April 24, 2009 – As I mentioned in my last installment, the proposals to draft a Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation were made within days of each other. The war for independence was still in its early stages and the fight would continue for years.
It speaks volumes about the mindset of the Continental Congress that it took them only two days to edit and agree upon the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, yet it took more than a year to agree upon a revised, and much weakened, version of the Articles of Confederation. It must be remembered that the blood of their fellow countrymen was still fresh upon the ground at Lexington and Concord, spilled by British soldiers. It was not unreasonable that they would readily agree upon a document proclaiming their independence, yet hesitate to so quickly agree upon a document giving that would grant government anything that might be considered oppressive power. The belief was that if they granted their new government too much power they would merely be replacing one tyrant for another.
Even in its weakened form, the Articles of Confederation were not unanimously agreed upon by the states until March of 1781, just 8 months prior to the defeat of the British at Yorktown and the end of the Revolutionary War.
Due to their trepidation what the states ended up with was a government that was more window dressing than anything else. It was so deficient and ineffective that it was a government in name only.
Even while the Congress acted as de facto government, its powers were almost non-existent. Due to the limitations upon the powers of Congress imposed by the Articles, the states retained almost all the power, making it difficult for Congress to function with any authority.
There were a few successes, such as the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war, and the Land Ordinance Act of 1785, which established the procedures for admitting new states to the Union.
Even so, it was apparent even before the Revolutionary War ended that Congress was powerless to raise the revenue required to operate. Under the terms of the Articles of Confederation, Congress could only request that the states contribute fund to the Treasury, they had no authority at all to levy taxes.
It was obvious that the Congress needed some sort of authority to levy taxes, so the Congress applied to the states, which means they asked permission, for the power to levy the necessary taxes to provide for the operation of the government.
Can you imagine Congress today pleading with you for permission to increase the amount of money they could take out of your pay to fund for all their unlimited spending. I can hear you now, “Gee, I don’t think so Mr. Congressman.” If they asked me, I would tell them to take a flying leap at the moon, if I was that polite!
Even so, twelve states agreed to their request, with Rhode Island being the only holdout. Unfortunately, under the Articles of Confederation, a unanimous was required and the request was denied. That left the Congress with no power to raise the required funds to operate, plunging the federal government into debt.
The Liberum Veto, or the ability of any state by a no vote to veto legislation, was another weakness of the Articles of Confederation. One single state could, by voting no, or having its delegates to Congress absent when a vote was taken, could defeat a piece of legislation. We talk about gridlock in Washington D.C. now. Can you imagine how difficult it would have been to accomplish anything when a single state could throw a monkey wrench into the works?
Another problem with the Articles of Confederation was that there was no authority to enforce the laws they passed. Remember, the Articles did not establish an executive branch, or a President as we now have. Also, there were no courts to interpret the laws once they were passed.
For example, say Congress declared war with another country. They could pass legislation stating that the states would need to provide the required troops to fight, but they could not force the states to do so if the states refused. This weakness proved a problem for the new government as they could not show any military strength.
In some cases the British refused to withdraw their forces after the war, yet Congress could not force them to do so because they did not have the power to raise sufficient forces to face the remaining British soldiers. Often these remaining British soldiers supplied arms to the native American Indians, encouraging them to attack American settlers.
It was not only the British who proved to be a thorn in the side for Congress. The Spanish still controlled Florida and Louisiana, as well as the territory west of the Mississippi, and they refused to allow American farmers to use the port of New Orleans to ship their goods.
Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had no authority to decide upon a common currency for the Union. Therefore the states printed their own money. Some of the state printed large amounts of money, causing it to have less buying power than the currency of a neighboring state. This led to problems in trade between the states, as nobody used a common currency with a stable monetary value.
Finally, while Congress had the power to negotiate treaties with other countries, they relied upon a unanimous ratification by all thirteen states. Therefore, many countries were hesitant to enter into treaties with the United States because they knew that a single state could negate the treaty.
The United States was hanging together by, as we might say today, duct tape and bailing wire. The situation was so unstable that George Washington warned, “There are combustibles in every state which a spark might set fire to.”
This was the situation that faced our nation in the year of 1787. It was the dire condition of the Union that led Congress, on February 21, 1787, to resolve, “It is expedient that on the second Monday in May next a Convention of delegates who shall have been appointed by the several States be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”
But we all know that the convention in Philadelphia led to something completely different than mere revisions to the Articles of Confederation. To find out what happened, stay tuned for Chapter 3.
Live your life in such a way that when your feet hit the floor in the morning,
Satan shudders and says “OH SHIT!!…. HE’S AWAKE!!”
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