It’s been four weeks since my last #OnThisDay blog post. Today’s might not be the most exciting topic for you, but I think it’s important for Americans to be reminded about the early days of our democracy. The historian in me just can’t help myself.
The Articles of Confederation document was the forerunner of the U.S. Constitution.
On November 15, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation. It was that document that established the name of our country as the United States of America. It served as the defacto constitution of the nation throughout the Revolutionary War.
I reread the Articles of Confederation last week. It had been quite a while since I’d read the document.
Still stinging from oppressive British rule, the frames of the Articles of Confederation were hesitant to create a strong federal government. Much power was retained by the individual states. States’ rights have been a bone of contention throughout the history of the U.S. and still is today. It seems like every week the legislature of at least one state in the union is testing the waters and “pushing the envelope” to see just how far they can go without being reined in by the U.S. Supreme Court. The major issues today that fall in that category are abortion rights, gun rights, and Covid-19 vaccination mandates.
There were weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation. The document did not give the U.S. the authority to issue a national currency. Hence, the various states printed their own money. It makes my head spin to think what our country would be like today if that hadn’t been corrected.
Another weakness in the document was the absence of authority of the national government to levy taxes. Some people probably think things should have stayed that way, but just think how many things we would not have today if not for federal taxes. The “common treasury” was to be supported by the states, with each state contributing an amount based on the value of the land in that state.
Of all the language in the document, the wording in Article III stood out for me. Specifically, the words, “firm league of friendship.” That phrase sounds quaint to our 21st century ears.
Article III states the following: “The said states hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defence [sic], 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 or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretence [sic] whatever.”
Article IV went on to state that citizens of any state had the freedom to travel to and from any other state. Of course, slaves were not considered citizens, so they were not afforded that right.
Just as details of how a democratic government operates today takes a long time and much gnashing of teeth, so it was with the Articles of Confederation. The debate leading up to the adoption of the document lasted 16 months.
The Articles of Confederation served the United States of America until March 4, 1789, when it was replaced by the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution is a living, breathing document. It is continually up for interpretation and has been amended 27 times. No doubt, it will be amended many more times.
Since my last blog post
We had spectacular autumn weather last week in North Carolina! Wednesday was a crystal clear, unseasonably warm day. I took a break from raking dead, brown leaves to walk around our yard with my cell. I couldn’t stop taking pictures as I happened on one gorgeous tree after another.
I concluded that I live in paradise. I started with one of my favorite trees. It’s a maple that my father and I found as a sprout in our woods in the fall of 1965. It wasn’t much taller than I was, but it was decked out in beautiful orange leaves. The maples in our yard were yellow in the fall, and I wanted an orange one.
Daddy marked the location of the sprout and returned later to dig it up. We planted it in front of our house, and there it proudly stands today, much taller than the house. This fall, it’s orange at top and the rest of it is yellow.
I’m blessed to once again live in that house. We’re blessed with a wonderful variety of trees, including pine, cedar, maple, hickory, several varieties of oak, holly, mulberry, poplar, ash, dogwood, sweet gum, persimmon, and black walnut.
Dealing with the leaves in the fall after the red, yellows, golds, and oranges have faded and the spent leaves have dropped to the ground is quite a chore. I tend to dread autumn because of the multitude of leaves that must be raked, blown, carried off, or mulched with the tractor, but this year I’ve chosen to enjoy the riot of color in our yard every day. It won’t last much longer.
When not outside, I worked on my novel. I’m putting into practice some of the things I recently learned in the online writing course I’ve mentioned in earlier blog posts. It feels good to be revising, editing, and improving my novel.
If you’ve visited my blog today expecting to find out what books I read last month, please forgive me. I felt compelled to write about an event in American history today. I’ll share with you my thoughts about the books I read in February in my blog posts on March 8 and 15.
It was 240 years ago today that the Articles of Confederation were ratified by the State of Maryland – the last of the 13 states to ratify the document, making it the law of the land.
As a writer and reader of historical fiction and nonfiction, I need to keep in mind what the federal government could and could not do before 1789. Today’s blog post is a “crash course” about the Articles of Confederation. I hope it will be a painless way to refresh your memory about the document and some of the reasons it had to be replaced by the US Constitution.
What were the Articles of Confederation?
The Articles of Confederation were spelled out in a five-page document that served as a constitution for the former American colonies after they won independence from Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War. It took the Continental Congress 16 months to draw up the document. The document was adopted on November 15, 1777, in York, Pennsylvania. York was serving as the temporary capital of the new country.
The Articles of Confederation loosely held the 13 states together. It mandated a single house in Congress, and each state had one vote. The Articles gave Congress authority over foreign affairs, the power to raise a national army, and the power to declare war and declare peace; however, the Articles did not give the Congress the power to levy taxes.
How durable were the Articles of Confederation?
It didn’t take long for people to identify problems with the Articles of Confederation.
Not wanting to risk being accused of “taxation without representation” the framers of the Article of Confederation gave states the authority to impose taxes but they did not give that authority to the United States government. Having hindsight, we can see today that such a setup was unsustainable, and it’s difficult for me to see how the framers couldn’t anticipate that. Since the new nation was in debt at the end of the American Revolution, it was difficult to raise funds to pay off that indebtedness without the power to impose taxes.
Another problem with the Articles of Confederation was that each state could issue their own currency. Imagine if that were the case today!
The Articles of Confederation failed to create a sense of nation. With a weak central government, allegiances were often more to one’s state than to the country. Indeed, that mindset continued in some ranks and contributed to the formation of the Confederate States of America and the outbreak of the American Civil War. Robert E. Lee’s almost blind allegiance to the State of Virginia comes to mind.
The US Constitution
Seeing the problems with the Articles of Confederation, the US Constitution was drawn up. It replaced the Articles of Confederation on March 4, 1789. For more information about the creation of the US Constitution, please see my May 25, 2020 blog post, #OnThisDay: 1787 US Constitutional Convention.
Since my last blog post
I’ve enjoyed reading some books that I’ll blog about later. After having trouble concentrating on anything in January, it’s been gratifying to once again enjoy reading.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book to read and quality writing time if you’re a writer, blogger, or like to journal just for your own edification. Writing is therapeutic.
I hope you have time to enjoy a favorite hobby.
Keep wearing that facemask out of respect for others.
In doing the research necessary to refresh my memory enough to write today’s blog post, I discovered just how close the United States came to failing in the 1780s. As a younger student of history, I didn’t grasp the fragility and gravity of the situation. In an effort to stabilize and save the new nation, a constitutional convention was called for in the spring of 1787. Today’s blog post will attempt to give you an idea about what necessitated that convention which opened 233 years ago today.
It was a contentious time. It was a time of trial and error as the former colonists, who had just won a war for independence from Great Britain against all odds, faced the difficult work of creating a nation and there was no guide book for them to follow.
The Articles of Confederation
The Continental Congress agreed on “Articles of Confederation” in November 1777. The document formed more of an alliance than a nation. The Articles gave Congress the power to wage war, conduct diplomacy, and arbitrate disputes between the various states. Each state had one delegate. Going to war required nine of the 13 votes in favor. All 13 states had to ratify the Articles of Confederation in order for them to go into effect. Any amendments also required unanimous votes.
Congress could not, under the Articles of Confederation, enact laws. In fact, it had to rely on the states to recruit soldiers for the Continental Army. States were free to regulate trade and enact laws and the Congress had no power over them.
State boundaries needed to be established and states needed the authority to maintain authority within those boundaries. The Articles of Confederation left too much to chance and interpretation.
How could the 13 states go about forming a union with only the Articles of Confederation holding them together? They feared creating a Congress strong enough to interfere with issues within the individual states. After all, they knew what life was like under a strong central government. In today’s vernacular, they would have said, “Been there. Done that.” They knew what they didn’t want in a national government, but it wasn’t easy to agree on what they wanted or needed.
Small states wanted a federal government that could control westward expansion. They feared that, without a strong central government, states like Virginia and New York would prosper financially from selling their western lands and, therefore, become more solvent and more attractive to settlers than the smaller states.
Virginia and New York eventually relinquished their claims on “western lands.” That was enough to persuade Maryland to ratify the Articles of Confederation on February 2, 1781 –finally making ratification of the Articles unanimous and complete.
To begin to address the problems associated with western expansion, Congress started establishing temporary territories that could later become states. I’ll get into some of the details of how that was carried out in a blog post planned for July 13, 2020 on the anniversary of the adoption of the third Northwest Ordinance in 1787.
By the end of 1776, 10 states had adopted constitutions. Connecticut and Rhode Island still operated under their charters. Massachusetts didn’t adopt a state constitution until 1780.
Most of the state constitutions began with a stated bill of rights. A free press, freedom of religion, the right to petition, trial by jury, and due process under the law were the items most states included in their constitutions. Most of them made it clear that the people wouldn’t stand for hereditary offices. In other words, there would be no American aristocracies.
In reaction to the royal governors the states’ residents had suffered under, the state constitutions limited executive power. They limited who could vote: only white men who owned enough property to support a family. It was believed if a man had a landlord, he would not be free to vote his own mind. Several states restricted those men who could serve in their legislatures to the very wealthy.
After the Revolutionary War
Although the Americans won the war for independence, they had paid a big price in deaths and the economy. The new country had no silver or gold mines to back an economy. Fortunately, many British and other European merchants offered American businessmen credit because they were eager to reestablish trade with their former clients. However, the British blocked America from trading with the West Indies. That restriction was instrumental in plunging American merchants into debt in the years after the war.
A recession followed the war while the new country tried to get on its feet. There were economic inequalities between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” so not much has changed in two and half centuries.
Frustration increased as states racked up debt and taxed citizens. In Massachusetts, South Carolina, and New Hampshire farmers began to mobilize much as the Regulators had prior to the revolution. They went so far as to block county courts from meeting so farm foreclosures could not be processed. Some states chose to forgive debts in an attempt to avoid armed conflict. Seven of the 13 states started printing paper money.
Conservatives started having misgivings about the outcome of the war. They saw many states as being too democratic, and they started calling for a Constitutional Convention.
James Madison’s input
James Madison was turned to for advice. He had studied state governments and concluded a popular majority could govern every bit as tyrannically as a monarch. He said that the rich minority should be protected from the poorer majority.
Conventional wisdom of the day was that a republic had to be small so representatives could really know their constituents. Madison bucked that theory. To quote from Pulitzer Prize winning historian Alan Taylor’s book, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, Madison thought that if voters had a larger population from which to elect their leaders, “the purest and noblest characters” would be elected to office. (I wonder if he would still hold to that belief today.)
Madison met with Alexander Hamilton and 10 other “nationalists” in September 1786 to draft an appeal to Congress to call for a constitutional convention. Congress wanted the Articles of Confederation to remain but agreed to call a convention to write amendments. Congress also stipulated that the amendments would have to be approved by Congress and each state legislature.
The nationalists feared that the country would plunge into anarchy and the result would either be a monarch or a splintering of states into several confederations.
What happened 233 years ago today?
A Constitutional Convention was scheduled to open on May 25, 1787 in Philadelphia with the purpose of revising and strengthening the Articles of Confederation. However, what happened over the next four months was the drafting of the United States Constitution.
Every state except Rhode Island sent delegations to the convention. James Madison convinced George Washington that he should attend as a Virginia delegate. As a group, the 55 delegates were elitists. More than half of them held college degrees. More than half of them owned slaves. None represented the populist views of the farmers and other citizens of modest means.
The convention was held in what is now known as Independence Hall. On the first day, George Washington was unanimously elected to preside over the group. The doors and windows were kept shut and they agreed to a strict code of secrecy. No outsiders were allowed inside.
What transpired over the next four months?
Delegates came and went as the weeks went by. In fact, all 55 were never in attendance at the same time. Though multiple delegates came from each state, each state was allowed only one vote. Just as seems to be the rule instead of the exception with American politicians in 2020, they talked a good talk about “the common good,” but they all fought for their own state’s interests.
“The Virginia Plan” was presented on May 29. It called for a bicameral legislature with both houses having a number of representatives based on population. It called for a powerful national government with an executive branch and a judicial branch in addition to the legislative branch. Smaller states didn’t like the Virginia Plan.
The “New Jersey Plan” was presented in mid-June. Under that plan, there would be only one legislative body and much of the government would continue as it was under the Articles of Confederation.
Believing both plans were weak, Alexander Hamilton presented is own plan on June 18 in a five-hour harangue. He maintained that Great Britain had the best government in the world and that America should copy it. Under Hamilton’s plan, the electoral college would elect the president and senators and they would serve for life! Only the House of Representatives would be elected by popular vote of the people. Congress would not have the power to override a presidential veto. All state governors would be appointed by the national government.
For the next month, the delegates debated the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan, not thinking the majority of citizens would accept the British model championed by Alexander Hamilton. They were essentially deadlocked until Benjamin Franklin and the Connecticut delegation presented a plan whereby there would be a bicameral legislature. Each state would have equal representation in the Senate, but representation in the House would be based on population. That compromise plan was adopted on July 16 by a vote of five to four. The Massachusetts delegation could not agree on which way to vote.
The following day, July 17, seven of 10 delegations voted against Hamilton’s idea that the national government should be able to veto state laws. They also voted to prohibit states from issuing paper money.
Another point of contention for the convention was slavery. Slaves made up about four percent of the population of northern states and about 40 percent of the population of Southern states. Southern delegates wanted a national government strong enough to protect their property rights but not strong enough to emancipate slaves.
Since virtually all the delegates regarded blacks as inferior to whites, the debates came down more to regional interests than the morality of slavery. The compromise that was struck was the “three-fifths clause” which said that three-fifths of slaves would count in the allocation of congressional seats and presidential electors. In essence, it meant that a slave was considered to be only three-fifths of a person.
In August, 1787, as the hot and humid Philadelphia summer dragged on, there was heated debate over the future of the slave trade. The Georgia and South Carolina delegates wanted to continue to bring slaves from Africa, but the upper-southern states had more slaves than they needed. They wanted to be able to sell their slaves to planters in the Lower South when the African slave trade ended.
But the South Carolina and Georgia delegates valued continued slave trade more than they valued the national union. They threatened to pull out of the convention. By doing so, they called the bluff of Northern delegates who prospered from the slave trade through their shipping and shipbuilding interests. The Northern delegates wanted the national government to enact “navigation acts” that would favor northern vessels over foreign ones and would increase shipping costs for Southerners.
Slave-holding states lobbied for a fugitive-slave clause under which northern states were required to return runaway slaves to their owners. Euphemisms were used in the constitution they were drawing up in order to avoid using the words “slaves” or “slavery.”
The United States Constitution, therefore, protected slavery through the three-fifths clause, the “fugitive-slave clause, and by approving the slave trade for an additional 20 years. These compromises proved to be short-sighted. They appeared necessary to preserve the union, but they set the United States on a long-term racial division that still exists 233 years later.
The convention spent more time figuring out the national legislative branch than it did the executive branch. It was assumed that George Washington would be the first U.S. President, so the constitution created a strong executive. Both houses of Congress would need a two-thirds majority vote to override a Presidential veto. The president and vice-president would be elected to four-year terms and could be reelected indefinitely. State legislatures would choose the electoral college and that group would elect the president and vice-president.
Not much time was spent on the judicial branch. A Supreme Court would be created and Congress would have the power to create courts that would serve subordinately to it. It was made clear that state laws and courts would be trumped by U.S. laws, treaties, and the U.S. Constitution.
US Constitution signed on September 17, 1787
After numerous heated debates, 39 of the 42 delegates who had hung in there that long, signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787. The governor of Virginia refused to sign it. Fellow-Virginian George Mason said he’d rather chop off his hand than sign it. Alexander Hamilton wasn’t pleased with the final document, but he signed it because he feared the alternative was anarchy.
As difficult as the convention had been, the hard work lay ahead as each state had to ratify the Constitution. It would take a year to accomplish that, but that is a story for another day and another blog post.
Since my last blog post
I’ve spent more time reading nonfiction than fiction. My brain is tired. I’m listening to Long Bright River, by Liz Moore.
Until my next blog post
I look forward to concentrating on reading fiction in the coming days.
I hope you have a good book to read.
If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have quality creative time.
Thank you for taking time to read my long blog post today. It was longer than I wanted it to be, but I concluded that anyone truly interested in the topic would read it and anyone not interested in the topic wouldn’t read it no matter how short or long it was. I hope I judged correctly.
Let’s continue the conversation
What jumped out at you in today’s blog post? What surprised you?