Continental army.” The central government was constantly short of money to pay for the Continental Army. The war itself caused economic disruption, causing the states to be even more reluctant to fulfill their fiscal responsibilities to the national government. Soldiers received “virtually nothing” in compensation during 1781-82, instead, receiving IOU’s. Farmers who supplied the military were in the same situation.
Regulate interstate or foreign commerce—The United States could not formulate a consistent trade policy with other countries. In 1784, Spain closed the Mississippi River to American craft. France stopped allowing American wheat and flour to be imported to the French Caribbean. Pirates actively raided American ships. Domestically, the situation was no better. In order to raise revenue and protect domestic business interests, states started taxing goods coming from other states and from British shippers. They also sometimes banned importing specific goods outright. Massachusetts banned fifty-eight items. Pennsylvania instituted protections for its refined-iron, ship building, and joinery industries. During this time, there were several proposals to increase Congress’ power to regulate trade, but they were all defeated. Congress called the Annapolis Convention in 1786 to further discuss trade issues, but those at the meeting could only agree to call for a convention in Philadelphia in 1787.
Establish a sound money system—Ostensibly, Congress could regulate coinage. However, there were so many different foreign coins circulating that it was practically impossible to regulate their value. Furthermore, each state was free to print its own money, which they did at different rates. The paper money that both Congress and the individual states issued depreciated rapidly during the Confederacy.
Enforce treaties—Without enforcement power, the central government could not require states to abide by national treaties. For example, the 1783 Treaty of Peace between the United States and Britain required that America not restrict the British from collecting private prewar debts that Americans owed to them. However, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia did just that, and there was no way for Congress to force Americans to repay their debts to the British.
The Confederal System’s Impact
Under the Articles of Confederation, the national government’s main legislative accomplishment was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The Northwest Ordinance concerned the territories located in the Old Northwest—what is today north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River. It allowed territories to enter the Union as states on the same equal legal footing as the original thirteen states. In the territories that became Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, the Northwest Ordinance also prohibited slavery and provided public education.
Following the Revolutionary War, the United States was in a very precarious economic, social, and diplomatic position. The government was unable to pay off war debts, such as loans from other countries, war bonds, and even IOU’s given to soldiers in lieu of pay. Trade was being choked off by state tariffs, and the money system was a mess. Farmers were especially hard hit by excess taxes, interstate tariffs, and generally lacked confidence in the money supply. Consequently, many were losing their farms at bankruptcy auctions. Ultimately, farmers’ rebellions broke out up and down the Atlantic seaboard.
The largest such rebellion was Shays’ Rebellion (1786-87) in Massachusetts. Unable to make payments on their property and bitter that they were faced with increased taxes and scarce money due to the state legislature’s policies in Boston, Massachusetts, farmers did what they were supposed to in a republic: they peacefully petitioned the state legislature for redress. After the legislature refused to respond to their petitions, the farmers turned to mob violence in the summer of 1786 to prevent debt hearings and their property being seized for non-payment. The governor sent out a state militia, and Daniel Shays, who had been a captain in the Revolutionary War, organized a rebellion that was not put down until February of the following year. Shays’ Rebellion was important not only because it was the biggest of these farmers’ rebellions, but for two other reasons as well. It seemed to point out many of the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation, and it was the topic of the day as a convention convened in Philadelphia. Unfortunately for the rebels, their actions ended up promoting the very thing they opposed. As historian Joseph Ellis has written, “The ultimate irony of Shays’ Rebellion is that what began as a rural protest against centralized government actually ended up strengthening the advocates for a new U.S. Constitution, which consolidated political power at the federal level, in precisely the fashion that the rebels regarded as a betrayal of the American Revolution.” (4)
The Constitutional Convention
Largely due to the efforts of people like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison—and because of the turmoil under the Articles of Confederation—Congress called on the states to send delegates to Philadelphia in May 1787. The delegates were to gather there “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” Every state except Rhode Island sent delegates to what we now know as the Constitutional Convention. Madison and Hamilton attended, as did George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Morris, Charles Pinckney, and others. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams did not attend, because they were representing the United States in Paris and London, respectively. Patrick Henry did not participate because he “smelt a rat,” and opposed the Constitution once it was written. (5)
Of the original seventy-four delegates picked by the states, fifty-five actually attended the convention in Philadelphia. Some stayed away due to conscience, others because they were busy with other matters. By September 17, 1787, when the final draft was approved, only forty-two delegates were left. Three of those—Edmund Randolph, George Mason, and Elbridge Gerry—could not bring themselves to sign the Constitution. In the end, thirty-nine delegates signed what is now the current U.S. Constitution.
- Rowland L. Young, “The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union,” American Bar Association Journal. November, 1977. Page 1575.
- Thomas Wendel, “The Articles of Confederation,” National Review. July 10, 1981. Page 769.
- George William Van Cleve, We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. Page 54. All details in the next four paragraphs come from this source.
- Joseph J. Ellis, “Dispelling the Myths Surrounding Shays Rebellion,” Commonwealth: Nonprofit Journal of Politics, Ideas, & Civic Life. December 1, 2002.
- Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier, Decision in Philadelphia. New York: Ballantine Books, 1986. P. 74.