America under the Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation were the United States’ first governing document, and had many weaknesses.

Learning Objectives

Describe the system the Articles of Confederation established

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Articles of Confederation legally established the United States of America as a confederation of sovereign states, and served as its first constitution.
  • The Articles, drafted and passed by Congress in 1777 and ratified in 1781, provided legitimacy for the Continental Congress to direct the Revolutionary War, conduct diplomacy with Europe, print money, and deal with territorial issues.
  • While influential even to this day, the Articles created a weak government. Congress was denied power of taxation and could regulate neither foreign trade nor interstate commerce.
  • At the Annapolis Convention in 1786, state delegates endorsed a motion calling for all states to meet at a Constitutional Convention in 1787 to revise the Articles.

Key Terms

  • Articles of Confederation: An agreement among the 13 colonies that established the United States of America as a confederation of sovereign states, and that served as its first constitution.

The Articles of Confederation were an agreement among the 13 founding states, legally establishing the United States of America as a confederation of sovereign states and serving as its first constitution. Though they are influential even to this day, the Articles created a weak government that ultimately was replaced in 1789 by the United States Constitution.

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Articles of Confederation: The Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781.

Background and Context

The Articles of Confederation, which established a “firm league” among the 13 free and independent states, constituted an international agreement to set up central institutions for conducting vital domestic and foreign affairs. Congress drafted and passed the Articles in November 1777 and the states ratified them in 1781. Even when not yet ratified, the Articles provided domestic and international legitimacy for the Continental Congress to direct the American Revolutionary War, conduct diplomacy with Europe, print money, and deal with territorial issues and relations with Native Americans.

Limitations of the Articles

The Articles envisioned a permanent confederation of states, but granted its Congress—the only federal institution—little power to finance itself or ensure that its resolutions were enforced. They designated no president and no national court, and the central government’s power was kept quite limited. Congress was denied any powers of taxation; it could only request money from the states. The states, in turn, often failed to meet these requests in full, leaving both Congress and the Continental Army chronically short of money. The states and Congress both incurred large debts during the Revolutionary War, and the federal government assumed these debts when some states failed to settle them.

Congress was also denied the power to regulate either foreign trade or interstate commerce. As a result, states maintained control over their own trade policies. By 1787, Congress had become unable to protect manufacturing and shipping. Congress’ inability to encourage commerce and economic development—or to redeem the public obligations (debts) incurred during the war—significantly hindered its power.

Revision and Replacement

Outcry for a convention to revise the Articles grew louder. Alexander Hamilton was particularly vocal in arguing that a strong central government was necessary to levy taxes, pay back foreign debts, regulate trade, and generally strengthen the United States. He, along with a group of like-minded nationalists, earned President George Washington ‘s endorsement. In May 1786, Continental Congress member Charles Pinckney of South Carolina proposed that Congress revise the Articles. His recommended changes included granting Congress power over foreign and domestic commerce and providing means for it to collect money from state treasuries.

Subsequently, at what came to be known as the Annapolis Convention, in 1786, the few state delegates in attendance endorsed a motion that called for all states to meet in Philadelphia in May 1787 to discuss ways to improve the Articles. This meeting became known as the Constitutional Convention. While its initial aim was to revise the Articles, it would eventually lead to the drafting of an entirely new Constitution.

Congress of the Confederation

The Congress of the Confederation was the governing body of the United States from 1781 to 1789.

Learning Objectives

Identify the strengths and weaknesses of Congress under the Confederation

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Congress of the Confederation was the immediate successor of the Second Continental Congress.
  • The Articles of Confederation established a weak national government comprising a one-house legislature. The Congress had the power to declare war, sign treaties, and settle disputes between states, though it could not tax its states or regulate trade.
  • The Congress of the Confederation was succeeded by the United States Congress.

Key Terms

  • Articles of Confederation: An agreement among the 13 states that established the United States of America as a confederation of sovereign states and that served as its first constitution.
  • Second Continental Congress: A convention of delegates from the 13 colonies that began meeting on May 10, 1775, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, soon after the American Revolutionary War began.
  • Northwest Ordinance: Created and organized the Northwest Territory, which was arguably the most important achievement of the Congress of Confederation outside of the Revolutionary War; passed on July 13, 1787.

The Congress of the Confederation was the governing body of the United States of America, in force from March 1, 1781, to March 4, 1789. It was composed of delegates appointed by the states’ legislatures. As the immediate successor to the Second Continental Congress, it referred to itself as the Continental Congress throughout its 8-year history.

The Congress of the Confederation opened in the final stages of the American Revolution. Combat in the Revolution ended in October 1781 with the surrender of the British at the Battle of Yorktown. The British, however, continued to occupy New York City. Meanwhile, the American delegates in Paris, named by the Congress, negotiated the terms of peace with Great Britain. The membership of the Second Continental Congress automatically carried over to the Congress of the Confederation when the latter was created through the ratification of the Articles of Confederation.

The Articles of Confederation established a weak national government that consisted of a one-house legislature. The Congress had the power to declare war, sign treaties, and settle disputes between states, as well as borrow or print money. The Americans were so fearful of a strong, centralized government that they refused to grant their Congress the power of taxation.
The Congress had little power and, without the external threat of a war against the British, enough delegates to meet to form a quorum became more difficult. Nonetheless, the Congress still managed to pass significant laws, most notably the Northwest Ordinance.

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Congress of Confederation and the Constitution: The signing of the United States Constitution.

The Congress of the Confederation was succeeded by the Congress of the United States, as provided for in the Constitution, proposed September 17, 1787, in Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention. The last meeting of the Continental Congress was held March 2, 1789, 2 days before the Constitutional government assumed power.

State Constitutions

Patriots, as they gained control of formerly Loyalist territories, devised constitutions to determine governance in these new states.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast the state constitutions respectively created by affluent and less-affluent states

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • By 1775, colonies were declaring themselves states and establishing new constitutions to take the place of royal charters. State constitutions varied significantly depending on state demographics and levels of affluence.
  • In their constitutions, states controlled by affluent individuals tended to ensure property qualifications on elected positions, bicameral state legislatures, stronger executive leaders, fewer restraints on individuals, and continuation of state-established religions.
  • States in which less-affluent individuals influenced the constitution tended to ensure less restrictive property requirements for voting or holding office, strong unicameral state legislatures, weak executives, and limits on the number of government posts an individual could hold at one time.
  • Despite being the central government, the Congress of the Confederation had limited power compared with that of the individual states.

Key Terms

  • Royal charter: A formal document issued by a monarch as letters patent, granting a right or power to an individual or a body corporate.
  • bicameral legislature: A legislative body consisting of two chambers, or houses.
  • unicameral legislature: A legislative body with only one parliamentary chamber.

Overview

Following the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, Patriots had gained control of most of Massachusetts. In a sudden shift, the Loyalists found themselves on the defensive. In all 13 colonies, Patriots had overthrown their existing governments, closing courts and driving British governors, agents, and supporters from their homes. They had also elected conventions and “legislatures” that existed outside of any currently established legal framework. New constitutions were used in each colony to supersede royal charters, and the colonies declared themselves states.

On January 5, 1776, New Hampshire ratified the first state constitution, 6 months before the Declaration of Independence was signed. In May 1776, Congress voted to suppress all forms of crown authority and replace them with locally created authority. Virginia, South Carolina, and New Jersey created their constitutions before July 4. Rhode Island and Connecticut simply took their existing royal charters and deleted all references to the crown.

State Constitutions

The new states had to decide what form of government to create, how to select those who would craft the constitutions, and how the resulting document would be ratified. Key differences existed between the respective documents drafted by affluent and less affluent states. In states where the wealthy exerted firm control over the process (such as Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, New York, and Massachusetts) the resulting constitutions featured:

  • Substantial property qualifications for voting and even more substantial requirements for elected positions (though New York and Maryland lowered property qualifications)
  • Bicameral legislatures, with the upper house serving as a check on the lower
  • Strong governors with veto power over the legislature and substantial appointment authority
  • Few or no restraints on individuals holding multiple positions in government
  • Continuation of state-established religion

In states where the less-affluent had organized sufficiently to acquire significant power—especially Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New Hampshire—the resulting constitutions often contained:

  • Relatively weak governors without veto powers and little appointing authority
  • Universal white male suffrage, or minimal property requirements for voting or holding office (New Jersey enfranchised some property-owning widows, a step it retracted 25 years later)
  • Strong, unicameral legislatures
  • Prohibition against individuals holding multiple government posts

Regardless of whether conservatives or radicals held sway in a state, the side with less power did not accept the result quietly. For example, the radical provisions of Pennsylvania’s constitution lasted only 14 years. In 1790, conservatives gained power in the state legislature, called for a new constitutional convention, and rewrote the constitution. The new constitution substantially reduced universal white-male suffrage, gave the governor veto power and patronage appointment authority, and added to the unicameral legislature an upper house with substantial wealth qualifications.

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New Hampshire’s Constitution: The Declaration of Rights and Plan of Government for the State of New Hampshire. New Hampshire was the first state to create a new constitution, in 1776, at the urging of the Continental Congress.

Relationship to the Confederation Congress

While the state constitutions were being created, the Continental Congress continued to meet as a general political body. Despite its being the central government, it was a loose confederation, and the individual states help most significant power. Even with the Articles of Confederation, the central government’s power was quite limited. While Congress could call on states to contribute money, specific resources, and numbers of men needed for the army, it was not allowed to force states to obey the central government’s requests.

Land Policy under the Confederation

The Confederation Congress’ Land Ordinance and Northwest Ordinance had a lasting impact on US history.

Learning Objectives

Identify some of the strengths of the Articles of Confederation

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Land Ordinance of 1785 established a mechanism for surveying, selling, and settling land west of the Appalachian Mountains, north of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River.
  • Under the Northwest Ordinance, established states gave up claims to the new western lands, allowing new states to be created.
  • The Northwest Ordinance was, other than the Declaration of Independence, arguably the single most important piece of legislation passed in the earlier Continental Congress meetings.
  • The language of the ordinance prohibited slavery, but it did not call for emancipating the slaves already held by settlers in the territory.
  • Many Native Americans in Ohio refused to acknowledge treaties signed after the Revolutionary War that ceded to the United States lands they inhabited north of the Ohio River, on the grounds that they were not parties to those treaties.

Key Terms

  • Northwest Territory: Land northwest of the River Ohio; an organized, incorporated area of the United States that existed from July 13, 1787 to March 1, 1803, when the southeastern portion of the land was admitted to the Union as the state of Ohio.
  • Northwest Ordinance: The resolution passed on July 13, 1787, that created and organized the Northwest Territory; it was arguably the most important achievement of the Congress of the Confederation outside of the Revolutionary War.
  • Land Ordinance of 1785: A resolution the US Congress adopted on May 20, 1785, allowing Congress to raise money through the sale of land acquired via the 1783 Treaty of Paris after the end of the Revolutionary War.

Following the defeat of the British that led to the end of the Revolutionary War, the US Congress looked westward for further expansion of the United States. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress lacked the power to raise revenue through direct taxation of US inhabitants. Therefore, an immediate goal was to raise money through sale of land in the largely unmapped territory west of the original states that was acquired via the 1783 Treaty of Paris after the war.

Land Ordinance of 1785

The US Congress adopted the Land Ordinance of 1785 to facilitate that sale. The ordinance, a resolution written by Thomas Jefferson, proposed that the states relinquish their claims to all territory west of the Appalachian Mountains, and that the area be divided into new states of the Union. Land west of the Appalachians, north of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River was to be divided into 10 separate states. However, there was no defined mechanism by which the land would become states, or means to how the territories would be governed or settled before they became states. This ordinance provided a system for selling and settling the land.

Northwest Ordinance of 1787

The Congress of the Confederation enacted the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 to provide for administration of the territories and set rules for admission as a state. On August 7, 1789, the new US Congress affirmed this ordinance with slight modifications under the Constitution. The territory included all land west of Pennsylvania and northwest of the Ohio River, covering all of the modern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, as well as northeastern Minnesota.

The Northwest Ordinance was arguably, other than the Declaration of Independence, the single most important piece of legislation passed in the earlier Continental Congress meetings. It established the precedent by which the federal government would be sovereign and expand westward across North America with the admission of new states, rather than with the expansion of existing states and their established sovereignty under the Articles of Confederation. The prohibition of slavery in the northwest territory had the practical effect of establishing the Ohio River as a boundary between free and slave-holding territories in the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. This division helped set the stage for national competition over admitting free and slave-holding states to the Union.

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United States Land Claims and Cessions, 1782–1802

Illustration of the state cessions that eventually allowed for the creation of the territories north and west of the River Ohio.

Implications of the Ordinances

The Land Ordinance of 1785 established the general practices of land surveying in the west and northwest. It also established the land ownership provisions used throughout the later westward expansion beyond the Mississippi River. The Natural Rights provisions of the Northwest Ordinance also foreshadowed the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. Many of the concepts and guarantees of the Northwest Ordinance were incorporated into the Constitution and Bill of Rights. In the Northwest Territory, various legal and property rights were enshrined and religious tolerance was proclaimed.

The language of the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery, but emancipation of slaves already held by settlers in the territory was not included. Efforts in the 1820s by pro-slavery forces to legalize slavery in the territory failed, but an “indentured servant” law allowed some slaveholders to bring slaves under that status; prohibiting their purchase or sale. Southern states voted for the law because they did not want to compete with the territory over tobacco as a commodity crop; it was so labor intensive that it was only grown profitably with slave labor. The balance of the number of free versus slave states was not affected, as most slave states in 1790 were south of the Ohio River.

Many Native Americans in Ohio refused to acknowledge treaties signed after the Revolutionary War that ceded to the United States lands they inhabited north of the Ohio River, on the grounds that they were not parties to those treaties. In a conflict sometimes known as the Northwest Indian War, Blue Jacket of the Shawnees and Little Turtle of the Miamis formed a confederation to stop white expropriation of the territory. After the Native American confederation had killed more than 800 white soldiers in two battles, President George Washington assigned General Anthony Wayne to command a new army, which eventually defeated the confederation and continued the United States’ imperial expansion into the territories.

The Soul of a Republic

Eighteenth century republicanism in the United States prioritized political participation, commitment to the common good, and individual virtue.

Learning Objectives

Examine how the theory of republicanism influenced US political thought

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Eighteenth-century US republicanism held that liberty and property were constantly threatened by corruption in the form of patronage, factions, standing armies, established churches, and monied interests.
  • Many leaders of the Patriot cause in the Revolution, as well as early leaders of the new United States, seemed to embody this ideal; these included George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.
  • The independence created by individuals’ personal wealth was thought to shield them from the temptations of corruption.
  • Independently wealthy men committed to liberty and property rights were considered most likely to possess sufficient civic virtue to safeguard a republic from the dangers of corruption.

Key Terms

  • civic virtue: The cultivation of habits of personal living that are allegedly important for a community’s success.
  • republicanism: An ideal of government that prioritizes political participation, commitment to the common good, and individual virtue.

Republicanism

The colonial intellectual and political leaders in the 1760s and ’70s closely read history to compare governments and their effectiveness of rule. They were especially concerned with the history of liberty in Britain, and were primarily influenced by the Country Party (which opposed the Court Party, which held power). The Country Party relied heavily on the classical republicanism of Roman heritage and celebrated the ideals of duty and virtuous citizenship in a republic. This approach produced the American political ideology of republicanism, which by 1775 had become widespread in the United States. Republicanism, based on both ancient Greek and Renaissance European thought, has been a central part of American political culture and it strongly influenced the Founding Fathers.

Republicanism and Virtue

Many leaders of the Patriot cause in the Revolution, as well as early leaders of the new United States, seemed to embody this republican ideal; these included George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Revolutionary republicanism was centered on the ideal of limiting corruption and greed. Virtue was of the utmost importance for citizens and representatives. Revolutionaries aimed to avoid the materialism that contributed to the Roman Empire’s downfall. A virtuous citizen was considered one who spurned monetary compensation and made a commitment to resist and eradicate corruption. The Republic was considered sacred; therefore it was necessary to serve the state in a truly representative way, setting aside self-interest and individual will.

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Society of the Cincinnati Membership Certificate: Widely held republican ideals led American revolutionaries to found institutions such as the Society of the Cincinnati, which was founded to preserve the ideals and camaraderie of officers who served in the American Revolution.

Republicanism required the service of people willing to give up their own interests for the common good. Virtuous citizens had to be strong defenders of liberty and challenge corruption and greed in government. Eighteenth-century US republicanism held that liberty and property were constantly threatened by corruption in the form of patronage, factions, standing armies, established churches, and monied interests.

Civic virtue became a matter of public interest and discussion during the 18th century, in part because of the American Revolutionary War. A popular opinion of the time was that republics required cultivation of specific political beliefs, interests, and habits among their citizens, and that if those habits were not cultivated, they were in danger of falling back into some type of authoritarian rule, such as a monarchy.

American historian Gordon S. Wood, conversely, described how monarchies had various advantages. The pomp and circumstance surrounding monarchies cultivated a sense that the rulers were entitled to citizens’ obedience and that they maintained order just by their presence. In contrast, in a republic, the rulers were servants of the public, so there could be no sustained coercion from them. Laws had to be obeyed for the sake of conscience, rather than fear of the ruler’s wrath. In a monarchy, people might be restrained by force so as to give up their own interests in favor of their government’s. In a republic, however, people must be persuaded to submit their own interests to the government, and this voluntary submission constituted the 18th century’s notion of civic virtue. In the absence of such persuasion, it was believed that the government’s authority would collapse, and tyranny or anarchy would be imminent.

Virtue vs. Commerce

Republicanism idealized those who owned enough property to be both independently wealthy and staunchly committed to liberty and property rights. Therefore they could serve their country in the best interest of all, rather than their personal interest or that of a particular group. It was believed that the independence that personal wealth enabled would shield people from the temptations of corruption. Independently wealthy men committed to liberty and property rights were considered most likely to possess sufficient civic virtue to safeguard a republic from the dangers of corruption.

The open question of the conflict between personal economic interest (grounded in John Locke’s philosophy of liberalism) and classical republicanism troubled Americans. Jefferson and James Madison roundly denounced the Federalists for creating a national bank, which could lead to corruption and monarchism. Alexander Hamilton staunchly defended his program, arguing that national economic strength was necessary for the protection of liberty. While Jefferson never relented, Madison changed his position and spoke in favor of a national bank in 1815, which he set up in 1816.

Adams also worried that financial interests could conflict with republican duty. He was especially suspicious of banks. To Adams, history taught that “the Spirit of Commerce… is incompatible with that purity of Heart, and Greatness of soul which is necessary for a happy Republic.” However, so much of that spirit of commerce had already infected the United States. Adams noted that, in New England: “Even the Farmers and Tradesmen are addicted to Commerce.” As a result, there was “a great Danger that a Republican Government would be very factious and turbulent there.”

Voting in the 18th Century

The 18th-century United States had the widest franchise of any nation of the world. However, it was a form of society at that time. Property gave the adult white male “a stake in society, made him responsible, worthy of a voice.” Enough taxable property and the right religion made him further eligible to hold office. Compared with other societies of the time, many could vote because most property was held as family farms. States also counted slaves as property for voter-qualification purposes. Three states already favored abolishing property requirements. To allow all states their own rules of suffrage, the Constitution was written with no property requirements for voting.