CHAPTER VII: THE CRITICAL PERIOD
The Need for a Government after the Declaration of Independence
The act of declaring independence left the former colonies without a true national government. The Second Continental Congress filled that void, paying the troops and negotiating treaties with other countries, but this was only a temporary fix. American political leaders quickly realized that a new national government must be created not only to provide the country with stability for the future, but also to ensure that the nation did not slide back into tyranny in the critical years to come. Accordingly, in July, 1776, Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson introduced a document establishing a new national government. However, it would take a year for what would be called the Articles of Confederation to be passed in Congress and another four years before it would be ratified by all thirteen states. In the meantime, the Continental Congress served as an emergency legislature, and most of the real attention in government was focused on the states.
Americans’ experience with Parliament left them suspicious of central government, so they were far more concerned with creating effective state governments that would protect their rights than in establishing a national authority that could take them away. As a result, state constitutions were written and approved first, prior to any consideration of the Articles of Confederation. Furthermore, the powerful state governments demanded input on the form and authority of the national government that the Articles would create, and worked to ensure that state governments would not surrender their authority or sovereignty under the Articles of Confederation.
The New State Governments
Although there were variations from state to state, the new state governments shared four fundamental principles: that a written constitution was essential to liberty, that power should be divided between three branches of government, that the legislature should be the most powerful branch, and the belief that all governmental power was derived from the people. First, each state had a written constitution, which made specific grants and denials of power. Given the states’ experiences with Parliament and the fact that Great Britain lacked a true written constitution, the decision to clearly state what government did and did not have the power to do was not surprising. Indeed, after the many debates over the nature of representation during the revolutionary period, the men who formed these new state governments wanted to leave as little room as possible for misinterpretation.
Second, the basic structure of each state government was the same, with an executive branch, a legislative branch, and a judicial branch or court system. The “tyranny” of King George III instilled in the authors of the state constitutions a deep distrust of the executive branch; Pennsylvania went the furthest to avoid any single concentration of power, eliminating the position of governor and instead having the executive responsibilities carried out by a council of twelve. Even in states with only one governor, executive power was limited. Few had veto power, most were limited to one-year terms, and they were elected not by the people but by the state legislatures, making them beholden to that most powerful branch. Judges were also limited in their authority; typically, they were chosen by the legislature and subject to removal from office if the judge fell out of favor of the legislature.
Third, the state constitutions entrusted the legislature, the branch most directly responsible to the states’ citizens, with the greatest authority. Legislatures had been representing Americans directly since the House of Burgesses first met in 1619, and colonial legislatures had become especially important in the turbulent period following the Seven Years War. Indeed, although colonists were rarely pleased to be taxed, they had acceded to the taxes imposed by their own representative governments. It had been that lack of representation in Parliament rather than the actual taxes that had been most loathsome to the colonists in the years leading up to the Revolution. As a result, when the states were finally able to distribute power as they saw fit, they granted the most power to the legislatures, those officials who were most directly answerable to the people.
Although legislatures constituted the most powerful branch of state governments, even their power was not absolute. All the states except Pennsylvania had bicameral legislatures, which effectively guaranteed a balance of power. More importantly, most of the state constitutions contained a bill of rights, which specifically listed the natural rights of citizens that government did not have the power to take away. By specifically protecting such rights as freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, the constitutions’ drafters endeavored to protect citizens from the kind of governmental abuses that had been perpetrated by the British.
Fourth, every state operated from the assumption that the source of all authority was the people. Indeed, the people of Massachusetts were unwilling to leave the drafting of their state constitution to the existing government. They held a separate convention, not accountable to the existing government, to write a constitution, increasing the credibility of the document as a reflection of the will of the people. However, determining whom “the people” included was a matter of debate in the new state constitutions. Despite the lofty words in the Declaration of Independence about equality, very real inequalities in most aspects of these new state governments, especially in terms of voting rights. Given that virtually every state required ether the ownership of a certain amount of property or the payment of a set level of taxes, the poor and those who owned no land were effectively disenfranchised. Women were foremost among the others who were excluded. Only New Jersey, and then only briefly, allowed women to vote. Slaves obviously could not cast a ballot although some states permitted free African Americans to vote.
Overall, the state constitutions and the governments they created were a compromise. They reflected the struggle to create structures strong enough to govern but not so strong as to endanger the liberties that were being fought for at the time that the constitutions were being written.
The Creation of the Articles of Confederation
With so much power guaranteed to the state governments, there was very little left over for the new national government that the Articles of Confederation created. Certainly, a national authority was necessary to fight wars and to negotiate treaties with other countries, but states remained suspicious of handing over any more power than absolutely necessary to the national government. As a result, the final draft of the Articles of Confederation constitutes a reaction—or perhaps, more rightly, an overreaction—to what the colonies had endured under the British system. It established a loosely binding “league of friendship” between the states, one in which the union was voluntary and the real power remained with the states. Indeed, the word “confederacy,” as the authors of the document understood it, meant a loose partnership of sovereign independent states.
The distribution of power allocated by the Articles of Confederation reflected the same concerns that drove the creation of the state governments. By design, the legislature had the most power in the national government, but the authors of the Articles went a step further. Concerned that any single person given executive authority over the entire country might become another tyrannical ruler or an American version of King George III, the authors made no provision for a national executive at all. Furthermore, no new national courts were established. With neither executive nor judicial branches, all responsibility for enforcing the law and meting out justice fell to the states. This was not accidental; the authors of the Articles wanted the meaningful power in the United States to reside not in the national government but in the states, which held both the purse strings and the control of the representatives. For instance, Congress could requisition money from the states but because it had no power to enforce the request, states were free to ignore Congress’ requests. Even the powers that were granted to Congress, including the conduct of foreign policy, settling disputes between states, coining money, establishing standards for weights and measures and determining state boundaries, could be limited. Each state had one vote in Congress, but nine of the thirteen states had to approve any legislation before it could be implemented. As a result, Congress was unable to pass many laws in its first few years, resulting in a flow of power back to the states.
All states shared a distrust of central government, but they disagreed on how power should be shared between the states. Despite the very real military and economic crises facing them, the states lacked a shared concern and vision about what was best for the young country. Rather, the loose ties between the states led to united action only when their individual goals or desires happened to coincide. This was not a government that would or could act quickly or in concert in any but the greatest emergencies. This proved abundantly clear during the process of ratifying the Articles of Confederation. Because the Articles needed to be approved by every state to take effect, Maryland realized that it could use the ratification process to gain concessions from its larger neighbors. Early land grants were often imprecise, leading two or more states to claim the same land. The territory most in dispute was the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Maryland, a small landlocked state, feared that a state with extensive western land claims such as Virginia might come to dominate the new government. Large states could sell the land and add to their wealth, while smaller states would be relegated to second-class status in the new government. To avoid this, Maryland refused to ratify the Articles of Confederation until the large states turned over all western land claims to Congress. Virginia’s leaders initially balked at the idea of surrendering their claims, but after four war-torn years, more farsighted and nationalistic leaders such as Thomas Jefferson persuaded the Virginia legislature to give up their claims. The other large states followed Virginia’s example, and Maryland finally agreed to ratify the Articles in February, 1781. Nearly five years after the Declaration of Independence, the United States at last had a new national government.
Strengths of the Articles of Confederation Government
Even after ratification, the built-in weaknesses of the national government and the persistent rivalries between states made it difficult for the national government to wield much power. In fact, the only area in which the United States made substantial progress was in the organization of the western territories that the larger colonies had turned over to Congress. Taken together, the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established the legal guidelines under which the western areas could achieve statehood. The Land Ordinance of 1785 provided for the division of the territories into townships, each of which was divided into thirty-six sections of one square mile apiece. Congress intended to sell each section for $640.00, with one section per township being set aside for public schools. Two years later, Congress enacted the Northwest Ordinance, which set up a governing framework for the area and banned slavery in the territories. It established conditions for dividing the area into new political territories and allowing them to apply for statehood if they met certain requirements. The Ordinance specifically guaranteed that any states that resulted from this territory were to be considered equal in power and status to the original thirteen states. Eventually, five states—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin—were carved from the region and later joined the union.
Although no provision had been made for an executive branch, members of the Confederation Congress quickly recognized that laws were meaningless if they could not be enforced. Accordingly, the Congress established executive departments needed to administer the new government, including that of Superintendent of Finance. The first superintendent was Philadelphia merchant Robert Morris, who handled his responsibilities ably and brought some order to the nation’s tangled finances, despite having no power to issue taxes and being forced to beg for donations or borrow money from other countries or the states. He implemented more efficient purchasing procedures, guaranteeing a steady flow of supplies for the army while also cutting spending. In May 1781, Morris convinced Congress to establish a national bank, empowered to hold governmental funds and make loans to the government. This helped create at least a minimal national economic structure, but the capitalization of the bank was so small that the bank’s overall impact was limited. Undeterred, Superintendent Morris sought to balance the budget, restructuring many of the nation’s loans and interest payments in pursuit of that goal. Although initially successful, he also provoked a massive outcry from public creditors who besieged Congress for some relief. Congress proposed altering Articles to allow Congress to collect duties and use the income to pay off outstanding loans, but Rhode Island’s refusal to support the plan prevented it from receiving the unanimous approval required to change the Articles. This was typical of the difficulties Morris encountered as he struggled to keep the young nation solvent.
Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation Government
Notwithstanding its success with the Northwest Territory, the Articles of Confederation was a blueprint for limited and ineffectual government. The document achieved one of the goals of the Founding Fathers by preventing any excessive concentration of power, but in so doing, it failed to provide the government enough power to protect the people. Like any new nation, the United States was forced to confront major economic, diplomatic, and security problems, but the government under the Articles of Confederation proved ill equipped to respond to these crises.
Economically, the Confederation Congress proved unable to handle monetary problems because the government had not been given the power to levy tariffs or taxes. As a result, the Congress had to resort to asking the states for loans, but the states had economic difficulties of their own. The economic dislocation and restructuring that had occurred as a result of the war and the severing of ties with Britain made the states highly competitive with each other. Rather than submitting to a national authority that could regulate the economy for the entire nation’s benefit, each state fended for itself. Many states used their own currencies instead of that issued by Congress and even resorted to imposing tariffs on goods imported from other states. Although some states profited handsomely from these tactics, it proved disastrous for other states and for the national economy as a whole. By 1787, the combined state and national debt had reached $77.25 million.
Diplomatically, the United States government did not fare much better. It was forced to negotiate with other countries in a world in which the fledgling United States commanded little respect. Indeed, as late as the 1790s, John Quincy Adams, while serving as minister to Prussia, was kept waiting at the palace gate while a guard sought confirmation that the United States was actually a country. The fact that the government lacked the money to support its diplomats abroad or to develop the military forces necessary to defend itself undermined America’s credibility and invited foreign and domestic challenges to its security and sovereignty. King George III refused to remove British troops from western forts in violation of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, but the American government was powerless to do anything but complain loudly about it. Spain also maintained some forts and troops in the western lands; although she had been willing to help the United States against Britain, she was not above demonstrating her power to the new nation. Too, diplomatic efforts on the national level were complicated by the actions of individual states, which repeatedly violated the Articles through actions that ranged from waging war on the Native Americans to building their own navies.
In terms of security, the British and the Spanish represented just two of the many looming threats. As white settlers began pushing west across the Proclamation Line of 1763, they found themselves under attack from Native American tribes, especially in western Pennsylvania and Georgia, and the new territories of Tennessee and Kentucky. The settlers asked the state governments for protection, and overwhelmed state governments in turn called on the national government for assistance. However, the government had neither the money to pay troops to protect the settlers nor an explicit statement in the Articles of Confederation granting it power in the to do so. As a result, western settlers were left to fend for themselves.
The security threat that most shook Americans’ confidence in the Articles of Confederation government came not from the western territories but from western Massachusetts. There, in the cradle of the rebellion, the state that had given the nation revolutionary leaders James Otis, Sam Adams, John Adams, and John Hancock, a group of farmers rose up in armed rebellion. The economic problems in Massachusetts led the state legislature to raise property taxes as a means of paying off their large state war debt. The farmers, many of whom had served in the Revolutionary War, were already afflicted by low crop prices, and they had no way of paying the higher taxes. Under the leadership of Daniel Shays, the farmers began to protest the taxes and their economic hardships in the late summer of 1786. Soon, the movement turned violent, with armed mobs of farmers literally closing the courts in three western counties, thus thwarting creditors in their debt collection. Shays and his men moved on Springfield, where they attacked federal armory but were unable to capture it. Only when the state militia intervened did the rebellion fall apart and Shays flee to Vermont. a direct defiance of the state government, was only suppressed when the state militia intervened, but the Rebellion underscored the fact that economic troubles in the United States could quickly become security threats.
In the wake of Shays’ Rebellion and the other economic, diplomatic, and security problems, American leaders agreed that the Articles of Confederation needed to be altered. Without changes, the government would be unable to protect the basic principles upon which the revolution had been founded: securing property and individual freedoms. The very existence of the nation was at stake, but given the stringent requirements for altering the Articles, few expressed optimism that the changes necessary in the government could be achieved. However, steps were being taken to do just that.
Chapter VII Vocabulary Terms
Articles of Confederation
Land Ordinance of 1785
Northwest Ordinance of 1787
Chapter VII Review Questions
1. What were the basic principles that served as the foundation for the state constitutions?
2. What was the issue upon which Maryland based its original opposition to the Articles of Confederation? How was this issue resolved?
3. In what ways were the Articles of Confederation a reaction to the abuses experienced by the colonists at the hands of the British in the period leading up to American independence?
4. What were the economic, diplomatic, and security challenges facing the new country? How did the government respond to them?
5. How democratic were the governments set up by the newly independent American states?
6. What were the major strengths and weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation government?
7. What were the major reasons why the government created by the Articles of Confederation was inadequate to respond to the problems facing the United States in this period?
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