OTD in History… November 15–17, 1777, the Second Continental Congress Adopts the Articles of Confederation and sends it for ratification

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

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On this day in history November 15, 1777, the Second Continental Congress meeting in York, Pennsylvania agrees to adopt the Articles of Confederation, which “shall be inviolably observed by every state” and “the Union shall be perpetual,” and on November 17, the Congress sent the Articles of Confederation to the states for ratification. The thirteen states would take until March 1, 1781, with Maryland being the last state to ratify the articles before the Articles of Confederation government would go into effect just seven months before the end of the Revolutionary War and the British surrender at Yorktown. The Articles of Confederation was the second government since Congress declared Independence on July 4, 1776. In 1776, with declaring independence and the ongoing Revolutionary War, the Second Continental Congress felt the need for a more permanent government but not one that would impede on the states’ authority. The limited government was created with only a single legislative branch, which gave each state a single equal vote in decision-making, there was no executive branch or judiciary, and only a President of the Congress.

The Articles of Confederation gave “the united states in congress assembled … sole and exclusive right and power” over “peace and war, the sending and receiving of ambassadors, and “regulating the Indian trade,” and “to borrow and to issue money” but the states had the power to “raise troops or levy taxes” severing limiting the government’s powers. (Maier, 31) A motion could only pass with a vote from nine of the thirteen states including the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government was weaker than those of the states were. The Second Continental Congress lasted for six years and so did the Articles of Confederation before the founders decided to create a Constitution, which would result in the present government, with its three branches executive, legislative and judiciary and becoming the world’s longest running and most successful constitution in history. (Thackeray and Findling, 118)

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The Articles of Confederation was the United States’ first constitution with debates commencing after declaring independence in July 1776 and lasting until November 1777 when the Congress agreed on them. By 1777, the former colonies created state governments and eleven of the states ratified their constitutions. The states modeled their governments on the colonial models they previously used. Most states created a government with two houses, one elected, a limited executive and a bill of rights that included freedoms guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence. As Frank W. Thackeray and John E. Findling in their book Events that Changed America in the Eighteenth Century, note the states’ bills of rights “included such things as freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and the press; certain procedural rights within the legal system; and protection against arbitrary treatment or seizure.” (Thackeray and Findling, 131)

The Continental Congress had no model to create their first central government; they wanted to make sure that they would stay away from anything related to the British monarchial and Parliament rule that previously controlled the colonies. Thackeray and Findling explain, “It was just the kind of government one would expect from a nation breaking away from a strong central government.” (Thackeray and Findling, 133) In 1777, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania was given the task to draft the new central government. Dickinson originally planned for a strong central government, which the Congress opposed. “The Articles created what amounted to a perpetual league between independent nations.”

The Articles of Confederation legalized the extralegal Continental Congress. The delegates would be chosen by the states. The limited wartime government would allow the states their power and sovereignty while only giving the central government the powers the British King and Parliament had over the colonies before independence. With the articles, Congress wanted to create the opposite of the British monarchy and government. The states had local interests, they did not trust central governments nor did they associate with the other states for the most part because of different economic interests, location or disputes.

The new Congress had the “authority to control foreign affairs, declare war and make peace, coin money, borrow money, requisition states for money, settle interstate disputes, govern the western territory and admit new states, run the postal service, and handle Indian affairs.” (Thackeray and Findling, 133) Although, the Congress had powers in those areas they needed a majority of nine of the thirteen states to agree for Congress to act. The biggest obstacle facing the new government was the inability to “levy taxes or regulate interstate commerce,” and neither could they enforce their actions, relying entirely on the states. Historian Julia A. Woods pointed out, “The fundamental flaw in the Articles was that they merely created an alliance among the states and had no power to compel state governments to balance their individual interests with the collective interests of all the states. The result was a weak central government.” (137) After agreeing to the document and before its ratification, the Congress referred to itself as the Congress of the Confederation and used the articles in their negotiations for peace.

The limitations to the Articles of Confederation became apparent after the end of the war. Thackeray and Findling indicate, “The Articles of Confederation government was impotent to deal with the serious problems of the post-war era.” (Thackeray and Findling, 133) After the war concluded, the new nation plunged into an economic depression from 1784 to 1787 and the Congress was left helpless to do anything at the mercy of the states that would not cooperate. The depression was mostly because of trade, the United States no longer had Britain as a trade partner and Congress could do nothing to enforce or regulate interstate trade.

At the same time, America looked weak overseas, because Congress could not control taxes on imports, instead, European countries imposed tariffs on American products leaving American merchants difficulties in trading internationally. Britain blocked American exports to the West Indies and imports to Great Britain, Spain blocked American ships from the Mississippi; Congress was left helpless, Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay had little authority to negotiate treaties. Neither could the government pay of the Barbary States, who were seizing American ships, as other European countries were able. As historian Pauline Maier indicated in her book Ratification, The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788, “One incident after another demonstrated that Congress’s sorry financial state left the United States at the mercy of other nations…. The United States was becoming ‘the sport of transatlantic politicians of all denominations.’” (Maier, 31)

The new nation was in disarray over the weak central government. On the world stage, the Congress could not force Britain to abide by the Treaty of Paris of 1783 and forced to vacate western forts and make them stop selling arms to the Indians. The states interfered and violated the treaty giving Britain the argument that if America did not abide by it neither would they. New York and North Carolina were prosecuting loyalists and confiscating their property. The central government had no navy and an army of a little over 600 unpaid soldiers. With a currency that had no worth, the Congress relied on the states to make annual payments to the government and pay their war debts; some paid a portion and the interest on the debts but did not pay it all leaving the government without the funds needed to pay their debts to foreign nations.

The Congress was in need of funds to take the nation out of the depression and pay its debts, the states refused requests and Rhode Island refused to pass the impost amendment that would allow the Congress to tax imports, blocking the possibility. Neither could Congress control the currency, each state maintained their own currency, which had unequal values. There was discontent among the states some that paid their war debts, other lagged behind, the Congress was left powerless. (139) By 1786, in a six month period the delegates for nine states needed for a majority and pass action were present only three times, Henry Knox commented on the problem, “Every State considers its representative in Congress not so much the Legislator of the whole Union, as its own immediate Agent or Ambassador.” (Maier, 32)

In 1785, George Washington remarked, The Articles of Confederation were “little more than an empty sound, and Congress a nugatory body.” Washington did not see a problem in expanding the federal government powers and was more concerned about the present state, writing, “I predict the worst consequences from a half-starved limping government, always moving upon crutches and tottering at every step.” In August 1787, Washington wrote Jay what needed to be done to save the country, “I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation, without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole Union in as energetic a manner, as the authority of the different state governments extends over the several States.” In 1787, Alexander Hamilton declared the country had “almost the last stage of national humiliation.” (Thackeray and Findling 134, Maier, 33) One member of Congress indicated how dire the situation was declared, “indeed wretched — Our Funds exhausted, our Credit lost, our Confidence in the Federal Government destroyed.” (Maier, 31)

Five states attended the Annapolis Convention of 1786, known then as the Meeting of Commissioners to Remedy Defects of the Federal Government looking to remedy to the trade problems and the central government’s lack of power. On September 11–14, 1786, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware met to discuss trade soon realizing the problems were greater and dealt with the Articles of Confederation. Among the delegates included Alexander Hamilton of New York, John Dickinson of Delaware and the future father of the Constitution James Madison of Virginia. Four other states New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and North Carolina appointed delegates that failed to arrive in time; the rest of the states did not want to participate. The five states called for a Constitutional Convention “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,” and they sent their report to the Congress and the states. (Maier, 22)

The Annapolis Convention along with the number of rebellions including Shays’ Rebellion made Constitutional revisions a necessity that could no longer be ignored. Shays’ Rebellion lasted from August 1786 until February 1787, starting a month before the states met in Annapolis. Most of the states were charging high taxes to pay Congress and to operate the state, amounts too high for their citizens, and Massachusetts had some of the highest taxes. Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays led the rebellion of 4,000 veterans and farmers in Western Massachusetts, these veterans were hard hit by the depression and were “unable to pay their mortgages or taxes because of the economic chaos and currency fluctuations.”

At first, the rebels “forced the closure of local courts in order to prevent foreclosures on their land,” and prevented tax collection. The rebellion took a violent turn in 1787 when Shays and his rebels descended on the United States’ Armory at Springfield looking to seize the weapons and “overthrow the government.” Neither the Congress or Massachusetts did not have enough funds for an army to quell the rebels; instead, General Benjamin Lincoln created a private local militia with 3,000 soldiers and stopped the rebels. The protests stopped when voters ousted Governor James Bowdoin and his harsh policies and voted in John Hancock as Governor. The failed coup proved how inadequate the central government was to protect and deal with threats.

The rebellion shed light on the economic problems and deficiencies of the central government. The Founding Fathers discussed the influence Shays’ Rebellion had in their opinion of Constitutional reform at the time. General Lincoln wrote Washington, “We are all in dire apprehension that a beginning of anarchy with all its calamitys has approached, & have no means to stop the dreadful work.” (Maier, 35) Thomas Jefferson, the Ambassador to France wrote to James Madison on January 30, 1787, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Jefferson opposed a strong central government. The issue, however, upset General George Washington to get him out of his retirement from the war. In a letter to Henry Lee, he wrote, “You talk, my good sir, of employing influence to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts. I know not where that influence is to be found, or, if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is not government. Let us have a government by which our lives, liberties, and properties will be secured, or let us know the worst at once.”

Washington’s name was placed on the list of Virginia delegates and according to historian Pauline Maier, he was reluctant to come out of his retirement. Virginia’s Governor Edmund Randolph appointed him to the convention and both the governor and Madison worked to convince Washington to accept. Although Washington had been an advocate for the government to pay their debts their debts since 1783, he was uncertain about getting involved in politics and public life again and he spent the winter finding out how dire or necessary Constitutional reform was for the new nation, Shays’ Rebellion convinced him something needed to done. Woods notes “Washington’s support was particularly important because, as the general who led the new nation to victory in the Revolution, he was regarded in all the states as the war’s greatest hero. So great was his influence and prestige that no one believed that he would involve himself in a disreputable enterprise; his support established the credibility of the Convention.” (139)

The Constitutional Convention met beginning on May 25, 1787, at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia now known as Independence Hall, and four months later on September 17, 1787, the Congress completed their task of creating a Constitution. On June 21, 1788, the Constitution was ratified after New Hampshire became the ninth out of thirteen states to ratify it, making the Constitution “the law of the land.” The United States Constitution is the oldest working and most successful in history. The Founding Fathers created a document that had the forethought to grow and expand as the nation, its territories did and times changed.

SOURCES & READ MORE

Findling, John E, and Frank W. Thackeray. Events That Changed America in the Eighteenth Century. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Maier, Pauline. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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