A Troublesome Process: The Articles of Confederation, the Constitution and
the Creation of America’s Republican Ethic
When the Second Continental Congress adjourned in 1781, it was not to the universal acclaim of the men who thought they had worked out a practical and effective means of balancing centralized power with the autonomy of the young republic’s 13 members. The new nation’s revolutionary epoch had left its leaders profoundly mistrustful of any government endowed with undue power. One cannot help but wonder how many members of the second Congress left the proceedings suspecting they had only partially done the work of social engineering needed to knit together the fragile confederation of states. North Carolina delegate Cornelius Harnett gave voice to this fear, uttering a prophetically ambivalent statement about the second Congress’ final product. “It is the best Confederacy that could be formed especially when we consider the number of states, their different Interests, Customs, etc., etc.” (Feinberg 2002, p. 26).
The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, the document that was ratified in 1781, determined how the states would interact as members of a union, addressed the need to limit power and, above all, affirmed the sanctity of state sovereignty. Many have argued that what the Articles of Confederation truly expressed was the fear its creators felt for any government imbued with undue authority. “The national government would hold the states together in a ‘league of friendship,’ operating mainly to provide for national defense and to conduct foreign policy” (Altman, 2010). However, events would reveal the inadequacy of the 13 articles that gave shape to a newly established government and how essential it was that the
United States Congress make peace with the notion of a truly balanced government.
America’s Founding Fathers had set out to achieve the most delicate of balances. Most agreed that the single most important objective was to maintain the loosest confederation of sovereign states possible without losing the integrity that fused the union that had come together in 1776 to fight their British overlords. Ultimately, what the country’s leaders sought was a partnership between the states in all things, including matters of commerce, national security, expansion and taxation. But key players in the nation’s formative drama, even those who took an active role in ratifying the Articles of Confederation, remained skeptical that such a tenuous arrangement could provide the framework for a viable nation.
John Adams, one of the most skeptical of America’s Founding Fathers, is said to have wasted little time verbalizing his concern over the ratified Articles. Upon affixing his signature to the document, he predicted that “before ten years, this confederation, like a rope in the sand, will be found inadequate to the purpose, and its dissolution will take place” (Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 4). Indeed, Adams may well have predicted the demise of what would prove to be an impotent and too-vague orchestration of power, in which authority may have been spread more or less equally, but too thin, to be effective when put to the test by farmers in western Massachusetts, who arose in opposition to the state’s burdensome taxation policy. Shay’s Rebellion taught the framers a harsh lesson about power and proved a valuable “growing pain” in the evolution of the American republic.
The Articles of Confederation provided for a unicameral legislature, to which anywhere from two to seven members per state would be appointed by their state legislature. However, each representative could serve only one year and each state delegation was granted only one vote. The Articles of Confederation may have protected the sovereignty of the individual states, but when it came to the deliberative process and the passage of legislation, they proved unwieldy and unresponsive when passage of resolute action was needed. “In most cases, national policy measures required nine votes to pass, and ratification by the legislatures in every state was necessary to amend the Articles” (Altman, 2010). The founders granted sovereignty yet sacrificed decisiveness, leaving the government vulnerable to the kind of social and economic pressures that arose in 1786, when the enraged Massachusetts farmers marched on the state court in Springfield to protest foreclosures.
Shay’s Rebellion was one of those instances which prove that even the most conscientious form of government can be rendered helpless without sufficient power to exert itself when necessary. The Articles of Confederation had been created to ensure that no one agency or individual could be endowed with undue power. But with no executive branch having been established under the 13 articles, there was no focal point capable of concentrating and focusing the government’s resources. Congress proved vulnerable to the first serious challenge of its authority because it could not raise an army. Without the means to compel monies from the states, Congress was helpless, utterly incapable of responding when the governor of Massachusetts called for a national army to put down the rebellion.
The articles provided that an army could be raised with the approval of nine of the 13 states. In this case, all 13 state delegations voted in favor of a resolution to levy an army. However, only Virginia agreed to provide funding for a federal army. The other states chose to raise their own armed forces in the form of individual state militias, a manifestation typical of the disjointed nature of government under the Articles of Confederation. Even in Massachusetts, where the rebellion itself played out, state leaders were concerned with seeing the rebellion put down but still abhorred the idea of a standing national army (Dougherty 2001, p. 106). It is instructive to note that Virginia’s support of the resolution to raise an army was to ensure that it would secure federal support in its ongoing campaign against Indians in its western territories (Dougherty).
Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress appropriated money from the national treasury to fund resolutions, then replenished the treasury from annual requisitions provided by the states. Under Article VIII, these requisitions were apportioned according to a system of land taxes. It provided for the treasury to be supplied by “the several states, in proportion to the value of all land within each state, granted to or surveyed for any personThe taxes for paying for that proportion shall be laid and levied by the authority and direction of the legislatures of the several states” (Dougherty 2001, p. 4). The 1780s were marked by low levels of compliance by the states, with Shay’s Rebellion being the most notable example of what proved to be a crippling problem for Congress.
In the states’ defense, it should be remembered that the country was suffering an economic downturn, occasioned by costs incurred during the struggle for independence and other factors. State tax collection was hampered during the years immediately following the war by, among other things, the settling of debts owed to British creditors, debts that had been suspended during hostilities. The Federalists argued that the Articles created low levels of federal revenues during this period, contributing materially to the economic woes that made it difficult for the states to hold up their end. Many of the Whigs held that the states would be willing to sacrifice local interests to help meet the needs of the federal government, particularly the need to defend the country from invasion and to quell uprisings such as Shay’s Rebellion (Dougherty 2001, p. 104). But it proved that on occasions when states did contribute their share, it was specifically to serve their own ends. “States continued to advance their own interests and these incentives encouraged them to contribute to the union despite, not because of, the Articles of Confederation” (Dougherty).
In The Federalist Papers, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay argued in favor of a distribution of sovereignty. However, Madison and Hamilton held that the nation required a centralized means of enforcement and were reluctant to endow the individual members of the confederation with excessive veto powers, which would leave the central government weak and incapable of compelling the raising of resources necessary at times of national crisis. Such an arrangement would result in “tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good” (Madison & Hamilton 1818, p. 116). In this, we see the origins of the argument for consolidating power that would come together in the great successor document to the Articles of Confederation.
When the state delegates convened in 1787 to reconsider the matter of state versus federal government, there was enough support for a greater centralization of power for nine states to vote in favor of the Constitution. Thus, the delegates created the “federal system that directed power away from the states, while still recognizing their necessity” (Altman, 2010). The most significant departure from the Articles of Confederation was the creation of executive and judicial branches, greater legislative power at the national level and a sophisticated system of checks and balances aimed at preventing the accumulation of excessive power within one branch. Of even greater significance for the post-Revolutionary War era, taxation was no longer the responsibility of the states. Under the Constitution, Congress assumed the task of assessing and collecting taxes.
Many historians consider the Constitution to be the result of a natural progression, in which the founders erred too much on the side of caution, meaning that they reacted so strongly against the tyranny they had known under Great Britain that they failed to provide their new government with the “tools” necessary to function. Thus, “because of their fear of centralized government, the American founders were destined to overshoot the mark in their first efforts to avoid oppression” (Altman, 2010). That the Articles of Confederation proved inadequate worked to the new nation’s benefit, as the framers of the Constitution were able to learn from their mistakes and develop a significantly improved blueprint for democratic government.
One of the most remarkable achievements of America’s constitutional form of government is the extent to which the founders anticipated a principle of power distribution that still guides the formation of governments. The “Principle of Subsidiarity,” which has in recent years been invoked in treaties between members of the European Union, was foreseen by the likes of Madison, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton and the other men of 1787, who forged America’s Constitution. Subsidiarity determines that “authority should rest with the member units unless allocating them to a central unit would ensure higher comparative efficiency or effectiveness in achieving certain goals” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2003). The Constitution was at once a triumph of subsidiarity and a recognition that if the federal government was to be effective, there had to be some accommodation with centralized power.
Shay’s Rebellion brought attention to the centralization of power, an issue that must have caused consternation in the wake of the nation’s war for survival against Great Britain. The Constitution authorized Congress to raise and provide financial backing for a national army. Had the angered farmers of Massachusetts not risen in 1786, the framers of the Constitution may have not felt quite as strongly about the need for a strong, centrally controlled military. As it was, the threat of armed insurrection was enough to convince Congress to eliminate the laborious and unworkable process whereby troops were levied from among the states. Shay’s Rebellion proved that the states were unwilling to act except in defense of their own self interests.
The creation of the Constitution itself was a microcosm of the process of American governance. Its acceptance by the members of the convention required compromise, the principle upon which Congress and the other branches of government work together to develop and enact policy. Ultimately, it fell to James Madison, one of the guiding lights behind the convention, to offer the defining compromise, namely that Congress would be bi-cameral rather than uni-cameral; that the states’ representation in the House would be based on population; and that representation in the Senate would be equal for all states. It was significant that the man who represented the strongest anti-Federalist sentiments, Thomas Jefferson, came to appreciate the delicate balance the convention struck between the executive and legislative branches. That balance stands in sharp contrast to the process whereby the Articles of Confederation were created. Written during the revolution, they were the product of a committee headed by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, who initially recommended a strong executive branch, an idea the representatives of the states later quashed.
The form of government that emerged from the Constitutional Convention was to a considerable degree the compilation of some of the greatest ideas from throughout human history. Ideas from ancient Greece, Rome, the great philosophers and writers of the Enlightenment and influential 18th-century writers such as Thomas Paine laid the foundation for America’s great social contract. But there can be little doubt that the greatest influence on the Constitution was the flawed, ambitious and inspired legal innovation that emerged as the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. Ultimately, the exercise of 1781 was an invaluable learning experience for the social engineers charged with founding a new nation and an entirely new form of government.
Conflict between the states (most of which considered themselves nearly sovereign nations) and the idea of a strong federal government provided the greatest hurdle and informed the larger philosophical debate, which still captivates historians and political scientists. The representatives who took part in the convention succeeded in resolving fundamental differences over how to ensure equal representation for all states and concerns over how much financial support the states would provide for the maintenance of a complex federal government. Fortunately, the framers could draw important conclusions from the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation and the timely crisis of Shay’s Rebellion. The lesson learned was that a strong central government is necessary, and that the Constitution would have to provide balance if the United States was to survive.
Altman, J.A. (2010). “The Articles and the Constitution: Similar in Nature, Different in Design.”
Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Retrieved December 18, 2011 from http://www.hsp.org/node/2991.
Dougherty, K.L. (2001). Collective Action Under the Articles of Confederation. New York,
NY: Cambridge University Press.
“Federalism.” (2003). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved December 17, 2011
Feinberg, B.S. (2002). The Articles of Confederation: The First Constitution of the United
States. Breckenridge, CO: Twenty-First Century Books.
Hamilton, A., Madison, J. & Jay, J. (1818). The Federalist. Philadelphia, PA: Benjamin
Jillson, C.C. & Wilson, R.K. (1994). Congressional Dynamics: Structure, Coordination, and
Choice in the First American Congress, 1774-1789. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.