Guest Essayist: Tony Williams
Articles of Confederation, George Washington, 1787


At the end of the Revolutionary War, many Americans had great hopes for a politically and economically prosperous future for their independent nation. In June 1783, General George Washington took a moment to reflect on the state of America and offer some advice to his fellow citizens to preserve its future.

In his Circular Letter to the States, Washington wrote that the “lot which Providence has assigned us” was blessed with “the Establishment of our forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the purse and benign light of Revelation.” For Washington and others, the American founding occurred during an “auspicious period.”

The reality of the 1780s, however, rarely matched such optimism. The economy suffered a recession at a time of heavy public and private debt. The states passed tariffs on each other’s trade and nearly went to war over these trade disputes. Several states violated the 1783 peace treaty. They violated the property rights of Tories and the rights of conscience of religious dissenters with unjust laws.

The Articles of Confederation offered few solutions to the problems that plagued the new nation. The national government lacked the power to tax or regulate interstate trade. The principle of separation of powers was largely absent as the government did not have an independent executive or judiciary nor a bicameral legislature. The national government failed to respond militarily to crises such as Shays’ Rebellion.

While most acknowledged that the new republic suffered problems of governance, they differed as to the proper remedies to those difficulties and the exact character of the national Union. These contrasting views were seen in the Confederation period, at the Constitutional Convention, and during the ratification debates between Federalists and Anti-federalists.

The Anti-federalists, admitted throughout the period, the Confederation government had a few problems. Nevertheless, they thought that a few reforms were sufficient to solve the problems. The proposed New Jersey Plan at the Constitutional Convention added greater powers of taxation and trade regulation to national powers but did little to alter the basic framework of government.

The Anti-federalists defended this basic line of thinking and opposed the significant increase of powers in the national government in the new Constitution. For example, the first letter of Brutus warned that the proposed government was dangerously consolidated and threatened the liberties of the people. They believed that they were the real “federalists” because they supported the principle of federalism with a better balance between state governments and the national government.

Brutus was concerned that the Constitution would destroy the Confederation and thereby change the very nature of the Union. The Necessary and Proper Clause and the National Supremacy Clause, Brutus explained, granted virtually unlimited powers to the national government and effectively annihilated the state governments as they were “barely necessary to the organization of the general government.” Brutus also appealed to Montesquieu’s view in Spirit of the Laws that republican governments can only survive in small territories.

The Federalists, on the other hand, sought to expand the powers of the central government and argued that a stronger government would actually do a better job than the Confederation government at protecting liberty. They defended the new government and believed that the powers of government had to be redistributed in favor of the national government.

James Madison was one of the leading voices of the Federalists who propagated this new view. Before the Convention, Madison penned the Vices of the Political System, which detailed the evils that beset the Confederation. He thought, “The great desideratum in Government is such a modification of the sovereignty as will render it sufficiently neutral between the different interests and factions to control one part of the Society from invading the rights of another, and, at the same time, sufficiently controlled itself from setting up an interest adverse to that of the whole society.” In other words, the main goal was to empower the national government without creating a tyranny.

With this in mind, Madison developed the Virginia Plan that laid the basis for debates early in the Convention. While he did not get everything he had wanted in the Constitution, Madison was one of the main proponents of the Constitution as one of the three authors of the Federalist essays under the pseudonym Publius and at the Virginia ratifying convention.

In Federalist #39, Madison explained, “The proposed Constitution, therefore, even when tested by the rules laid down by its antagonists, is, in strictness, neither a national nor a federal Constitution, but a composition of both.” He thought this delicate balance would help make possible a government in a large republic. In his innovate political science in Federalist #10 and Federalist #51, Madison argued that liberty would be better protected in a large republic because contending interests would prevent unjust factions from introducing majority tyranny.

The vigorous deliberation during the American founding demonstrated that while the founders on both sides of the argument concurred on the ends of government, they differed on the best framework of government to achieve those ends. Americans have continued to debate the relationship of the national government and the states according to the federal principle throughout the history of the country to the present day.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

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