At the Peace of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, the United States (defined, as in the Declaration of Independence, as the individual states) were recognized by the British as free and independent. While the British relinquished to those United States territory from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, the several states did not thereby relinquish their own, sometimes conflicting, claims to that land. The Articles of Confederation provided procedures for the settlement of boundary disputes between states under the aegis of Congress and also anticipated that there might be disputes between grantees of land from two different states. Yet, no state was to be deprived of land for the benefit of the United States, so the Confederation Congress could not force the states to cede their western land. Still, a number of states released their claims, so that Congress gained de facto control over those lands and organized the Old Northwest under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
Faithful readers of Constituting America’s 90-Day Study have followed the story of our constitution through each of our presidential elections. We have seen that the moral foundations of both of our constitutions—the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution that replaced it—find their most cogent expression in the Declaration of Independence. There, the Founders held the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Governments must therefore be framed to secure those unalienable rights. Our God-endowed, or natural, rights—regulated by the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God—find security in our legal or civil rights, defended by a system of government so structured as to channel the ambitions of political men and women toward the guardianship of those rights. This requires a regime designed to empower the government so our rights can be defended effectively against those who threaten them, at home or abroad. At the same time, the powers of that government will check and balance one another, so that no single individual or group of individuals will likely usurp all those powers, setting us on the road to tyranny. America’s early Constitutional conflicts centered on the question of how much power should be placed in the hands of the national government vis-à-vis the states’ governments. But whether Federalists or Anti-Federalists, Hamiltonians or Jeffersonians, all of the principal founders aimed at securing the natural rights of Americans by the means of well-designed constitutional forms.