The Articles of Confederation: America’s Forgotten Constitution
The story of the Articles of Confederation, Colonial America’s first and nearly forgotten, original Constitution.
Before the Confederation Began, an Intro
John Hancock’s signature is the largest one on the Declaration of Independence. Most people know this, but some do not know why or they only consider the popular legend that he did this, so “the fat old king could read it without his spectacles”.
The fact is, Hancock was the president of the “Congress” at the time and, in that capacity, he would be the first to sign, centered below the text. The title was ceremonial for the most part. It also made him the most important person in the upstart American government, soon to be a confederation of states.
At that time, “Congress” referred to the men who were part of The Continental Congress. [Editor’s Note: The Continental Congress was comprised of delegates of each of the colonies and served as a governing entity, representing the colonies.] These delegates of The Continental Congress are some of the founders of the United States. Although these leaders started on unsure footing, they went on to create an army, win a war, and build a nation. But, they originally didn’t set out to do any of that.
A popular myth is that the Revolutionary War started because the Colonies declared their independence. The opposite is actually more accurate.
By July 4 of 1776, the British Redcoats and colonists had already clashed many times. The Continental Army, raised by the colonists through the Continental Congress, had been in existence for over a year. This strife of what was then a civil war had caused a groundswell of support for independence from Britain.
Colonial leaders came to embrace the bold idea that breaking away from Britain was the best course of action for the Colonies. With independence came the need for the Colonies to unite and the need to form a system of government. This is where the story of the confederation starts.
Desirable Neglect…and So It Begins…
To pay down the debts from The French and Indian War, Parliament imposed a series of taxes in the colonies. They also began enforcing trade and other laws upon the Colonists. This was an abrupt change from the Laissez-faire approach of Salutary Neglect Britain had been taking toward the Colonies. That is, Britain went from virtually ignoring the Colonies to suddenly viewing them as a source of tax revenue. England’s heavier thumb upon the colonies caused tensions to rise especially among the rising anti-British minority. Over time, this led to open acts of rebellion, including the Boston Tea Party.
Intent on stopping the revolt, Parliament passed The Coercive Acts. Colonists dubbed these the Intolerable Acts. The stated intent of these acts was to punish the colony of Massachusetts, as an example to the other colonies. Instead, pro-independence sentiment amongst the colonists increased.
Power in Unity
In response, the Whigs (In pre-revolutionary America, the Whigs were those who supported independence from Britain.) organized a call for a congress of delegates from each colony. They hoped that by speaking with combined authority England might listen to them. Twelve of the thirteen colonies sent delegates. This gathering became the Continental Congress. These first meetings, conducted for about 6 weeks in 1774, is now called The First Continental Congress and was a first glimpse of a budding confederation.
The Colonies were individual entities, each with its own colonial government. There was a good deal of mistrust about motives among those assembled. Making matters worse, some of the colonies had given specific direction to their delegates to assure certain outcomes. Coming to an agreement about direction wasn’t easy for these delegates, but they trudged forward.
In the end, the Continental Congress passed a declaration asserting certain rights and spelling out the grievances of the colonies. They also agreed to a boycott of British made goods. Congress then adjourned with an agreement to meet again the following May.
Not long before the Continental Congress reconvened, British soldiers and rebels clashed at Lexington and Concord. Historians consider these battles to be the start of the Revolutionary War. Ralph Waldo Emerson would later write about the battle at Concord saying it was the shot heard round the world.
Many of the founding fathers still didn’t desire independence from Britain nor did they want furtherance of war. Even so, they recognized the need for an organized military front against any sign of oppression. So, the first act of the reconvened Continental Congress was to create the Continental Army from the various militia of the colonies, another act of a unified confederation of the colonies. It was also decided Virginia delegate, George Washington, then a member of the Virginia Guard, would take Command of the new army.
With the army in place, this group set out to do largely what the First Continental Congress had done. That is, they sent entreaties to the King of England. In June 1775, they passed the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. This document again outlined the grievances of the colonists.
Some of the colonists and some of the Delegates to Congress, wanted independence from Britain. John Adams was among this minority. The vast majority, the loyalists (also, later known by a name meant to be an insult, the Tories), though, remained steadfastly allegiant to the crown, the king of England.
An Offering of Potential Peace
Many of the loyalists felt that the Declaration of causes did not emphasize their fealty to the king. So, two days later they passed The Olive Branch Petition. This document reiterated the loyalty of the Colonists and beseeched the king to intervene in the working of Parliament to prevent further conflicts. But, King George III rejected that idea.
News of the Battle of Bunker Hill preceded the Congressional petition and the King George refused to even accept the petition. In August 1775, the British Monarch declared the Colonies to be in rebellion. and ordered British Troops to put down the revolution with all expedience.
The Founding Fathers were now traitors to the British Empire.
Support for Independence
Over the next several months, skirmishes between the Redcoats and Washington’s troops continued. Support for independence grew. In June of 1776, Virginia Congressional Delegate, Richard Lee introduced a resolution of independence.
Full text of the Lee Resolution
That these United Colonies are, and of right out to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved;
That measures should be immediately taken for procuring the assistance of foreign powers,
and a Confederation be formed to bind the colonies more closely together.”
By this time, most of the delegates believed that a vote to approve independence was inevitable. Still, many colonies had not given their members of Congress permission to vote that way. So, Congress delayed the vote, giving Delegates time to sell the idea to their Statehouses.
The second clause of the Lee Resolution became one of the key selling points for independence. The colonies knew that without foreign help they would likely lose a war against England. Unless the Colonies declared themselves an independent country, they had no hope of forming alliances with foreign countries.
On July 2, 1776, Congress passed the Resolution of Independence in its entirety. Two days later, they agreed on the text for the Declaration of Independence, notably penned by Thomas Jefferson. And with that, the United States of America was born and its formation as a confederation began.
America’s First Constitution.
Of course, Britain didn’t see America’s independence the same way America did.
Redcoats kept the Continental Congress on the move for its members to avoid capture by Britain. Even under those circumstances, the Colonial leaders carried on. Although they had no official authority the Continental Congress acted as the de facto government for the United States. The Continental Congress managed the war, handled disputes between States, and continued work on the framework for their government, what they thought would be a confederation.
It was no easy endeavor.
The drafters debated for long hours about which powers it should vest in a central government and how to maintain state sovereignty. They also had to agree on the structure of the government, how voting would be conducted and so much more.
Finally, on November 15 1777, after months of deliberations the Continental Congress adopted The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. This went to the States for ratification. All 13 States represented in Congress would have to sign off or ratify the document for the articles to go into effect.
Virginia was the first to ratify the Articles. Within six months, nine other states had joined them. New Jersey followed in 1778 and Delaware in 1779. In February 1781, Maryland became the last state to sign on. On March 1st, 1781 the Second Continental Congress became the Congress of the Confederation. With ratification, a confederation was formed. [A confederation is a system of government in which sovereign states designate limited powers to a typically weak central government only for specific purposes and to act on the member states, not on the citizens of those states.]
This Was The Beginning, But Not The Solution
This first constitution proved unworkable for the young nation and The Articles of Confederation were in effect for only eight years.
Many people don’t even know that the United States had a Constitution prior to the one in effect today.
Part two of the story of The Articles of Confederation will explore the reason this Constitution failed and also outline the lessons that helped craft our current constitution.
The complete text of The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union will be featured on The Founding Project website soon. Also, see “Our First Constitution: The Articles of Confederation” on TFP’s website at https://thefoundingproject.com/first-constitution/
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The Founding Project welcomes guest writer, Shannon D. Hanson!
Shannon D Hanson is a technology guru, web developer, aspiring writer and prize winning photographer. He was born in Montana a little more than a half century ago and hasn’t found any good reason to live elsewhere. He currently lives near Whitefish, Mt. with his wife, a yellow lab and three or more cats. Shannon owns a technology consulting company and teaches WordPress, social media, and technology classes at a local college, Flathead Valley Community College. Shannon also serves on the local School Board and heads up a non-profit dedicated to the writing community. When he isn’t working he’s likely to be cooking, working on his novel, hiking with his dog, doing home improvement projects or tinkering with something.
Oh, and he’s the world’s oldest beginning drummer.
TO ALL TO WHOM these Presents shall come, we the undersigned Delegates of the States affixed to our Names send greeting. Whereas the Delegates of the United States of America in Congress assembled did on the fifteenth day of November in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy seven, and in the Second Year of the Independence of America agree to certain articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia in the Words following, viz. “Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the states of New […]
The Articles of Confederation, Part 2 The Articles of Confederation formed the first government of America, but it did not last long. The idea of a weak central government and strong state governments appealed to colonists who had come to fear any type of strong central government. Their prior experiences with England warranted this. A confederacy appealed to the colonists, because of that fear. In Shannon D. Hanson’s first article about the Articles of Confederation, he explained the basics about that document. His follow-up article explains the difficulties that came with having a central government that was too weak. Links to Hanson’s first article about the Articles of Confederation and also the full text of […]
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