Today in History: America's First National Government
On November 15, 1781, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, the first governmental framework for the new United States of America. Prior to the Articles of Confederation, there was no written set of laws applicable to all Americans. Each state was completely sovereign. States could conduct their own foreign policy, create their own currency, and impose tariffs on goods imported from neighboring states. By ratifying the Articles of Confederation, the 13 original states relinquished many of their powers to the new national government. Still, the powers granted the national government by the Articles were very limited. In just a few short years the weaknesses of the Aticles of Confedreation became painfully obvious to most Americans, paving the way for a new Constitution, the document under whose law we live today.
It is easy to dwell on what was wrong with the Articles, and ignore the significant good that they accomplished. After all, it was under the Articles of Confederation that our nation won its independence from Britain. The unified military command it created certainly helped General Washington manage his ragtag army and turn it into a formidable force capable, with significant French assistance, of defeating the far more powerful British army.
The Articles also contributed other important measures that helped unify the nation. They allowed for the free movement of people and goods across state boundaries. They allowed for the extradition of criminals from one state to another. In one of the most consequential accomplishments of those early years, the Articles of Confederation provided for a settlement of conflicting claims to territories beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Most of the original 13 colonies had claimed huge swaths of land extending all the way to the Mississippi River. With the resolution of those claims, lands west of the Appalachians were relinquished to the national government, and the mechanism put in place by which new states would be created in those territories.
Despite these accomplishments, the Articles had severe limitations. All governing authority was vested in the Congress. There was neither an Executive Branch of government nor a Judicial Branch. There was no national taxing authority (something that current tea baggers might envy!). Each state had equal representation in the Congress regardless of population (like today’s Senate), and the approval of three-quarters of the states was required to pass any legislation. To amend the Articles, unanimous approval was required.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Articles of Confederation was the inability of the national government to compel members of Congress to convene in session. George Washington quickly saw the problem inherent there. In 1783, while waiting for Congress to approve the treaty to end the Revolutionary War, Washington complained:
Congress have come to no determination yet respecting the Peace Establishment, nor am I able to say when they will…it appears to me that there is not a sufficient representation to discuss Great National points.
Of course, that treaty was eventually approved. The real death knell for the Articles of Confederation came three years later, when the State of Massachusetts levied the highest direct tax ever assessed in America, and demanded that the tax be paid in specie. Many farmers in Massachusetts rebelled, and the troubles began to spread to neighboring states. The national government was not empowered to respond to a domestic insurrection, and it was highly questionable if the state militias were equal to the task. “Shay’s Rebellion”, as this insurrection became known, showed just how weak our national government was, something that certainly excited the interest of a revanchist Great Britain and other European powers. Again, it was George Washington who recognized the danger. Writing to his friend Henry Lee, Washington’s disgust is obvious:
But for God's sake tell me what is the cause of all these commotions…I am mortified beyond expression that in the moment of our acknowledged independence we should by our conduct verify the predictions of our transatlantic foe, and render ourselves ridiculous and contemptible in the eyes of all Europe.
Washington’s dismay at the nation’s apparent inability to effectively respond to existential threats was the catalyst that led to one of the most remarkable assemblies ever to gather in a single room. It occurred during the sweltering summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, when 55 men including Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, George Mason, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington himself secretly deliberated, argued, and ultimately compromised to create the United States Constitution. The government instituted by this document may be imperfect, yet its opening sentence is one that still inspires. Its lofty goals are just as relevant in the 21st century as they were in the late 18th century:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.