America under the Articles of Confederation

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America under the Articles of Confederation


Sovereign States. On 15 November 1777 Congress ratified the Articles of Confederation, and by March 1779 all of the states except Maryland had approved them. Maryland, which lacked claims to western lands, refused to ratify until states with extensive land claims ceded their claims to the federal government for the good of the whole, not to mention the good of Maryland land speculators. The Articles did not legally go into effect until 1 March 1781, so during most of the Revolutionary War congressional authority rested only on the states acceptance of that authority. The Articles of Confederation contained lessons that Americans had learned from their clash with the British government in the 1760s and 1770s. Most Americans believed their liberties were best protected by elected representatives in the state legislatures. Nevertheless, they agreed on the need to set up a confederation of sovereign states which would grant specific powers to Congress for their common defence, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare. The states gave Congress power over war, foreign policy, foreign loans, the regulation of money, and Indian trade. But in order to prevent the Confederation Congress from becoming as tyrannical as the British government, the states retained significant powers. The states, not Congress, had the power to tax citizens. Each state had one vote in Congress; major decisions required the approval of nine of the thirteen state delegations; and amendments to the Articles of Confederation required unanimous support. Finally, each state retained its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction and right, which is not by

this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.

Achievements. The replacement of the Confederation with a stronger national government created by the Constitution suggests that national government under the Articles of Confederation was a failure. Congress was indeed hampered by its dependence on the states for war expenses, soldiers, and military supplies; its reliance on congressional committees to make decisions; a constantly changing roster of congressmen; and the needed approval of nine states to make any substantial changes. Yet, in spite of these obstacles Congress successfully organized a federal government, raised an army that waged a victorious eight-year war, and negotiated foreign alliances, foreign loans, and a peace treaty with Great Britain in September 1783. Robert Morris, appointed superintendent of finance in 1781, established a national bank that circulated a stable currency in place of the nearly worthless Continental currency, resumed interest payments on the national debt, and introduced reforms in the military supply system. The Confederation Congress also established the important precedent of national control over western lands with passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The Northwest Ordinance guaranteed the expansion of republican government by extending the fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty to the territories and outlining the conditions for admission to statehood, set aside revenue from land sales to support public schools, and forbade slavery in the region.

The Critical Period. In June 1783, as he neared retirement as commander in chief of the Continental Army, George Washington sent a circular letter to the states urging them to strengthen the federal government. If they failed to give such a tone to our federal government, as will enable it to answer the ends of its institution, the states would be responsible for annihilating the cement of the confederation, and exposing us to become the sport of European politics. Washington and others who favored a stronger central government may have exaggerated the disastrous conditions in the 1780s to convince Americans to approve a new Constitution, but there were several factors that supported their belief that this was a critical period. The British government refused to evacuate its military posts in the American Northwest as required by the Treaty of Paris. In 1784 Spain closed the Mississippi River to American shipping. Robert Morriss plan to create an independent source of revenue for Congress to maintain the value of currency failed when Rhode Island and New York refused to allow Congress to impose a 5 percent duty on imported goods. After the Revolutionary War, Britain flooded America with cheap manufactured goods and placed high duties on American goods, but the states refused to give Congress more power to regulate trade. In March 1783 Continental Army officers in Newburgh, New York, threatened to seize the government if Congress refused to grant their back pay and pensions. Such conditions convinced men such as James Madison that it was essential to replace the inadequate confederation of independent republics with a powerful national government that Madison hoped would provide a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.

Annapolis Convention. U.S. merchants suffered when the British government levied discriminatory duties on American commerce. American artisans, unprotected by import duties, could not compete with British manufactured goods. American farmers found their access to the important West Indian market blocked by British trade restrictions. Individual states passed trade regulations to their own advantage and the disadvantage of other states, and the resulting sectional tensions were, as James Madison said, destructive of the general harmony. As a member of the Virginia Assembly in 1786, Madison played a key role in the Assemblys call for a convention of the states to meet in Annapolis, Maryland, to deal with commercial problems. Nine of the thirteen states responded favorably, but only Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York sent delegates to the Annapolis Convention, which opened on 11 September 1786. Three days later the delegates endorsed Alexander Hamiltons call for another convention to meet in Philadelphia in May 1787 to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the Union. Hamilton also hinted at the larger agenda that delegates to the Philadelphia convention would pursue when he alluded to the important defects in the system of the Federal Government and the embarrassments which characterise the present state of our national affairs, foreign and domestic.


Thomas Jefferson, the American minister to France, and Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, the American minister to England, had radically different reactions to Shayss Rebellion. Mrs. Adams wrote to Jefferson on 29 January 1787:

Ignorant, wrestless desperadoes, without conscience or principles, have led a deluded multitude to follow their standard, under pretence of grievances which have no existence but in their imaginations. Some of them were crying out for a paper currency, some for an equal distribution of property, some were for annihilating all debts. Instead of that laudible spirit which you approve, which makes a people watchful over their Liberties and alert in the defence of them, these mobish insurgents are for sapping the foundation, and distroying the whole fabrick at once.

Jefferson replied on 22 February 1787:

The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the Atmosphere.

Source: Lester Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988).

Shayss Rebellion. During the Revolutionary War merchants and farmers who supplied the armies prospered from the abundant circulation of paper currency issued by Congress and the states and the specie, or gold

and silver coin, issued by the British and French governments. By the middle of 1784, however, the amount of circulating specie dropped dramatically as American merchants and consumers used the money to buy foreign goods and states passed laws declaring that depreciating paper money should no longer be used to pay private debts or taxes. Farmers, who rarely received specie for their crops, could not pay their taxes and lost their property. Farmers from fifty western Massachusetts towns met in Hampshire County in August 1786 and petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature to issue paper money for the payment of all debts and revise the state constitution to correct inequities in taxation, representation, and the legal system. The legislature ignored their plea. The farmers, led by Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays, acted on the right stated in the Declaration of Independence to rebel against a government that no longer protected their interests. Beginning on 29 August 1786 Shays and his followers shut down civil courts and tried to prevent the Supreme Judicial Court from trying criminal prosecutions for debt in Springfield. Shayss Rebellion ended on 25 January 1787 when the Massachusetts militia crushed a threatened attack on the Springfield Arsenal. Shays failed, but his rebellions impact was widely felt. When Madison, Hamilton, Washington, and others assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, they were determined to build a strong national government to protect liberty and property and prevent another Shayss Rebellion.


Jack P. Greene, ed., Colonies to Nation, 17631789: A Documentary History of the American Revolution (New York: Norton, 1975);

Merrill Jensen, The New Nation: A History of the United States During the Confederation, 17811789, revised edition (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981);

Jack N. Rakove, The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).

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America under the Articles of Confederation

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