Whatever Happened to the Articles of Confederation? Part III

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As Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, George Washington knew like no other man of the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation (AC). From the despair at Valley Forge in 1777-78, and a congressional recommendation that he plunder the Pennsylvania countryside for supplies, George Washington and his men felt the full measure of inadequate government.1

On March 15th 1783, Washington prevented a mutiny of his army encamped at Newburgh NY that would have changed the course of American history. The Revolutionary War did not end with victory at Yorktown; British troops still held New York, Charleston, Savannah, and western outposts. Ironically, it was rumors of peace that put soldiers in a mutinous mindset, because they rightfully feared a penniless congress might disband the army without paying it off. Thomas Jefferson credited Washington with preventing the revolution from closing as most others, in a subversion of the liberty it was intended to establish.2

Washington managed, in part, to cool tempers by promising to exhort congress and the states to form a stronger union. In his June 1783 circular letter to the states, he rhetorically asked if the revolution was a blessing or a curse.3 To remain a blessing, he urged “an indissoluble Union of the States under one Federal Head.” The war was the thin glue that held the states together. Without it, why remain in confederation, especially when congress was powerless to enforce its resolutions?4

James Madison was among the first to propose an enforcement amendment to the AC. A congressional committee report in March of 1781 reasoned that since the states promised to observe the AC and abide by the determinations of congress, the AC contained an implied coercive power over the states. Despite wartime hardships, congress hesitated and let the matter drop. In August, future Virginia governor and delegate to the 1787 federal convention, Edmund Randolph, submitted a committee report that made twenty-one proposals for additional powers. Among them was the power “to distrain the property of a state delinquent in its assigned proportion of men and money.”5

In 1782 and 1785 respectively, growing frustration led the New York and Massachusetts legislatures to propose a convention of the states to revise and amend the AC. Congress tabled the NY resolution, and Massachusetts’ delegates refused to submit the resolution of their legislature! In an echo of Article V opponents today, MA delegate Rufus King feared possible domination of the convention by the Society of the Cincinnati would lead to a hereditary aristocracy.6

As related in Part II, the crisis in government arrived in 1786 when it was clear to all that the states would never grant the slightest powers in taxation and regulation of commerce to a committee of the states, the Continental Congress. Without authority to raise revenue, congress was impotent. Absent some powers over commerce, congress looked on helplessly as the states worked at cross-purposes with foreign nations and amongst themselves.7

In addition to the problems of taxation and commerce, treaty enforcement was up to the individual states. Due to the refusal of some to comply with the 1783 Peace Treaty, Great Britain retained her military posts in the Northwest Territory. While congress could treat with other nations, no article empowered congress to enforce treaties.8

As opposed to the opinion of Article V adversaries today, which holds that the AC needed adjustment rather than replacement, history proves the opposite. Despite the best efforts of the best men in the union, the AC, as structured, were unamendable and rightly so; a people attuned to unalienable rights and the consent of the governed had no choice but to deny the grant of coercive powers to a committee, a congress of the states. The people were suspicious and could hardly be expected to grant significant additional powers to a single body of men.9

Early state governments during this period had evolved. The first governors after the Declaration of Independence were little more than figureheads who depended on legislatures for their existence. By the mid-1780s, most governors were functioning chief executives with veto power over legislative bills. Two states, Pennsylvania and Georgia, began with unicameral legislatures. They soon recognized the error and established bicameral law-making bodies.

It was time for the national authority to evolve as well. The AC was a noble first effort and the acquired wisdom from its mistakes is plain to see in the 1787 Constitution. The powers necessary to any umbrella government include those over commerce and taxation. To properly exercise them, all governments naturally have legislative, executive, and judicial institutions. As opposed to despotic regimes in which these functions are in the hands of one man, in republics these institutions are kept distinct. A grant of legislative, executive, and judicial authority to the AC congress would have established a tyranny!

Rather than go on with a failed system and hope for the best, the Framing generation identified and corrected the shortcomings of the AC. The 1787 federal convention didn’t arise ex nihilo, out of nothing. After several years of confederation in war and peace, the inadequacies of the AC were corrected in a formal Constitution of government. Our challenge today is much easier because we see the corruption of the Framers’ system all around us AND we know what worked in the past to keep free government. Whereas in 1787, the Framers dealt with a nearly blank slate, we do not. We know what is necessary to restore free government. Let’s do it.

We are the many; our oppressors are the few. Be proactive. Be a Re-Founder. Join Convention of States. Sign our COS Petition.

  1. Burnett, E. C. (1941). The Continental Congress: A Definitive History of the Continental Congress from its Inception in 1774 to March, 1789. New York: W.W. Norton Company. p. 277.
  2. Fowler, W. M. (2011). American Crisis – George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783. New York: Walker Publishing Company. pgs. 1-2.
  3. Ibid., p. 209.
  4. Ibid., p. 154.
  5. McLaughlin, A. C. (1905). The Confederation and the Constitution. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers. p. 171.
  6. Ibid., pgs. 170, 173.
  7. Ibid. p. 169.
  8. Ibid., p. 175.
  9. Ibid., p. 183.