The Confederation Government

     Up through March, 1781, the Continental Congress exercised governmental authority without any constitutional sanction.  It assumed the de facto role of national government by virtue of the war. In order to form a more lasting government, John Dickinson offered a draft constitution known as the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.  After much wrangling, all states approved the Articles.  The Articles formed a government known as "the United States of America in Congress Assembled," a phrase often repeated throughout the Articles.

    After the long battle with the English Parliament, the new states of the Union were in no mood for a strong central government.  As a result, they created a central government with a great deal of authority, but with little power to enforce that authority.  In fact, it had less authority than the colonists had accepted from Parliament::

    Although the Confederation Government has been characterized as powerless, it was a very pragmatic solution to an urgent problem at the time it was adopted.  The war was not yet won; states who were fighting to wrest themselves away from a strong central government were not likely to accept another without prolonged rancorous debate; which the country could ill afford while it was fighting a war. If it accomplished nothing else, the Confederation government did manage the war for the United States, and was responsible for the appointment of delegates to the Paris peace conference.  This in itself is a significant accomplishment.

    American Government under the Articles of Confederation is often called the Critical Period.  Americans had a profound distrust of a strong central government, and this feeling dominated the period.  The Confederation government was kept intentionally weak but did have several noteworthy accomplishments, discussed later.

The Social Revolution

    A number of changes arose by reason of the American revolution, not the least was a weakening of old habits, and the deference often paid by members of lower classes to higher classes.  One gentleman in Virginia related of a trip to the local tavern, a place normally reserved for the well-to-do, when a group of farmers came in, "spitting and pulling off their muddy boots without regard to the sensibilities of the gentlemen present." Said he: "the spirit of independence was converted into equality...and everyone who bore arms, esteems himself upon a footing with his neighbors...no doubt each of these men considers himself, in every respect, my equal."  Indeed.

    People who previously had not participated in political affairs were suddenly more excited than ever.  New state governments created many opportunities for political office, and large numbers of people responded.  Having fought a war over "taxation without representation," the new states drastically reduced the property requirement for voting or holding office, but no state went so far as to allow universal male suffrage.  Ownership of some property was a requirement, as it was deemed necessary that one have some stake in the outcome of political decisions.  Lands of former Tories (Loyalists) was seized, and, together with lands in the Western frontier, now that the Proclamation of 1763 was history, were awarded to war veterans as bonuses.  

    Slavery:  The leaders of the Revolutionary generation were the first to deal with the issue of slavery. Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration of Independence had accused George III of having violated "the most sacred rights of life and liberty of distant people, who never offended him, captivating them into slavery in another hemisphere." This phrase was deleted on demand of the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia. Jefferson's language conveniently ignored the fact that Americans also engaged in the transatlantic slave trade.  Before the Revolution, three states, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, had stopped slave importation.  After independence, all states but Georgia ended the trade; but South Carolina reopened it later.

    Black soldiers had participated in most major war battles on both sides.  Originally, they fought with the British who promised them freedom.  General Washington, in response, allowed slaves to participate.  Again, South Carolina and Georgia held out against black participation.  Few blacks actually participated.  The best estimate is no more than 5,000 of more than 300,000 participated.  Most were freedmen from the north.  Many slaves were carried away by British troops to Canada or British colonies in the Caribbean where they were freed.  Patriots who caught blacks helping the British were merciless.  One black freedman, Thomas Jeremiah was hanged and burned by a mob in Charleston for helping the British.  White Loyalists who were caught stirring up slaves were tarred and feathered.

    Emancipation soon took root in the North.  Vermont, in its Constitution of 1777 forbade slavery.  Later in 1780, the Massachusetts Constitution proclaimed the "inherent liberty" of all.  Pennsylvania provided that same year that all children born to slave mothers would be free at age twenty eight, after they enabled their owners in recovering their cost.  In 1784, Rhode Island provided freedom for all children of slaves at age twenty one for males, eighteen for females.

    Moral qualms also existed in the South, but emancipation did not blossom.  Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Washington expressed moral reservations about the institution, yet none freed their slaves during their lifetimes.  Jefferson wrote of slavery, "Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever."  Such trembling did not bring him to free his slaves, however.  The greatest movement towards emancipation in the South was the relaxation of manumission laws.  (Previously, laws strictly limited the right of slaveowners to manumit slaves).  Some few were freed that way, but many more were freed by running away, particularly to the North, where many became champions of emancipation, often citing the same rhetoric employed during the revolution.  It has been estimated that 55,000 blacks fled North during the revolution.

    Women: During the colonial period, women had exercised few rights.  They were not allowed to own property in many states, sometimes not even their own clothes. Although there was some demand for equality, their situation changed little as a result of the revolution.  Thomas Jefferson once remarked that "the tender breasts of ladies were not formed for political convulsion."  {Obviously, Jefferson never met Hillary Clinton.)

    Religion: Complete freedom of religion and separation of church and state followed the revolution.  Every state except Virginia removed tax support for the Anglican church.  In 1786, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, stated: "no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever."  It also provided that "all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion."

    Organized churches soon appeared as a result.  The Methodist Episcopal Church formed in 1784 in a general conference in Baltimore under the leadership of Bishop Francis Asbury. The Anglican Church became the Episcopal, and in 1789, the Presbyterian Church held it's first general assembly in Philadelphia.

    All of Us Americans: The experience of the revolutionary war lent itself to the creation of a uniquely American culture.  Christopher Gadsden of Charleston, S.C. had said in 1765, "There ought to be no New England man, no New Yorker, known on the Continent, but all of us Americans."  Patrick Henry had said, "The distinction between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and new Englanders are no more.  I am not a Virginian, but an American."

    The first truly American artists developed their work during this period, including John Trumbull, who panted the panels in the rotunda of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C: The Declaration of Independence, The Surrender of General Burgoyne, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, and The Resignation of General Washington.  Also, Charles Willson Peale, who painted seven portraits of George Washington from life, sixty portraits of Washington in all.

    The first Independence Day celebration was on July 4, 1777.  Actually July 2 had been the actual day of the signing, but the following year, the Congress forgot about the first anniversary until July 3, so the date was, by default, set as July 4,the date that Congress legally adopted the Declaration of Independence.  John Adams had predicted that the Second would be remembered by future generations as "their day of deliverance."  He said people would celebrate the occasion with "solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty, with Pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations (fireworks) from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forever more."  He got it all right but the date.

    Education:  Nine universities existed at the time of Independence, but eight more followed suit.  In addition, the foundation of free public education was laid.  Public schools were considered the most appropriate avenue for the development of moral and civic competence.

    The wealthy opposed free education, as they did not want their sons to mingle with the vulgar lower classes.  Still, education caught on.  One of the more notable accomplishments was the publication in 1783 of the Blue Back Speller by Noah Webster.  Webster, of dictionary fame, wrote in his speller, "This country must in some future time be as distinguished by the superiority of her literary improvements as she already is by the liberality of her civil and ecclesiastical institutions." 

Accomplishments of the Confederation Government and Important Events

    The Confederation Congress set up three departments, Finance, Foreign Affairs, and War.  Each had a single head responsible to Congress.  They might had developed a parliamentary system, but they turned out to be forerunners of the present-day Constitutional system.

Finance:  Robert Morris was superintendent of finance in the last days of the war.  In order to make himself and the Confederation government more powerful, he supported a program of public debt, bonds sold to to finance the war debt and other government finances.  Since the bonds were of questionable value, they sold at considerable discounts, often ten to fifteen cents on the dollar.  Morris gambled that at some point the new government would receive taxing power.  With that new power, the bonds would increase in value.  This increase in capital would provide the fuel for economic development.  Of course those who would benefit the most would be the speculators who had bought the bonds at discount, and who would become immensely wealthy.  If no taxing authority were granted, then the bonds would be worthless, but the discounted price made this of little consequence.

    Morris and a few friends formed the Bank of North America, to hold government deposits and issue bank notes.  In addition to providing a public service, it would turn a profit for Morris and his friends.  His plan was crippled, however, by the requirement that unanimous consent was required to amend the Articles.  Amendment would be necessary if to give the government taxing power, and the states had fresh memories of the tax quarrels with Parliament and George III.  They expected hell to freeze over before they consented to such power in a central authority.

    The Newburgh Conspiracy:  To help things along, Morris gambled.  Washington's army was encamped at Newburgh, New York on the Hudson River, and had not been paid, nor was there any expectation that pensions, etc would be paid as soon as their services were no longer needed. A group of officers traveled to Philadelphia to seek redress, and were drawn into a scheme between the army and public creditors (those to whom the government owed money).  The plan was to threaten the states with a coup d'etat unless the Congress were granted taxing power. If Congress were given taxing power, not only would the troops be paid; but those who had purchased deeply discounted bonds could expect them to be redeemed at face value and would make a killing. Alexander Hamilton (always a friend of the rich) supported the plan, and attempted to enlist George Washington to support it.

    Washington sympathized with his men, and told a friend that if the powers of the Confederation Congress were not increased, "the band which at present holds us together by a very feeble thread will soon be broken, when anarchy and confusion must ensue."  Nevertheless, Washington, the true patriot and gentleman, felt that a military coup would be dangerous.  He learned of an unauthorized meeting of his officers, and met them.  In one of the more dramatic moments of the period, and in a dramatic gesture of his true character, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of eyeglasses to read prepared remarks. {Washington had NEVER worn glasses in the presence of his men.}  While doing so, he remarked, ""Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country." This simple gesture brought tears to the eyes of his men, and after his emotional remarks, the "Newburgh Conspiracy" melted away.

    Washington had once wrote "It is said that every man has his portion of ambition, I may have mine I suppose as well as the rest; but my only ambition is to do my duty."  He demonstrated the depth of his character by resigning his commission in the Army shortly after the conclusion of the War.  He wrote to a friend, ""I am to become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, free from the busy scenes of public life, I am retiring within myself." The very fact that he refused to hold on to his military authority or to seek political or financial reward for his years of service astonished the country. And when word of it reached King George III of England he exclaimed, "If true, then he is the greatest man in the world."

    Sadly, the Confederation Congress never settled its finances.  Each year as the government attempted to pay claims and expenses, it issued more and more continental currency, already deemed worthless.  (the currency was very similar to a check, it represented a promise of the government to pay the debt; sadly, the government had no means of paying the debt, so the currency, like a check on an overdrawn bank account, was worthless.)  Eventually, the public debt grew from eleven million dollars to over $28 million. 

 Land Policy:  Western lands represented the only hope of paying government debts, as the government might sell the lands for a profit.  This didn't work out well, but the Confederation Congress dealt more effectively with western lands than with any other problem if faced. 

   Over time, all states ceded their claims to western lands to the Confederation government.  In 1779, Congress had determined that western areas would NOT be treated as colonies; but would be formed into states, on equal footing with other states. Two major ordinances, the greatest accomplishments of the Confederation Congress, established a precedent that would be followed in future years all the way to the Pacific Coast:

 ·         Land Ordinance of 1785 – The Northwest Territory (lands north of the Ohio River but East of the Mississippi) was divided into rectangular sections, then  townships, six miles square; then into lots each one mile square, or 640 acres.  The land was to be sold for $1.00 per acre, or $640.00 per lot.  This was a sizeable sum then, and the policy accordingly favored land speculators who could buy up lots in hopes of selling them later for a sizeable profit.  The Ordinance also provided that the income from a sixteenth section was to be used for the support of schools--a significant event at at time when public education was rare.

 ·     Northwest Ordinance of 1787 – Provided for governments in Northwest territories. Among the more important provisions, when any territory had a population of 60,000 or more, it could petition for admission to the union as a state on equal footing with all other states.  It also included a Bill of Rights that guaranteed religious freedom, representation in proportion to population, and trial by jury, as well as application of the common law.  Most importantly, slavery was permanently forbidden in the territories.  As a result, with the emancipation of slaves in the North, the Mason-Dixon line became the dividing line between slave-holding and non-slaveholding states.

    Trade and the Economy:  The American economy took a sudden downturn during the war.  Farmers in local markets managed fine, but those who depended upon commercial agriculture suffered.  Britain closed the West Indies markets to American trade, and also stopped purchasing indigo and naval stores. Many slaves were carried off by the British, and the loss of slave labor was an additional burden on the nation.  Merchants suffered worse than farmers, as they were cut off from the British mercantile system.  

    In 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in Britain, in which he argued in favor of capitalism and against mercantilism, but mercantilism was not easily put away.  It remained in effect for many years.

    When the war ended, trade with Britain resumed, and pent up demand led to an economic boom.  The economy grew mightily since the former colonies were freed from the constraints of the Navigation laws.  Trade was even established with China, which proved to be immensely profitable.

 Diplomacy:  The British used the  failure of America to pay pre-war debts as an excuse to maintain forts near the Canadian border; where they managed to keep a finger in fur trade, and also to stir up the local Indians occasionally.  Problems also existed with the Spanish, who owned the Louisiana territory; and who in 1784 attempted to close the Mississippi River to American traffic. Navigation on the river was important to new settlements in Kentucky and Tennessee.  They also stirred up Indians in the area, causing problems for American settlers.  One James Wilkinson, out to make a fast buck, also connived with the Spanish, and even discussed secession of the Western U.S. from the nation.  It came to naught, of course, as Wilkinson was only out for quick cash.

The Confederation’s Problems

            Some states taxed British goods – other states did not do so, so British ships unloaded there, and goods were shipped overland to the “other” states.  States then began engaging in economic warfare; taxing each other’s goods. There was an obvious need was evident for consistent economic policy.  Additionally, mechanics, artisans, etc. were developing markets, but were competing with British markets.  The lack of a uniform national policy on trade hurt them also. Only a strong central government could provide uniform regulation of economic policy, but the states were in no mood for it..

              Shortage of “hard money” created demands to make paper money legal tender.Prices were depressed, and farmers suffered as a result.

             “Hard Money” has intrinsic value – it contains its face value in precious metal. The problem is, there is only so much of it--there is always a finite supply of money in circulation. If some of it leaves the country, or is taken out of circulation, still less money is available.  Money derives its value from its scarcity; but if it is too scarce, it can be almost too valuable. When foreign merchants demanded payment in hard currency, there was less currency in circulation in America, and the result was deflation of the money supply. Farmers and merchants alike demanded that paper currency be made legal tender, as a way to raise prices.  

    "Legal Tender" means it can be legally tendered in payment of debt.  If one refuses to accept legal tender, then he loses his right to collect the debt.  One will see presently inscribed on American currency the phrase: "This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private."  One cannot refuse cash in payment.

             Shortage of money in circulation – prices go down:  DEFLATION

Increase of money in circulation – prices go up.  INFLATION.

 Example:  If everyone had one million dollars to spend, price of goods would go way up. If, however, minimum wage went to 25 cents per hour, simply because there wasn’t enough actual money to go around, prices would go down.

 A number of states legalized paper money and printed it without serious consequence.  Rhode Island, however,  began printing money wholesale; in fact it printed more paper money than any other state in proportion to its population. The money was virtually worthless, and couldn't be spent elsewhere. Creditors fled the state so that debtors couldn’t pay them with the paper money..

 Shay’s Rebellion:  Massachusetts had not legalized paper money. There, the problem was not too much paper money, but too little. The state had levied heavy taxes to pay off war debt; most of which was represented by bonds held by wealthy people in Boston. The poor and farmers suffered most from the tax, and there was the classic setup of the rich benefiting at the expense of the poor. .

Note: An excellent discussion of Shay's Rebellion appears here.  Note Jefferson's comments in his letter to James Madison of January 30, 1787.

Many farmers faced foreclosure, and mobs formed to prevent creditors from seizing farms. In 1787, a mob type army organized in Massachusetts under the leadership of one Daniel Shays demanded farm produce be made legal tender (could pay bills with corn and wheat that way), and the right to postpone paying taxes until the economic depression ended.  The Rebellion, such as it was, easily dispersed; but rumors spread all over that there might be another revolution.  The near rebellion was sharply criticized by many American leaders, including Washington and John Adams.  The exception was Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to a friend, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed at times with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

Shay's rebellion, like Bacon's Rebellion, was an example of those out of power, and away from the seat of Government rebelling against perceived abuses by a distant government.

 The clear impetus was that the confederation was not working.  It had been organized due to a fear of a strong central government, but it now appeared that the absence of a strong central authority might lead to more anarchy, as in the case of Shay's Rebellion. There was a clear need for a stronger government.  As a result, people lost their fear of a strong government because of a growing fear of a rebellion from the masses.

 States increasingly looked to own interests; national interest continued to suffer as a result. The statesmen who had formerly held state offices were replaced with lower types who passed legislation to protect themselves and their own special interests.  Anarchy appeared evident.  A growing movement arose by 1789 to amend the Articles of Confederation and provide for a stronger government, a "more perfect union."  Said George Washington, "We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our Confederation."  James Madison noted that a "spirit of locality" was rampant, with state legislatures destroying the "aggregate interests of the community."  People were taking the law--and other people's property--into their own hands.  Anarchy seemed inevitable.

 In 1785 – Delegates from Virginia and Maryland met at Mount Vernon to settle issues of navigation of the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. This was the Mount Vernon Conference  The delegates agreed on interstate cooperation, and discussion was had of carrying the agreement further to include other states and incorporate the Ohio River system.  At the suggestion of James Madison, invitations were sent to all thirteen states for a meeting at Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss general commercial problems..

 Nine states responded to the invitation, but only five sent representatives. This was the Annapolis Convention (1786.)  New England, the Carolinas, and Georgia were not represented.  However, at the meeting Alexander Hamilton proposed a resolution for another convention in Philadelphia to consider all measures necessary "to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union."  

Congress balked at the proposal at first, but finally passed a resolution in 1787 endorsing the convention "for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation."  The Convention began work May 25, 1787.  Twelve states were represented:  Rhode Island refused to send delegates. (Several critics referred to it as "Rogue Island.)

Several notable names were NOT present:

·         Patrick Henry – opposed to centralized government; refused to join Virginia delegation.

·         Thomas Jefferson – serving as minister to France.

·         John Adams – also serving abroad.

·         Alexander Hamilton – forced to leave when New York delegation walked out.

 George Washington was elected President; James Madison Secretary. Washington, as presiding officer, took little part in the debates.  Benjamin Franklin was present with the Pennsylvania delegation, and was the oldest person there.  He was frail and could not debate freely, but did offer advice and counsel. 

     Convention agreed to keep proceedings secret to prevent outside influence, and speeches to the gallery. Madison contributed many ideas; and kept copious notes, in fact his notes are the only way we know what happened while the convention was in session..  He is often called the father of the constitution.  

The Articles of Confederation were scrapped almost immediately.

Variety of plans/compromises resulted from meeting: Among the most important:

Virginia Plan: (large state plan) Separate branches of government; two houses of Congress.  Representation based on population.

 New Jersey Plan:  (small state plan) One house of Congress; all states equally represented.

 Issue was settled by Great Compromise, or Connecticut CompromiseIt provided for two houses of Congress:

 ·          Senate, two chosen by legislatures of each state

·         House of Representatives chosen by Popular Vote.

 Other important compromises:

 Slavery:  The debate was predictably between Northern and Southern states. Madison called it a "distracting question" rather than a compelling issue. Abolition was never an issue to be discussed.  All delegates seemed to agree with Jon Rutledge of South Carolina, who said that "Religion and humanity [have] nothing to do with this [slavery] question. Interest alone is the governing principle of nations."  The more compelling issue was the Slave Trade itself. George Mason from Virginia wanted it outlawed, calling it "infernal traffic."  Since Western territories were already demanding slaves, Mason said that the trade would fill the entire nation with slaves and bring forth "the judgment of heaven." Other southern states argued that the slave trade was vital to their economic interests.  The compromise finally adopted was:  

·         Congress could not forbid slave trade for a period of twenty years.

·         For purposes of counting population, a slave counted as Three/fifths of one person.

  The Constitution, as originally written,  never mentions the “S” word; but dances all around it with phrases such as  “all other persons” or  “such persons as any of the States Now existing shall think proper to admit:  The “S” word is not mentioned until the 13th Amendment; passed in 1865 after the Civil War.

 Exports/Imports:  Congress is given the power to tax imports, but denied power to tax exports. This was to protect Southern agricultural exports, and at the same time, allow protection for northern interests.  The export/import issue was actually part of the slave trade compromise.  Ironically, the issue of tariffs on imports would prove as divisive as slavery in later years.

 No language about women; very little about immigration, most of it negative:  The  President must be “Natural Born” citizen of United States.   Representatives must have lived in U.S. seven years.    Senators must have lived in U.S. nine years. Congress was given broad authority to establish uniform rules of Immigration and Naturalization:  Strange language coming from a nation composed of immigrants.

The final article provided that Constitution would be effective when nine states approved.  The Confederation Congress at first tried to censure the Convention delegates  for exceeding the authority of their commission; but finally relented, and sent the Constitution to the states for ratification on September 28, 1787.