The history of the Articles of Confederation

The passage of the Declaration of Independence entailed new duties upon the people, which would exhaust their powers, legislative and military, for years to come. A new government had to be formed, on a plan which had never before been applied to a country of such extent, and which involved innumerable difficulties. And the independence declared by the legislature had to be sustained by the army against all the power of the richest and most energetic nation of the Europe of that day. Some consideration of the steps taken towards the accomplishment of these purposes is important as preliminary to the story of the subsequent events of the war.

The resolution of independence had abolished one phase of political existence; it had not created a new phase. A nation was yet to be made out of the discordant elements of the separate colonies, And to this essential purpose Congress at once addressed itself. The tie which had hitherto held together the colonies was slight and temporary. It needed to be made strong and permanent. Articles of confederation satisfactory to all the States of the newly-formed republic needed to be adopted ere the American Union could claim the title of a nation.

A committee was at once appointed by Congress to frame such articles. A report was made by this committee on the 12th of July. On the 22d the House began the consideration of the proposed articles, the principal subjects of debate being the proportion of money which each State should pay into the common treasury, and the manner of voting in Congress. The financial article, as proposed, required each State to pay into the treasury a sum in proportion to its total population, exclusive of untaxed Indians. This was objected to on the plea that it included slaves, who, properly considered, were property and not persons, and that Southern slaves had no more right to be considered in fixing the tax-rate than Northern cattle. John Adams took the opposite view, with the argument that slaves by their labor added to the wealth of the States, and that they had always been taken into the estimates of taxes by the Southern provinces. The question was carried, on this basis, by the votes of the Northern delegates, who were in a majority. The other article which led to prolonged debate was that concerning the voting power of the States in Congress. The original report provided that each colony should have but one vote. Mr. Chase proposed as a compromise that on financial questions each State should have a voice in proportion to the number of its inhabitants. Franklin supported this proposition, saying that if the States voted equally they ought to pay equally. Dr. Witherspoon contended that each State should be considered as an individual, with a single vote on all matters. John Adams, on the contrary, advocated voting in proportion to numbers. He held that the individuality of the States was a mere word; it was the purpose of the Confederacy to weld them, like separate pieces of metal, into one common mass. Mr. Wilson, of Pennsylvania, ably followed from the same point of view, bringing European illustrations to show the danger of giving too much separate independence to the members of a confederated union. Thus early was brought up that burning question of State Rights, as opposed to the supremacy of the Union, which has not yet been definitely settled.

The debate on the Articles of Confederation was continued for several months, and the whole subject thoroughly canvassed, standing committees of Congress meanwhile carrying on the active affairs of the government. During this period the several States, in conformity with the act previously passed by Congress, busied themselves in organizing State governments suitable to the new condition of affairs. Not for a moment was any thought of reproducing a monarchical government entertained. The people of America had been republican in sentiment from the first, and their political history had been in great part a struggle to reduce the prerogatives of the monarch who claimed them as subjects. So much power had been exercised by the people and their representatives, and so well were they schooled in the art of self-government, that the change of sovereignty was scarcely perceptible, and very little needed to be added to existing conditions to form a complete apparatus of government.

The people were not willing that any one man should have the authority to negative the decision of a majority of their representatives. Yet long experience had taught them that it would be dangerous to lodge all power in the hands of a single body of men. Some intermediate course was desirable, and after much discussion the difficulty was overcome by the formation, in eleven out of the thirteen colonies, of a legislature of two branches, whose concurrence should be necessary to the passage of any law. The second branch was to consist of a few select persons, under the name of senate, or council, adapted to consider wisely and calmly the acts passed by the more numerous branch of representatives. Georgia and Pennsylvania alone adopted legislatures consisting of a single House.

New York and Massachusetts went a step farther. The former gave to a council composed of the governor and the heads of judicial departments, and the latter to the governor alone, the power of objecting to any proposed law and requiring its reconsideration and passage by a two-thirds majority of both Houses to make it operative. The objection in Georgia and Pennsylvania to a double Assembly arose from the difficulty of creating a higher and a lower branch by election from a homogeneous people held to be absolutely equal politically. No distinction of rank existed, and distinction of wealth was not admitted as a source of political inequality. Ten of the eleven States, with legislatures of two branches, ordained the election of both by the people. Maryland had her senate chosen by electors, two from each county, elected by the people, the senators to hold their seats for five years, while the representatives were re-elected annually. By this means a senate composed of men of influence and ability was obtained. Pennsylvania adopted the expedient of publishing bills after the second reading, so that they might be considered by the people and the sense of the inhabitants taken. It was not long, however, before it was discovered that this expedient was injudicious, and that the single chamber did not work well. A second chamber was therefore added. A similar action was afterwards taken by Georgia.

Every State appointed a supreme executive, under the title either of governor or president. In New York and the Eastern States the governors were elected directly by the people; in the other States, by the legislatures. New York alone gave the governor the right to act without the advice of a council. The jealousy of supreme power was so great among the Americans that they surrounded their executive officers with checks that proved, in the end, more cumbrous than useful. The principle of rotation in office was strongly insisted upon, frequent elections being required, and in some cases it being ordained that no office should be held by the same person longer than a specified period of time. As a further security for the permanence of republican institutions, all the States agreed in prohibiting hereditary honors or distinctions of rank. They all, moreover, abolished state religions. Some retained a constitutional distinction between Christians and others, so far as the power of holding office was concerned, but no sect was permitted legislative precedence, and the alliance between church and state was completely broken.

While the States were thus adopting new constitutions and organizing new governments, whose imperfections were negatived by the important feature that the people retained the power of altering and amending them whenever they chose, the General Congress continued the consideration of the Articles of Confederation which were to combine these separate States into a single nation. The debate upon this was very deliberately conducted, and sixteen months elapsed before it was ready to be communicated to the States. Three years more elapsed ere it was ratified by all the States. The principal objections were those which had already been abundantly debated in Congress, and that of the disposal of the vacant Western lands. This latter question was finally settled by the cession of these lands, by the States which claimed them, to the Union, for the common good of the people. The suffrage-difficulty was overcome by viewing the States as individuals and giving them equality of votes. The last State to ratify the Articles of Confederation was Maryland, on March 1, 1781. The principal powers of Congress, as defined by this agreement, were -- the sole right of deciding on peace and war, of sending and receiving ambassadors, of forming treaties and alliances, of regulating coinage, of fixing the standard of weights and measures, of managing Indian affairs, of establishing post-offices, of borrowing money or issuing bills on the credit of the United States, of raising an army through requisitions upon the States, and of forming a navy. It constituted also the final court of appeal in disputes between the States.

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