ADVANCED PLACEMENT UNITED STATES HISTORY
The Articles of Confederation


*With Independence declared, and the United States on the way to forming a new country, the several states, in many cases, decided that they, too, needed new forms of government.  However, there was considerable debate on exactly how to go about this.

*Many Americans, especially among the leaders of the Revolution, had a number of fears.  They feared an overly powerful executive, but they feared that a government too responsive to the popular will would be unstable and changeable.  Governments ought to be republican, that is, all power is derived from the people, but for the people to properly grant authority, they must be virtuous. 

*Virtue depended in turn upon independence, financial and social as well as political, so that the virtuous republican could not be influenced by a master.  The truly virtuous republican likewise made his own way in the world—he was not corrupted by making his living from the work of others, as mere landlords or merchants did.  In most states, it was still felt that owning enough land to support one’s own family was a requirement to be truly independent.  Maintaining a good family was also seen as part of republican virtue, and the ideal of republican motherhood arose, whereby mothers were seen as guardians of republican virtue, raising their children to be good citizens.

*Americans kept these concerns in mind as they created their new governments, as they all did except Rhode Island and Connecticut, which kept their old charters. 

*These new governments had written constitutions.  To a lesser or greater extent, they had weak executives—Pennsylvania did without one at all.  Except in Pennsylvania and Georgia they had bicameral legislatures, and, except in Pennsylvania, they had property qualifications for voting, so that no-one would vote whose vote might be influenced by a creditor or employer.

*The idea arose during the 1770s and early 1780s that constitutions, being instruments of the will of the people, ought to be ratified by special conventions chosen by the people for that purpose, and this was done in most states so that by the end of 1776 ten states had new constitutions.

*However, these constitutions often did not work very well.  Governors were weak and ineffective, and the frequently elected legislatures (in all states but South Carolina, elections were held every year to keep legislators accountable to the people) were often chaotic.
 
*In Pennsylvania it even took two years to pass a law, according to the constitution (an election had to pass before a bill could become law, so that the people could consider it in their voting).

*During the 1780s the states began to amend and replace their constitutions with more pragmatic, conservative systems.

*Many of these new governments made efforts to live up to the ideals of the Revolution.  The Church of England lost its established status (although in some other places, taxes would support some churches as late as 1833, when the practise ended in Massachusetts).  In Virginia Jefferson wrote the ‘Statute of Religious Liberty’ in 1786.

*Disestablishing religion was easier than might have been imagined in a past generation, because a number of the Founders, although definitely not all, had been influenced by the ideas of Deism, an Enlightenment idea that while God existed, He was not active in the world after the point when He created it with natural laws to govern things, rather than working through divine intervention.  Deists believed that while men still had moral duties to God, many aspects of traditional religious practise, and perhaps even the role of Jesus as the saviour of mankind, were mere superstition.  Although all of the Founders were members of one church or another, there were quite a few, most famously Jefferson, who saw the church as outdated and certainly not the centre of life as had been the case in the past.

*Every state but Georgia and South Carolina even passed laws against importing slaves from abroad.  However, slavery was like holding a wolf by the ears:  America did not like it, but she did not dare let it go.  To do so would be economically disastrous, might lead to rebellion, and also create a vast class of un-propertied freemen who would be dangerous elements in society.

*As the states formed constitutions, the United States struggled to create a government of their own in order to prosecute the Revolutionary War more fully.

*Begun in 1776 and completed in 1777, the Articles of Confederation described a loose government for the United States.  Each state could send as many delegates as it wished to the Congress, but each state would only get one vote in total.  There was no actual executive, but merely the President of Congress, who was more like a chairman, and who was assisted by an executive committee of 13 men (one from each state).  Overall, his office was a very weak one.  The Confederation also had no real courts, although it did have the right to adjudicate in a few areas, such as border disputes.  To pass any important law required not just a majority, but a two-thirds majority (9), and this was often hard to get, although not as hard as the unanimous vote needed to amend the Articles.

*Overall the Articles of Confederation were designed to be weak and to avoid having a strong executive, because at the time those seemed to be the things that the states were fighting against, plus each state viewed itself as sovereign, and most wanted the Articles of Confederation to be a loose union of coöperating, but still basically independent, states.

*The Articles were discussed for years until finally the big states offered to give up their western lands (much to the satisfaction of Maryland, who signed at last in 1781, making it the legitimate government of America).

*Congress had the power to request money from the states, but not to demand it, although Congress could borrow money from any source that would lend it.

*Congress could print money, and did so with such abandon that ‘not worth a Continental’ became slang for ‘worthless.’  Many states were also issuing their own paper money, and doing so in such quantities that it lost its value.  They also set their own tariffs on imports and exports, both foreign and domestic, thus creating trade wars between some states as some tried to attract foreign trade by lowering their tariffs.  Internal tariffs between states also stifled domestic trade.

*Soon, foreign merchants did not want to do business with America.  No-one trusted the United States as a trading partner, especially with the knowledge that debts might not be repaid or might be repaid in devalued paper.  Virginia in particular resisted repaying pre-war debts by large planters to British merchants.

*Congress could also conduct warfare and diplomacy, and here, again, they largely failed.

*Despite the Peace of Paris, Britain refused to leave her forts in the Northwest or to pay for slaves released by Lord Dunmore or other officers.  America, of course, did not make restitution to the Loyalists, either.  American and Britain disputed their northern boundary, and Britain began to close trade with America.  Finally, John Jay’s attempt to make a treaty with Spain that would have opened up Spain to American trade fell through because Jay tried to sell the West down the river—the Mississippi River, in fact, which would have been closed to American trade.  This was part of Spanish (and British) policy to try to limit the expansion of the United States, and some Easterners were not opposed to limiting the settlement of the West, either, out of fear that Westerners might lose their connections with the East and perhaps even form a new country of their own.

*The Mississippi was the lifeline of the west, and this is important because among its few successful acts was the Confederation Congress’ passage of the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. 

*The Land Ordinance set orderly rules for surveying and selling land in the Northwest in neat, square, townships and sections, including the provision that one in 36 sections of land would be sold to raise fund for a school in that township. 

*The Northwest Ordinance also included provisions for the creation of states—up to five in the area--to be considered for admission to the union when their population exceeded 60,000, and they would be full states, equal in every way with the existing 13 states, not inferior provinces of some kind.  Finally, in this area, slavery was forbidden, although there were a few loopholes.

*The Southwest did not get such well-detailed plans, in part because Virginia was unwilling to relinquish Kentucky (although people there were seeking to become a state in their own right) and North Carolina was not certain how to handle her western lands.

*In 1784, North Carolina (like other states) offered its western lands to Congress, but Congress did not immediately vote to accept this cession.  North Carolina hoped to get some relief from its share of the war debt in exchange.  When North Carolina leaders heard from their delegates to Congress that New England states were getting more credit for less, they took the cession back.  In the interim, the people of the area had formed a government of their own, the State of Franklin, and the people of Franklin and North Carolina struggled with each other for over four years before Franklin finally collapsed.  During that time, some states wanted to accept Franklin as a new state, while others were opposed, generally depending on whether or not they had any similar independence movements within their borders (or, in Georgia’s case, the shared interest of taking land from the Creek Indians in the Great Bend of the Tennessee River), and there was never a 2/3 majority supporting Franklin at any given point.  The fact that Congress could not resolve this, or other, internal disputes that verged on civil war was seek as a distinct weakness and as a threat to the stability of the states and the union.

*Even after the Northwest Ordinance was passed, many Indians claimed land in the old Northwest, and they were willing to fight for it, despite the agreement by some leaders to give up claims to some of that land.  In 1785 Iroquois, Miami, Shawnee, Delaware, Ottawa, Chippewa, and other western tribes confederated together for mutual defence and even attacks on white settlers.  This is sometimes called the Western Indian Confederation or the Miami Confederation (because the Miami were thought to be the main tribe involved, although the Shawnee were actually very numerous, too).  At first, this confederation would prove a serious threat to American settlement.

*On the high seas, the US Navy could not protect merchant vessels from the Barbary Pirates nor could Congress afford to bribe them to leave American ships alone, exposing them to the loss of their cargoes and even the enslavement of American sailors.

*Even in safely settled areas, America was beset by problems.  Congress were in deep debt.  They owed money to foreigners and to American merchants.  However, because they could not levy taxes, they cannot do anything about it, and the US were about to default on their debt, which was large—about $50,000,000.00, and that was just the national debt.  State and personal debts were high, too.

*Immediately after the Revolutionary War ended, Americans had celebrated by spending a lot of money on foreign goods, which ultimately created a vast trade deficit—about £5 million.  Under the mercantilist system, of course, this created a dangerous outflow of hard currency, leaving America cash-poor.

*Combined with a post-war depression, the lack of specie hurt debtors badly, as it was hard to pay back their loans.

*Even Congress could not pay their debts, either to Continental soldiers, American creditors, or foreign governments.  Because Congress could not tax, but could only ask for contributions from the states (only about 1/6 of which were ever paid), the United States were in danger of defaulting on their loans.

*A group of nationalists emerged who wanted a stronger government.  These included Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, and they proposed at 5% duty on imported goods called the Continental Impost, which would raise money and strengthen the general government.  In 1781 every state but Rhode Island voted in favour of the Impost, but because it took unanimous agreement to amend the Articles, the motion failed then.  They tried again in 1783.

*The states tried to make money by raising taxes, especially around 1785-6.  Men who held bonds and wanted to be paid back approved this, but farmers were outraged, especially in New England, where there was perhaps the most diversity in economic interest (having both important farming and commercial interests).

*Many banks called in their loans, including the Bank of North America, the Bank of New York, and the Bank of Massachusetts.  When debtors could not pay, their property was seized.  To many, this felt like the kind of economic tyranny they had fought a war to escape.

*By 1786, many men, especially western farmers, could pay neither their personal debts nor their state taxes.

*In Rhode Island, farmers took charge of the state Assembly through the electoral process and begin a programme of farm relief that scared everyone else.  Most notably, perhaps, they printed ‘rag money’ at a fixed rate and required creditors to accept it at face value even though it was worth far less.  The creditors felt cheated and defrauded on loans made in good faith.

*In western Massachusetts, things were even worse.

*Massachusetts in particular was controlled by its eastern merchants and commercial interests.

*Massachusetts was also deep in debt, mostly to rich American merchants who had lent the state money during the war, and these men started to call in their loans.  To raise money, Massachusetts passed a very heavy direct tax, and required it all be paid in specie, just as the British had done 20 years before.

*In the western parts of the states, poor farmers had trouble paying the tax, especially in gold and silver.  Farms and property were seized, and people got angry.

*By 1786, one third of Massachusetts farmers (mostly in the western part of the state) were being sued for debt, and the jails were becoming filled with men who were considered respectable members of their communities.  Another such man, a respected farmer and Revolutionary War veteran, Daniel Shays, decided something has to be done to protect their liberty and property.

*Shays organised resistance to the Massachusetts government.  During Shays’s Rebellion, he and his men made several demands of the state legislature:  printing paper money to increase the money supply, tax relief, a moratorium on debts, removal of the state capital from Boston to the interior, and abolition of imprisonment for debt.

*By the summer of 1786, armed bands, many of their members Revolutionary War veterans, prevented the collection of debts or the sale of seized property by preventing courts from sitting and sheriffs from collecting property, seizing men, or auctioning off confiscated property.  The east was scared, and even Samuel Adams called Shays’s men rebels and traitors.

*In January, 1787, state militiamen from Eastern Massachusetts, funded through loans from wealthy businessmen, attacked Shays’s men at Springfield, killing three, wounding one, and capturing many more, including Shays.  He and his men were sentenced to death, but were later pardoned and some of his demands were granted (such as tax relief and the postponement of debt payments).

*This rebellion frightened all kinds of Americans.  Many of the more influential feared that similar rebellions might arise all over the country.  It also showed that the existing government structure was fiscally and militarily troubled.  Therefore, more people became sympathetic to the Nationalists.

*Despite the defeat of Shays’s Rebellion and the fact that several states did have sound currencies and responsible finances, the danger of Shays’s Rebellion, as well as frontier state movements, Indian warfare, international problems, and the general imbecility of the general government led some men to attempt to reform or, if need be, replace the Articles of Confederation.


This page last updated 30 June, 2020.
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