From the Book:
A History of the United States Constitution
The Articles of Confederation Become Law
The Second Continental Congress laid the foundation for the eventual United States Constitution when they adopted the Articles of Confederation in 1781.
Greetings, in this episode I will discuss the adoption of the United States first national government, the Articles of Confederation.
The First Continental Congress had met from September 5, 1774, until October 10, 1774. This Congress had petitioned Parliament to repeal the Intolerable Acts as one of its main accomplishments. The delegates had agreed that if Parliament had not repealed the Acts, the delegates would meet again on May 10, 1775. Parliament had not repealed the Acts; thus, the delegates met at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Congress comprised mostly the same delegates as had met during the First Continental Congress. Delegates from twelve colonies attended. Georgia, the lone holdout, would send no delegates to the Congress until July 20, excepting Lyman Hall, who would arrive as a delegate from Parish of St. John’s in Georgia on May 13. Hall, however, did not represent the entire colony, just the Parish that had elected him. The delegates picked the leader of the First Continental Congress, Peyton Randolph, to chair the Second Continental Congress.
Many things had happened since the last meeting in October 1774. Violence had erupted between the colonists and the British on several occasions and blood had been shed. A disorganized army had assembled around Boston, bottling up British troops in the city. The Congress was extra-legal and had no authority to govern. It could not raise revenue by taxing anyone and had to rely on requests from the various colonies for funding and cooperation. The colonies were under no obligation to comply with Congressional requests. This situation existed until the Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation on March 1, 1777, after which it became known as the Confederation Congress. After their arrival and initial organizational procedures, the Congress began the difficult task of managing an escalating political and military crises.
Always ahead of the curve, Benjamin Franklin drafted a document that, if approved, would have united the thirteen colonies in a loose confederation, like his earlier Albany Plan of Union.
Twenty years earlier Franklin penned a similar document called the Albany Plan of Union. He drafted the document while traveling to Albany, New York to attend a congress of delegates from several other colonies that wanted to discuss ways of common defense they could take to counter the French incursions from Canada during the early stages of the French and Indian War. The delegates had studied his plan, and then adopted it. Parliament and the King had previously advocated some sort of union for the colonies under the dominion of the king. However, both the King and Parliament backed down for fear they would be breathing life into a political entity they could not control. The various colonial assemblies also rejected it. Franklin bided his time. The colonies were not ready to take the step towards uniting just yet.
Earlier in life, Franklin had advocated reconciliation with Great Britain and had grown to love English ways during his two previous lengthy stays in London. However, he had gotten involved in an affair over the publication of some letters written by Thomas Hutchinson, the Royal Governor of Massachusetts in January 1775. The resulting scandal caused him to be called before the English Privy Council where Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn gave him a severe, hour long dressing down in front of the council. Wedderburn had no way of knowing that he had converted Franklin from advocating a policy of reconciliation to that of a fire breathing Patriot.
Franklin began circulating his plan among the delegates on July 21. Most studied the plan carefully. The plan was considered by the Committee of the Whole on July 22, tabled, and then studied again on July 24. The plan was again tabled and was not discussed again until later. Franklin had known that the other delegates were not ready for his plan. Many of the delegates were still hoping for reconciliation, and in fact the Congress had been working on the Olive Branch Petition. They hoped to present the Petition to King George III and slow the growing conflict between England and her colonies. Franklin’s plan was surprisingly like a later plan, which the Congress passed three years later.
Among the various provisions, Franklin’s plan enumerated the powers of Congress, mandated that no colony could wage war against the native tribes without the approval of Congress, provided a common currency and opened the door for other British colonies to join the Confederation. This last provision stated, “Any and every Colony from Great Britain upon the Continent of North America not at present engag’d in our Association, may upon Application and joining the said Association, be receiv’d into this Confederation, viz. Ireland, the West India Islands, Quebec, St. Johns, Nova Scotia, Bermudas, and the East and West Floridas; and shall thereupon be entitled to all the Advantages of our Union, mutual Assistance and Commerce.” This article must have stirred fear in every British official that saw it. He also made provisions for changes in the document that might need to be made from time to time.
The Continental Congress debated the Articles of Confederation for almost sixteen months before passing them on November 15, 1777. By this time eleven of the thirteen colonies had already adopted their own constitutions, mostly using their former colonial governments as a guideline. The Articles established a loose confederation of states in which the Congress had no power to compel any of the states to do anything. The individual states were considered sovereign. The states elected delegates to the Continental Congress, which had the power to negotiate with foreign powers and manage the military. The Articles merely legalized what the Continental Congress was already doing. Each state had one vote in the Congress, which elected a president to preside over its affairs. The Congress sent copies of the document out to the states to ratify. It would take four years before the last state, Maryland, ratified the agreement, thus making it law. The Continental Congress operated using the Articles as a guide, even though they had not yet been ratified.
The Confederation Congress had power to declare war, appoint military officers, sign treaties, make alliances, appoint foreign ambassadors, and manage relations with the Indians. They lacked the power to tax, regulate commerce between the states or compel the states to follow the statutes it enacted. The only way it could raise funds was to sell western lands, request money from the states or borrow money. Most power resided in the states.
Article 2 of the Articles stated, “each State retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power…which is not…expressly delegated to the United States.” Representatives of nine states had to approve of a proposal before it became law. Fearing creating another sovereign, the Articles made no provision for a strong executive and each delegate to Congress could serve no more than three years out of a six-year period.
Congress finalized the Articles of Confederation on November 15, 1777, and sent them out to the States for ratification. Twelve of the states ratified the Articles quickly, leaving the lone holdout, Maryland. Since all thirteen states had to ratify for the document to take effect, Maryland’s reticence delayed implementation.
At the end of the Revolutionary War the Federal Government had debts of almost eight million dollars, a staggering sum for that day. The various States also had debts due to the war. Many of the States held claims to the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. New York and Virginia had the largest claims, but Massachusetts, Connecticut, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia had extensive claims in the west as well. These claims totaled more than 222 million acres, a huge expanse.
Maryland’s chief complaint was that these states held a huge advantage because they could sell off these lands to pay their debts and landless states like Maryland would have to levy heavy taxes to pay theirs off. Maryland feared that the landed states could operate with out any taxes, relying on the sale of these western lands for revenue while Maryland’s residents fled to the tax-free states. The impasse lasted almost four years.
The delegates to the Continental Congress worked hard to convince the land holding states to cede their lands to the Congress. In return, Congress promised to form more states from this vast area. Finally, the seven states agreed to transfer these lands to Congress and Maryland, its objections met, ratified the Articles of Confederation on January 30, 1781.
I have used portions of two of my books, 1775 and a History of the United States Constitution in this story.
Readers can find both books on my website, http://www.mossyfeetbooks.com. You can also contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for listening.
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