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
*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
*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
*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
*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
*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
*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
*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.