On this day, March 1, 1781, the Continental Congress adopts America’s first Constitution – The Articles of Confederation.
There’s a saying that goes, “Any fool can burn down a barn.” In the context of this story, it means that it’s easy to complain about a tyrannical system, but it’s hard to put something in its place.
Americans had legitimate gripes against Great Britain, and Thomas Jefferson eloquently expressed their case in the Declaration of Independence. But once we broke ties with Britain, we needed to put a new government in its place. So, the Continental Congress tasked John Dickinson with writing a governing document for the new states. Congress edited Dickinson’s draft, because, in their opinion, it gave too much power to a central government. Their current experience with Great Britain put them in no mood to grant power to a central government.
These “Articles of Confederation” were adopted by the Continental Congress on this day, March 1, 1781.
Statesmen immediately recognized the weaknesses of this form of Government. Benjamin Rush said,
“The confederation, together with most of our state constitutions, were formed under very unfavourable circumstances. We had just emerged from a corrupted monarchy. Although we understood perfectly the principles of liberty, yet most of us were ignorant of the forms and combinations of power in republics. Add to this, the British army was in the heart of our country, spreading desolation wherever it went: our resentments, of course, were awakened. We detested the British name; and unfortunately refused to copy some things in the administration of justice and power, in the British government, which have made it the admiration and envy of the world. In our opposition to monarchy, we forgot that the temple of tyranny has two doors. We bolted one of them by proper restraints; but we left the other open, by neglecting to guard against the effects of our own ignorance and licentiousness.”
In other words, the people’s anger over British tyranny clouded their judgment, and, as a result, they went too far the other direction. They tore down a system indiscriminately, the good along with the bad.
The period between 1783 and 1787, when the Articles of Confederation were in force, is known as “The Critical Period” in American History. America threw off one extreme – tyranny, and now they were on the verge of falling prey to the opposite extreme – anarchy.
The Articles were deficient for the following reasons.
First, no matter how large or small a state was, each state had one vote, and it required a unanimous vote to get anything done. So, a small state like Delaware had equal weight with larger states. One small state could strike down a law even if all the other states agreed to it.
Second, if a law was by some miracle passed, it couldn’t be enforced. There was no President to execute the laws.
Third, Congress merely advised the states, and it couldn’t raise taxes. It could make requests, but couldn’t enforce payment. This almost cost us the war. Washington himself paid many army expenses out of his own pocket, and Congress was forced to borrow money from France and Holland.
Fourth, Congress had no power to regulate trade with foreign nations or between the states. States were making their own treaties with foreign powers. Plus, states were levying import duties on each other. This led to commercial warfare among the states.
Things were a mess. Many patriots, including George Washington, called this the worst time in our history! Daniel Webster said that the Union under the Articles of Confederation was “merely a rope of sand.”
The men who approved the Articles were good men. But they had a difficult task. Federalist #2 describes it this way:
“A strong sense of the value and blessings of union induced the people, at a very early period, to institute a federal government to preserve and perpetuate it. They formed it almost as soon as they had a political existence; nay, at a time when their habitations were in flames, when many of their citizens were bleeding, and when the progress of hostility and desolation left little room for those calm and mature inquiries and reflections which must ever precede the formation of a wise and well-balanced government for a free people. It is not to be wondered at, that a government instituted in times so inauspicious, should on experiment be found greatly deficient and inadequate to the purpose it was intended to answer.”
The creators of the Articles did the best they could under the circumstances. America threw off the yoke of tyranny, but then it went to the other extreme of anarchy. This experience, however, proved necessary. The Constitutional Convention was called to create a new Constitution which would last through the ages.
Now you know the rest of the story!
Daniel Sheridan is an article and post contributor for Madison Liberty. More than that, he is a husband, father, pastor, historian, writer, teacher of the U.S. Constitution, storyteller, and public speaker.