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The Defects of the Articles of Confederation, Part 3

Defects_of_the_Articles_of_Confederation_3  <== PDF version

Dear readers:

This paper is available only in .pdf format.  It is the third in a series on the defects of the Articles of Confederation and how they were remedied by the Constitution.  This particular paper discusses the power to make treaties.



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The Defects of the Articles of Confederation, Part 2

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Dear readers:

This paper is available only in .pdf form owing to its length (6 pages).  It discusses the miltary difficulties encountered by George Washington at the beginning of the Revolution, when he had only temporary militia under his command.  Even when the Articles of Confederation were adopted, the military institutions were dependent upon the states, which were not reliable in providing the necessary men and money.  It closes with a description of how these problems were mitigated in the U. S. Constitution, with explanations using excerpts from the Federalist Papers.



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The Defects of the Articles of Confederation, Part 1

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Synopsis: This is the first in an occasional series of essays describing the defects of the Articles of Confederation under which the American states organized themselves during the Revolutionary War until the adoption of the Constitution in 1788.  Before addressing the defects of the Confederation that led to the need for a more direct union, this first essay will provide the historical background for the development of the Articles.

It must be recalled that the Revolution of the American colonies against the British was not the result of some grand conspiracy.  The main source of irritation between the colonies and the mother country was a series of Acts of Parliament that constituted undue interference in the colonies’ traditional rights of self-government.  Among the offenses were alteration of the colonial charters, in which land grants were withdrawn and sold again; the imposition of taxes without consulting the colonies; the gradual usurpation of the rights of the colonists to elect their own government; and the intensification of economic burdens designed to benefit England at the expense of the colonies.  All of these were more or less the consequence of King George III’s desire to rule both England and the colonies as a personal autocracy.  But even in the early 1770’s, many people in the colonies preferred to remain Englishmen, hoping that they could somehow reach a compromise with Great Britain.  Only when the British crown sought to make Massachusetts an example by imposing severe constraints on her in 1775 did the colonies awake to the fact that Parliament would not retract any of their excesses.

The colonies were not closely aligned politically during the immediate pre-war period.  There had never been any desire on the part of any of the colonies to form associations or leagues; all were content to operate as independently of each other as possible as direct subordinates to the crown.  But when the British Parliament began to impose repressive measures, some of the colonists saw a need to act together to seek remedies.  They appointed a Congress of delegates from the several colonies to meet in May 1774; its purpose was to defend the rights of the colonies.  It was not entirely clear how to get Parliament’s attention; and Congress as such had no real authority to do much anyway.  The main result of this first Congress was a debate on the legitimate powers held by Parliament, in view of the colonial charters and the traditional rights as Englishmen.  A break with England was not seriously considered yet.  It published a petition calling on Parliament to repeal all the offensive laws passed since 1763.  Suffice to say, it as summarily ignored by Parliament.

By the fall of 1774, the abuses by Parliament against Massachusetts led to the people beginning to reject the powers of the crown outright; this tension promoted by some in America who saw that the Americans were ripe for independence, and by the British, who desired to bring each of the colonies under direct rule by the king.  Eventually the British attempted to end the dispute by arresting leaders of the independence movement; this led to the battles at Lexington and Concord in April 1775.  There was now no going back; the issue of Parliament’s powers, and if they were to have any over the colonies, would be decided by force.

The Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775.  Its charter was to do what was necessary and proper to convince Parliament to undo its abuses.  But with the battle of Bunker and Breed’s Hill in June, the assembly of a large number of militiamen around Boston to threaten the British army there, the establishment of new governments in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and the expansion of fighting throughout the northeast, Congress became a de facto revolutionary government.  Having gained the confidence of the people, it simply assumed command of the shooting war, appointing Washington as commander, issuing currency on its own credit, and generally organizing the war effort.  The Americans launched an invasion of Canada in August 1775, and the British responded militarily in earnest in October of 1775.  A formal break with Great Britain was now a inevitable, and was announced by the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776.

Congress assumed the powers of a government without any particular authorization outside of the military emergency.  Because the delegates could not agree on the relative weighting by population or wealth, or any other method of apportioning votes, it adopted by default a purely federal system in which each former colony, referring to themselves now as states, had one vote.  Congress appointed a committee on 10 Jun 1776 to devise a permanent government for the thirteen states; it reported out a draft of the Articles of Confederation on 12 Jul 1776.  The Articles were debated from 12 Jul 1776 to 20 Aug 1776 and again from 8 Apr 1777 until their form was agreed to on 15 Nov 1777, which is to say, it was suitable to send to the states for ratification.  On 9 Jul 1778, delegates from eight states ratified the Articles (Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina).  North Carolina followed suit on 21 Jul 1778, Georgia on 24 Jul 1778; New Jersey on 26 Nov 1778, Delaware on 5 May 1779, and Maryland on 1 Mar 1781.  The Articles required that all thirteen states ratify it before it could go into effect; hence Congress did not convene under the powers granted by the Articles until 2 Mar 1781.

The main features of the Articles, which we will examine more closely, were:

a.         Congress was the only instrument of the federation.  It was to convene on the first Monday in November and continue for a period not longer than six months.  When it adjourned, the government was maintained by an executive committee consisting of one delegate from each state.  Congress elected a President, who was only the nominal leader of Congress, and had the same powers as any other delegate.  Congress published a monthly journal of its proceedings.

b.         Each state was allowed to send between two and seven delegates, but since it was a confederation of states, each state had a single vote.  The delegates were paid by their respective states, not out of a federal treasury.  Instead of administrative departments, the various functions were allocated to committees.  This proved to be inefficient, and later on some functions were allocated to individuals in the interest of expediency.

c.         Congress was granted the following powers: a) to borrow money; b) to appropriate requisitions of money, men, and equipment from each of the states, but could not raise revenue on its own; c) to resolve issues between the states; d) to enact treaties with foreign powers; e) to establish an army and navy; and f) to issue a currency as an obligation to repay loans.  Congress had the power to establish requisitions from the states based on the proportional value of real estate in each state.  The states were then free to raise the requisition by taxing their own citizens.

d.         Concurrence of two-thirds of the states was required for any of the following actions: a) to engage in war; b) to make treaties; c) to coin money; d) to borrow or appropriate money; e) to assign quotas of revenue to the states; and f) to appoint commanders of the army.

e.         The states were required to grant every freeman the same rights and privileges.  Every state was compelled to recognize the records and acts of every other state, and obligated to extradite persons found in their state who were wanted on criminal charges in another state.   Otherwise, all the other powers were left to the states with the following prohibitions: a) a state could not maintain an army or a navy, except for the militia; b) a state could not enter into treaties with foreign nations; c) a state could not form alliances with any of the other states without the consent of Congress; and d) each state was prohibited from entering into any other wars except against the Indians.

f.          The Articles could be amended only by concurrence of all member states.

The succeeding essays will review how these provisions worked in practice at the return of peace.

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Washington’s Circular Letter of 8 Jun 1783

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The year 1783 was not an easy one for the thirteen newly-independent former British colonies.  Although formal hostilities had ended, the British continued to interfere with commerce.  Congress under the Confederation was proving to be a weak and useless institution, unable to meet its financial obligations, and unable to force the states to meet their obligations to Congress.  The financial situation was so bad, in fact, that there were a few conspiracies in which some attempted to enlist the aid of the army to force the states to make good on the requisitions imposed by Congress.  General George Washington had himself defused such a conspiracy in Mar 1783, in which some of his senior officers had attempted to instill a revolt in the ranks because Congress had not been able to pay the men.  Congress continued to seek authority to establish a steady and reliable revenue stream, but the states were opposed to it.

It was at this time that George Washington, as commander of the army, but intending to resign his commission, took the initiative to outline to each of the 13 state leaders his view on necessary reforms.  He wrote a circular letter to each of the governors or presidents of the thirteen states, explaining the current situation as he saw it and what would be necessary to ensure that the Revolution had not been in vain.  His letter was made public, and was widely published throughout the states in the summer of 1783.  It was an early recognition that some move toward a more firm union of the states to replace the ineffective Articles of Confederation was necessary.  Washington wrote in part [1]:

“The citizens of America, placed in the most enviable conditions, as the sole lords and proprietors of a vast tract of continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the world, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, are now by the late satisfactory pacification, acknowledged to be possessed of absolute freedom and independency; they are, from this period, to be considered as the actors on a most conspicuous theater, which seems to be peculiarly designated by providence for the display of human greatness and felicity; here, they are not only surrounded with every thing which can contribute to the completion of private blessings, by giving a fairer opportunity for political happiness, than any other nation has ever been favored with.  Nothing can illustrate these observations more forcibly, than a recollection of the happy conjuncture of times and circumstances, under which our republic assumed its rank among the nations; the foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of ignorance and superstition, but at an epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labors of the philosophers, sages, and legislatures, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in 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 pure and benign light of revelation, have had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of society.  At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a nation, and if their citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will entirely be our own.

Such is our situation, and such are our prospects: but notwithstanding the cup of blessing is thus reached out to us, notwithstanding happiness is ours, if we have a disposition to seize the occasion and make it our own; yet, it appears to me there is an option still left to the United States of America, that it is in our choice, and depends on their conduct, whether they will be respectable and prosperous, or contemptible and miserable as a nation; this is the time of their political probation, this is the moment when the eyes of the whole world are turned upon them, this is the moment to establish or ruin their national character forever, this is the favorable moment to give such a tone to our federal government, as will enable it to answer the ends of its institution, or this may be the ill-fated moment for relaxing the powers of the union, annihilating the cement of the Confederation, and exposing us to become the sport of European politics, which may play one state against another to prevent their growing importance, and to serve their own interested purposes.  For, according to the system of policy the states shall adopt at this moment, they will stand or fall, and by their confirmation or lapse, it is yet to be decided, whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse: a blessing or a curse, not to the present age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn millions be involved.

With this conviction of the importance of the present crisis, silence in me would be a crime; I will therefore speak to your Excellency, the language of freedom and sincerity, without disguise; I am aware, however, that those who differ from me in political sentiment, may perhaps remark, I am stepping out of the proper line of my duty, and they may possible ascribe to arrogance or ostentation, what I know is alone the result of the purest intention, but the rectitude of my own heart, which disdains such unworthy motives, the part I have hitherto acted in life, the determination I have formed, of not taking any share in public business hereafter, the ardent desire I fell, and shall continue to manifest, of quietly enjoying in private life, after all the toils of war, the benefits of a wise and liberal government, will, I flatter myself, sooner or later convince my countrymen, that I could have no sinister views in delivering with so little reserve, the opinions contained in this address.

There are four things, which I humbly conceive, are essential to the well being, I may even venture to say, to the existence of the United States as an independent power:

First.  An indissoluble union of the states under one federal head.

Secondly. A sacred regard to justice.

Thirdly.  The adoption of a proper peace establishment.

Fourthly.  The prevalence of that pacific and friendly disposition, among the people of the United States, which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interests of the community.

These are the pillars on which the glorious fabric of our independency and national character must be supported; liberty is the basis, and who ever would dare to sap the foundation, or overturn the structure, under whatever specious pretexts he may attempt it, will merit the bitterest execration, and the severest punishment which can be inflicted by his injured country.”

He then went on at some length to explain each of the first three main points: 1) that the federal government requires certain essential enforceable powers; 2) that creditors must be paid faithfully, and a certain means of revenue put in place, and secondly, the soldiers of the army must be fairly compensated; 3) that the militia is the backbone of the nation’s defenses.

[1]  John C. Fitzpatrick, editor, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799, Washington: The United States Government Printing Office, (1938); Vol. 26, pp. 483-487

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