The Articles Of Confederation: The First Written Constitution Of The United States – Guest Essayist: George Landrith
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After the decisive Battle of Yorktown in October of 1781 where General George Washington’s army defeated and captured the British army commanded by General Charles Cornwallis, the British sued for peace. America had finally won the independence that Jefferson had written about in his famous Declaration formalized by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. It took more than five years of war to win that freedom. Now came the difficult task of establishing a nation dedicated to the principles of freedom and self-government.
But the Continental Congress did not leave the task of creating a government until after the war was won. Shortly after declaring their independence in July 1776, the Continental Congress began to debate what sort of government they should create. More than a year later, on November 15, 1777, they sent the Articles of Confederation to the states for ratification.
The Articles of Confederation established a war-time confederation of the 13 original states. Even though the Articles were unratified by the thirteen states until March 1, 1781 — about eight months before the victory at Yorktown — it was used by the Continental Congress to govern during the Revolutionary War and to prosecute the war.
The experience of early American political leaders with big, powerful government had been decidedly negative. The British government, as it became frustrated with American’s desire for freedom, had barred free speech, censored and outlawed a free press, forbidden the freedom of association, mandated religious beliefs and practices, outlawed gun ownership, and denied the people’s right to govern itself by abolishing their colonial legislatures. The grievance of “taxation without representation” was only a small part of the frustrations of colonial Americans with British rule.
In an attempt to preclude such abuses in America’s future, the Articles of Confederation created a weak central or national government. It created an unicameral national legislature known as a congress, but no presidency, and no judiciary, and no power to tax. The central government could make war, negotiate peace, negotiate commercial agreements with foreign nations, and adjudicate disputes between the states. But they had no power to enforce those decisions or agreements. So even those limited powers proved in practice to be mostly theoretical.
The Continental Congress could only request states to fund the war effort, but often those requests were ignored — which made funding the Continental Army extraordinarily challenging and risked the success of the War for Independence from the very beginning. Reading General Washington’s letters to Congress pleading for food, clothing, shoes, guns and ammunition for his soldiers reveals one of the frustrating weaknesses of the Articles.
During the Revolutionary War and thereafter, it became apparent that the government they had created was too weak and ineffective. After independence was won, the various states pursued their own interests and there were increasing economic disputes about trade and travel between the states. There was a growing sense that the Articles of Confederation were failing and that reform was needed. At the same time, the fear of big, powerful centralized government that could abuse the rights of its citizens remained a serious concern.
In 1786 and early 1787, Shay’s Rebellion, the armed uprising of 4,000 rebels near Springfield Massachusetts, highlighted and focused what was already in the general consciousness of the nation — that the Articles of Confederation needed to be reformed. Additionally, the Rebellion may have increased support for restructuring the Articles so that the federal government was stronger — and yet, still strictly limited with powers checked and divided. Thus, many believe that Shays Rebellion created a climate in which the U.S. Constitution could be more easily proposed and ratified in the following years.
Even though not ultimately successful and eventually replaced by the United States Constitution, the Articles of Confederation played a vital and important part in the development of America and its experience with liberty, individual rights, and self-government.
First, our nation’s name “The United States of America” was established in the Articles of Confederation. This name is more than just a name — it recognizes that the thirteen original states preexisted the national government and that they voluntarily united themselves by their mutual agreement and to promote their common interest in freedom.
Second, the Articles of Confederation established the important precedent of having a written constitution — not merely an amorphous collection of precedents and traditions as was common at the time. This was a revolutionary idea. To this day, Great Britain does not have a written constitution. Thanks to the Articles of Confederation, America’s tradition is to have an actual text that we can debate and refer to with specificity.
Third, the Articles established the important concept known as “federalism.” The Articles created a federal government that had limited powers, but left everything that was not specifically given to the central government to the individual states. Many nations simply have a central government with no state governments. Providences are often simply geographical subdivisions of the larger landmass. But in the United States, states have their own written constitutions and have their own powers and authorities — independent of the federal government. The Articles of Confederation formalized the importance of this division of power in the minds of Americans.
Fourth, under the Articles of Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance of 1785 was passed which helped shape the expansion of the United States and began the process of outlawing slavery. It provided that several large and powerful states with territorial claims on western lands relinquish their claim to those lands and prohibited slavery there. This paved the way for five new states to later join the United States under the U.S. Constitution as free states — Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota.
Because the framers of the Articles of Confederation were so focused on not creating a central government that could ever repeat the abuses they witnessed as colonists of the British crown, they created a national government that was too weak. These weaknesses revealed themselves throughout the Revolutionary War and afterward. But the Articles of Confederation created a solid foundation upon which the current U.S. Constitution was built.
In September 1786, the Annapolis Convention called for a Constitutional Convention to address needed reforms to the Articles of Confederation. Beginning in May 1787, that Constitutional Convention was convened in Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence had been debated and adopted about 10 years earlier. George Washington was unanimously elected the president of the convention. Because of his national reputation and trust, the proceedings enjoyed a certain level of credibility in the minds of the American people which ultimately helped the new Constitution obtain ratification.
After a long and fierce debate, the Constitutional Convention discarded the Articles of Confederation and adopted the United States Constitution. This new Constitution gave the federal government enough power to cure the defects observed in the Articles of Confederation, but still focused on ways to limit, divide, separate and check the power of the central government and ensure individual rights. Despite the abandonment of the Articles of Confederation, many of its foundational elements are clearly present in our government today, and it was an important political document that helped pave the way for America’s amazing experience with more than 240 years of independence limited government, and individual liberty.
George Landrith is the President of Frontiers of Freedom. Frontiers of Freedom, founded in 1995 by U.S. Senator Malcolm Wallop, is an educational foundation whose mission is to promote the principles of individual freedom, peace through strength, limited government, free enterprise, free markets, and traditional American values as found in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
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Wow. So many salient points. Thank you.
I did not appreciate that the AoC were effectively used during the war.
The Continental Congress did not leave the task to form a government until after the war. This statement made me think of the way life unfolds, especially during times trial. I think that many ways the best one can do is ” strive toward the prize of … to embrace the truths and standards which we know today … and be open to let God will reveal to us the error of our ways. I see a picture of the Founders working at the potter’s wheel. Creating a shape, adding clay, working and reworking the shape until an acceptable government was formed. But unlike the arbitrary rule of law contingent who believe they can reform it in their image. The Founders and the Constitution allowed for casting, but only according to predefined rules. It does not bother me that we have changed the rule of law as the ages have unfolded. It is that we have spurned the Constitutional amendment process in favor of judicial activism and Executive fiat.
Many good things, likely most great things, and all lasting things are born out of long, arduous days at the potter’s wheel where the work is tested and brought to fruition by the heat of the furnace. The result is priceless, beautiful R.S Prussia china or robust bricks.
The Constitutional Amendment process is that slow, but sure way to change. Judicial activism and Executive orders are nothing but flimsy paper plates or cardboard building blocks. Both ok for a picnic, but hardly suitable for an enduring, beautiful, peaceful home.