230 Years Ago Today: America’s First Constitution Ratified
Two Hundred Thirty Years ago today, only one year after The Declaration of Independence was made public, and in the middle of a war that the American Colonies still had a chance to lose, the Continental Congress took the first step toward creating a national government, adopting the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.
This first attempt at national government was quite different from what was adopted only ten years later. There was no President separate from the Continental Congress, no Supreme Court or Federal Court system, and gave the national government almost no power.
The Thirteen Articles provided as follows:
Article I — Establishes the name of the confederation as “The United States of America” and says it is a “perpetual Union.”
Article II — Asserts the precedence of the separate states over the confederation government, i.e. “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated.”
Article III — Establishes the United States as a league of states united “. . . for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them . . . .”
Article IV — Establishes freedom of movement–anyone can pass freely between states, excluding “paupers, vagabonds, and fugitives from justice.” All people are entitled to the rights established by the state into which he travels. If a crime is committed in one state and the perpetrator flees to another state, he will be extradited to and tried in the state in which the crime was committed.
Article V — Allocates one vote in the Congress of the Confederation (United States in Congress Assembled) to each state, which was entitled to a delegation of between two and seven members. Members of Congress were appointed by state legislatures; individuals could not serve more than three out of any six years.
Article VI — Only the central government is allowed to conduct foreign relations and to declare war. No states may have navies or standing armies, or engage in war, without permission of Congress (although the state militias are encouraged).
Article VII — When an army is raised for common defense, colonels and military ranks below colonel will be named by the state legislatures.
Article VIII — Expenditures by the United States will be paid by funds raised by state legislatures, and apportioned to the states based on the real property values of each.
Article IX — Defines the rights of the central government: to declare war, to set weights and measures (including coins), and for Congress to serve as a final court for disputes between states.
Ariticle X — Defines a Committee of the States to be a government when Congress is not in session.
Article XI — Requires nine states to approve the admission of a new state into the confederacy; pre-approves Canada, if it applies for membership.
Article XII — Reaffirms that the Confederation accepts war debt incurred by Congress before the Articles.
Article XIII — Declares that the Articles are perpetual, and can only be altered by approval of Congress with ratification by all the state legislatures.
In the end, the Articles proved ineffective in providing an effective national government for the new United States. Most importantly, a unitary legislature where each state had an equal vote proved to be the source of discontent between large and small states, each of whom felt they were not being equally and fairly represented in the national debate.
In addition, the Continental Congress soon proved to be a toothless tiger:
A product of haste, the Articles was meant as a stopgap, a short-term defensive alliance, and it took effect at almost the moment it became obsolete. The conditions of 1776 and 1777 had hardly been conducive to a systematic political ideology—and it showed. The central government lacked an executive and a judiciary. As Morgan wrote, “Congress had been safeguarded into impotency.” Unable to levy taxes, it depended on funds from the states, which increasingly ignored its pleas. States issued their own paper money without any specie to back it, negotiated their own foreign policy, raised their own navies, and taxed shipments from neighboring states. The new nation’s commerce and economy fell into chaos, and Britain declined to trade with American merchants. Congress was powerless to respond or even recommend a course of action; the states rarely sent enough delegates to reach a quorum. George Washington called the Confederation “a half-starved, limping Government that appears to be always moving upon crutches, and tottering at every step.”
And, less than a decade after they went into effect, they ceased to exist.