Confederation Congress 1781-1789

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CONFEDERATION. The era 1781–1789 takes its name from the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the new United States, ratified by the Second Continental Congress on 1 March 1781. This decade has sometimes been described as an era in which America experienced disastrously weak government under an inept Confederation Congress, an unstable economy that brought the nation to the brink of depression, and a society torn by violence and class conflict; in sum, a decade when the new republic threatened to unravel completely.

On the surface things did look bleak. But overt problems notwithstanding, the new nation made great strides in important ways. While national leadership was wanting during the Confederation period, there remained a strong center of political stability in most states. Both within the Confederation Congress and without, a healthy debate continued in the wake of the Revolution between Federalists, who pressed for a strong central government, and Antifederalists, who stressed preservation of individual liberties protected by strong state sovereignty. This political division culminated in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the elections that followed of the first constitutional government, and the promulgation of the Bill of Rights in the form of the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

The 1780s also saw a rebirth of American merchant trade as the Confederation Congress established diplomatic relations and forged commercial ties with continental Europe and its Caribbean colonies. Agriculture benefited from the start of a dynamic westward expansion into the Ohio Valley, and with passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Confederation Congress established the framework for further westward movement through its organization of the Northwest Territory, thus providing the blueprint for systematic transition from territory to statehood down to the present. The ordinance did more: it prohibited slavery in the new territory, which marked the first time any federal action was taken restricting the advance of the "peculiar institution," a vital precedent often invoked in the next century.

Overall, though, this progress was masked by political conflict—not only between Federalists and Antifederalists but between tidewater merchant interests and western agrarians—and by economic instability brought on by the lack of a national currency and the confusion generated by a muddle of state currencies. These problems were mostly a continuation of conflicts dating back to early in the colonial period, problems the Confederation Congress was too weak to cope with.

Political and Social Unrest

The currency mess created by thirteen fully sovereign states working at cross purposes was a problem that symbolized for ordinary people and legislators alike the need to somehow modify and weaken state sovereignty without sacrificing individual liberties in the process. The economic dislocation caused by the absence of federal authority, and the growing rift between large and small states over a host of economic and trade issues, drove the desire to reform the Articles that characterized much of the politics of the decade. This problem played out as well within many states. A tidewater/piedmont (eastern seaboard versus backcountry) schism in many states played powerfully into the economic instability of the era. In New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, for example, violence erupted as paper-money factions (usually debtor farmers and unskilled labor) fought a virtual class war against tidewater merchants, lawyers, and the landowning elite in an attempt to address the crisis that an absence of usable currency created for farmers and wage workers.

Shays's Rebellion, on the western frontier of Massachusetts in the heart of the Berkshire Mountains, was the worst of these confrontations. In 1786 frontier farmers in Stockbridge took the law into their own hands, in what quickly became a symbol across the nation of widespread class-oriented social unrest. The rebels, led by former Continental army captain Daniel Shays, were suppressed by eastern Massachusetts militia driven by well-to-do merchants from the eastern seaboard of the state. This social unrest, repeated elsewhere n America, generated enormous support in the new nation for a revision of the Articles of Confederation. In 1787 a convention initially called only to reform the Articles matured into a full-blown movement to scrap it and start anew in developing a workable government framework for the infant republic.

The Constitutional Convention

The debates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 encapsulated the experience of the Confederation era. It was as if the decade formed a period of trial and error as Americans, divided politically into Federalist and Anti-federalist camps, moved toward a resolution that preserved both the order that a stable nation required to function in a world of nations and the liberty uniquely espoused by the founders, hard won in the Revolutionary War. The Constitution was very much a product of both the conflicts and successes of the Confederation. The Constitution embodied the enduring principles of representative government so central to the ideology and content of the Articles, and it uniformly incorporated all the legislative, diplomatic, and expansionist successes of the 1780s. More than anything else, it accommodated Antifederalist demands that state sovereignty be preserved even as the federal government was imbued with a new sovereign power of its own. The key notion that sovereignty could be divided was a revolutionary republican idea born entirely of the Confederation experience. Fears of executive autocracy and restoration of the monarchy experienced by colonial America were assuaged by severe checks on presidential power. Representative self-government as a basic operating principle was vested in a House of Representatives that looked very much like the old Confederation Congress. Elite fears of mob rule, with Shays's Rebellion and its like elsewhere in the 1780s, were met by the creation of the U.S. Senate as an upper house (building on a colonial model), and power over the military vested in the president. These were accommodations made possible only by the reality of experience endured in the decade beginning at the end of the American Revolution.

These accommodations framed by the Constitution of 1787 were tested in the final chapter of the Confederation era, the ratifying election campaigns in the states in 1788. In these separate polls each state was asked to elect delegates to a ratifying convention that would establish the Constitution drafted the year before as the law of the land. All the issues raised by the experiences of the 1780s, as well as the ideological conflicts between Federalists and Antifederalists, were played out in these ratifying elections, as the Confederation era drew to a close.

The nine states needed to ratify the Constitution were co-opted by the promises made by the victorious Federalist delegates to the ratifying conventions, who promised a Bill of Rights to meet Antifederalist fears of tyrannical authority vested in a strong central government. Critical as were the issues of that decade, tumultuous as were the politics, uneven as the economy turned out to be, the Confederation era of the 1780s stands as the gateway to the permanent establishment of the democratic republic most Americans wanted at the time of the American Revolution.


Borden, Morton. The Antifederalist Papers. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1965.

Jensen, Merrill. The New Nation: A History of the United States During the Confederation, 1781–1789. New York: Knopf, 1950.

Jenson, Merrill, and Robert A. Becker. The Documentary History of the First Federal Elections, 1788–1790. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976–1989.

Kenyon, Cecelia M., ed. The Antifederalists. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1966.

Carl E.Prince

See alsoAntifederalists ; Articles of Confederation ; Bill of Rights in U.S. Constitution ; Constitution of the United States ; Continental Congress ; Federalist Papers ; Federalist Party .

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The Land Ordinance of 1785 was the second of three land ordinances passed by the Confederation Congress after the Revolutionary War (17751783). The three ordinances, which included the Ordinance of 1784 and the Northwest Ordinance (1787), were meant to manage the lands of the Old Northwest, ceded by Great Britain at the end of the Revolution. The Treaty of Paris (1783), which established normal diplomatic relations between England and the former colonies after the Revolution, turned the area that is now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin over to the new U.S. government. In 1784 a committee led by Thomas Jefferson drew up legislation to provide for future statehood for settlers already in the area. The following year, in the Land Ordinance of 1785, Jefferson's committee established the way in which the territory would be measured and divided for sale.

The new nation was governed for the most part by the states. The relationship between the states and with the central government was defined by the Articles of Confederation. The central government was the Confederation Congress, a holdover from the Second Continental Congress which had been convened in the spring of 1775 and had coordinated the revolutionary war effort. The Articles of Confederation, ratified by the states in 1781, summarized the existing relationship between the Congress and the states.

It was an indication of the distrust with which the American people viewed central authority that the Articles of Confederation did not allow the Congress to tax either the states or individuals. As a way of keeping the nation solvent, the states that claimed western lands from the terms of their colonial charters gave up those lands to the Confederation government. The Confederation government expected to use these lands as a way of meeting governmental expenses. In order to attract land buyers, the Congress declared that these lands would be made into new states, which would enter the Union on an equal basis with the original thirteen colonies. This declaration made possible the creation of the modern United States.

The Land Ordinance created the pattern along which American public land would be divided and sold until the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862. The Ordinance of 1785 ruled that the western lands north of the Ohio River would be divided by surveyors into a square grid. Each square (called a township) measured six by six miles and was subdivided into thirty-six one-mile-square sections. Each section (measuring 640 acres) could then be further divided, usually into half, quarter, eighth, or sixteenth-section lots of 320, 160, 80, or 40 acres. Certain sections had restrictions placed on their sales; for instance, money from the sixteenth section of every township was to be set aside to fund public schools in the township. The first territorial survey took place in what is now southeastern Ohio, and it measured land that stretched westward from Little Beaver Creek to the Tuscarawas River and southward to the Ohio River. A total of about 91 townships were created (although some of them were fractional and did not contain a full 36 sections), with about 3,276 sections comprising 2,096,640 acres of land ready for development by U.S. farmers.

Although the Land Ordinance of 1785 was conceived as a way to divide the western territory more evenly than had been the case before the Revolution, in practice it was less than fair. Congress thought that land sales in the territory would help it meet its big debts left over from the war. As a result, land sales were aimed at wealthy purchasers rather than the poorest farmers, who were most in need of land on which to settle. Until 1841 the government also required that public land be offered at auction where syndicates of land speculators usually snatched it up before it could be sold to private individuals. Congress set the minimum amount of land that could be purchased at one section640 acresand the purchase price at one dollar per acre. Small purchases on credit were not allowed. The $640 minimum purchase placed the cost of western lands far outside the budget of most U.S. citizens. Most of the lands went instead to wealthy land speculators, who were also given the option of buying on credit. The speculators bought lands from the government, divided them up, and then resold them to small farmers at a profit.

An interesting sidelight to the Ordinances was the way that they steered the political culture of the nation. The third Ordinance, passed in 1787, stipulated that future inhabitants would be guaranteed a "bill of rights" guaranteeing freedom of religion and the right to a jury trial. It also prohibited slavery north of the Ohio River, although this applied to the future and did not contemplate the freeing of slaves that were already held in the Old Northwest Territory. The ordinance also contained provisions for the return of escaped slaves.

See also: Thomas Jefferson, Old Northwest, Northwest Ordinance


Abernethy, Thomas Perkins. Western Lands and the American Revolution. New York: Russell and Russell, Inc., 1959.

Clawson, Marion. The Federal Lands Revisited. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Gates, Paul W. History of Public Land Law Development. Washington, DC: Wm. W. Gaunt and Sons, 1968.

Morris, Richard B. The Forging of the Union, 1781 1789. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.

Onuf, Peter S. Statehood and Union: The Northwest Ordinance. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Rohrbough, Malcolm. The Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies, and Institutions, 17751850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

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con·fed·er·a·tion / kənˌfedəˈrāshən/ • n. an organization that consists of a number of parties or groups united in an alliance or league. ∎  a more or less permanent union of countries with some or most political power vested in a central authority: Canada became a confederation in 1867. ∎  the action of confederating or the state of being confederated.

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A union of states in which each member state retains some independent control over internal and external affairs. Thus, for international purposes, there are separate states, not just one state. A federation, in contrast, is a union of states in which external affairs are controlled by a unified, central government.