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February 05
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NOVEMBER 15, 2011 7:29AM

Today in History: America's First National Government

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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.


articles of confederation


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.


land cessation
  (Sorry, Procopius likes maps)


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.


shays rebellion


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.


constitutional convention



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Happy Confederation Day!
I'm assuming Henry Lee was the Revolution's famed "Light Horse Harry", and the father of Robert E. There's surely some award for irony there.

Anyway, Pro, thanks for the interesting history lesson. I didn't know much of what you wrote here, and it fills in some gaps. And congrats on the EP.
Now I feel like reading up on Shay's Rebellion! You make history relevant, thanks!
P.S. I love maps, and spent more time looking at that one than you might think.
Thanks for this informative piece, and happy Confederation Day to you.
Look at all that territory Connecticut claimed. Certainly it was sufferring from "small state disease." I like maps, too.

Looking back, it seems that our fledgling country needed to go through a Confederation phase, just to demonstrate the need of a strong central government despite the memories of living under a monarchy.
Boanerges, good catch -- I'm pretty sure it is the same Henry Lee that later fathered Robert E. Lee. The Lee's and the Washington's were related by marriage, another irony of early American history.

dianaani & FusunA, thanks!

Stim, and then there's Virginia that pretty much claimed everything!
I recently finished Chernow's bio of Washington. Not much has changed in American politics. It was viscious and hateful from the beginning. Even Washington was savaged by the end of his second term.

Interesting post.
I love the relevance in the lesson of a weak federal government. How ridiculous that one major party wants "do-overs" on the founding document. Happy Confederation Day to you too.
the constitution was not ratified by the people of the usa, it was ratified by the state governments. rhode island did put the matter to its people in referendum, but it was defeated, so the other states didn't risk it.

the constitution was written by grandees to defend (white) men of property from taxation by the 'mob.' it still does so, to large extent, the source of most of america's problems.

america is no democracy, and a people that glories in subjection to money deserves to live in poverty.
I fear for the day when the majority give up and conclude that democracy does not work. Will our Congress successfully navigate these rough waters of fiscal responsibility?
It's Confederation Day? I totally forgot to shop!
John, thanks. The more I read about Washington, and the more of his actual words I read, the more I'm impressed. I'm not sure this nation would have survived its early years without him at the helm.

Stacey, a "confederation" of states simply would never work. I don't think that form of government has ever truly been successful. Think Holy Roman Empire. And any modern party that advocates for a weak federal government will likely change its tune once in power.

Al, I take your point, but that's why the Preamble is still a goal to strive for.

GerryGreene, I fear for society's ability to see through the fog of partisan media, money, and apathy. That's a recipe for democracy's demise.

Con, shame on you. get your money and go to Walmart.
Not a fan of our past - but a believer in our potential. Certainly not a fan of GW. Spilt beans...yes - but we are not captives of either of our pasts - real or mythical. I argue that a firm understanding of our past is important - I will stick with Zinn's version of the past - and pray that we learn from it. Thanks for your post.
Hey, Pro, they call what we have here a confederation, and it limps along fairly well. In the original founding British North America Act, 1867 (later called the Constitution Act), there was one line that tipped the scales a bit: The so-called POGG (Peace, Order and Good Government) clause. Lot of latitude in that there phrase, because it gave all residual powers not strictly vested in the provinces to the federal government.
Snowden, we may differ in our assessment of America's early leaders. I am a huge fan of Washington. He and his contemporaries in the gov't were imperfect men to be sure, but they were true statesmen and often great leaders. I hate to think what might have become of our nation without the leadership of Washington, the inspiration of Jefferson (and George Mason, whom Jefferson borrowed from in writing the Declaration), the negotiating skills of Roger Sherman, the wisdom of James Madison, and the foresight of Alexander Hamilton. We could use statesmen of that magnitude today, although with today's media and moneyed interests, they would probably never succeed in politics today.

You'll get no argument from me, of course, on the importance of understanding (or at least trying to gain an honest understanding) of our past, and hope that we can learn from it.
Boanerges, I must confess I don't know a lot about the Canadian constitution, but the POGG as you describe it seems to make Canada resemble a federation at least as much as it does a true confederation. In a way, the POGG is the opposite of what we have in the USA, where the Constitution's 10th amendment states that the powers not specifically granted to the federal gov't will reside with the states. That's one of the pieces of the Constitution that a lot of Tea Baggers are trying to re-emphasize with their opposition to things like national health care and certain federal safety and environmental regulations.

Our period of Confederation (and the Confederacy during the Civil War) gave the states real supremacy over the national gov't, and opened the way for discord that would have led to the dissolution of the union. I have no doubt that the southern Confederacy, had it won the Civil War, would have split apart within a generation due to the very nature of a confederate form of union.
We need reminders like this occasionally. The formation of our government was excruciating and was, indeed, a trial and error process. We had it down pretty good and sometimes I wonder if we should go back and simplify much of what has become ponderous and decidedly "un"-representative. This makes me want to delve back even further in history for I have read (somewhere along the line) that Ben Franklin had a significant hand in the Articles of Confederation and that he managed to borrow heavily from the Iroquois Confederation for the basic structure. Have you ever come across anything like that?
Walter, as a matter of fact the first attempt to unify the colonies was called the Albany Plan, which was proposed by Franklin as a way to efficiently fight the French during the French and Indian War. Franklin envisioned a confederation of the colonies that would also have included the Iroquois confederation. Iroquois representatives even met with delegates from the colonies in Albany to negotiate the agreement. It was not intended to bring about independence from England, only to unify the colonies under British control.

Ultimately, the British and the colonies all voted down the Albany Plan. In 1754 no one was ready to give up any of their sovereignty to a national government.
I'm currently interested in the Ordinance of 1787 passed by Congress in July and applied the Northwest Territory. - a precursor to the Bill of Rights.
Noah, the Northwest Ordinance was really part of the settlement of those territorial claims, as I'm sure you are aware. That is a fascinating area of study, since it set the template for settlement of the west. What's also amazing is that it prohibited the extension of slavery into the territory, even though the slave state of Virginia had claimed the entire territory at one time. 50 years later the slave states would view that as a major example of Northern "aggression" against the South, and the Dred Scott decision would outlaw the ban on slavery in the territories, reversing not only the slavery ban of the Northwest Ordinance, but also the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
Steve, your post is a great story on how the federal government evolved in the early days! Some of the information I remember from high school but you have a number of details that I don't recall reading before in school. And to think they did it all without computers or the internet!