The second text of U.S. scripture, the Articles of Confederation, gets much less attention than the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Still it set up the political structure by which the new country was run for its first thirteen years; it provided the military structure to win the war for independence; it furnished the diplomatic structure to secure French support during that war and then to reach an advantageous peace treaty with the British Empire.
The Iroquois Great Law of Peace and the Albany Plan of Benjamin Franklin that it inspired are certainly precursors of the Articles of Confederation. In fact, the First Continental Congress set up a meeting in Albany NY in August 1775 with the Iroquois. The colonists informed the Iroquois of the possibility of the colonies’ breaking with Britain, acknowledged the debt they owed them for their example and advice, and presumably tried to test whether the Iroquois would support the British in the case of an American move for independence. In the end, the Iroquois did stay loyal to the British (the Royal Proclamation of 1763 would have had something to do with that). The French Canadians also stayed loyal to the British; in this case too, it was likely preferring “the devil you know.”
Were there other forerunners to the Articles? Mystère.
Another precursor of the Articles was the Dutch Republic’s Union of Utrecht of 1579, which created a confederation of seven provinces in the north of the Netherlands. Like that of the Iroquois, the Dutch system left each component virtually independent except for issues like the common defense. This was not a democratic system in the modern sense in that each province was controlled by a ruling clique called the regents. For affairs of common interest, the Republic had a governing body called the Staaten (parliament) with one representative from each province. Henry Hudson’s voyage in 1609 was financed by the Staaten and he loyally named the westernmost outpost of New York City Staaten Eylandt. (This is not inconsistent with the old Vaudeville joke that the name originated with the near-sighted Henry asking “Is dat an Eyelandt?!!!” in his broken Dutch.) Hudson stopped short of naming the mighty river he navigated for himself; the Native Americans called it the Mahicanituck and the Dutch simply called it the North River.
Like the American colonists but two hundred years earlier, to achieve independence the citizens of the Dutch Republic had to rebel against the mightiest empire of the time, in this case that of Philipp II of Spain. However, the Dutch Republic in its Golden Age was the most prosperous country in Europe and among the most powerful, proving its military mettle in the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th century – all of which gave rise to the unflattering English language expressions Dutch Courage (bravery fueled by alcohol), Dutch Widow (a woman of ill repute), Dutch Uncle (someone not at all avuncular), Dutch Comfort (a comment like “things could be worse”) and, of course, Dutch Treat. The Dutch Republic was also remarkable for protecting civil liberties and religious freedom, keys to the domestic tranquility that did find their way into the U.S. Bill of Rights. For a painting by the Dutch Master Abraham Storck of a scene from the Four Days Battle during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, click HERE.
The Articles of Confederation were approved by the Second Continental Congress on Nov 15, 1776. Though technically not ratified by the states until 1781, the Articles steered the new country through the Revolutionary War and continued to be in force until 1789. The Articles embraced the federalism of the Iroquois Confederation and the Dutch Republic; they rejected the principle of the Divine Right of Kings in favor of republicanism and they embraced the idea of popular sovereignty affirming that power resides with the people
The Congress of the Confederation had a unicameral legislature (like the Staaten and Nebraska). It had a presiding officer referred to as the President of the United States who organized the deliberations of the Congress, but who did not have executive authority. In all, there were ten presidents, John Hancock and Richard Henry Lee among them. John Hanson, a wealthy landowner and slaveholder from Maryland, was the first president and so wags claim that “John Hanson” and not “George Washington” is the correct answer to the trivia question “who was the first U.S. president” – by the way the answer to the question “which president first called for a Day of Thanksgiving on a Thursday in November” is also “John Hanson.” For a statue of the man, click HERE
The arrangement was truly federal: each state had one vote and ordinary matters required a simple majority of the states. The Congress could not levy taxes itself but depended on the states for its revenue. On the other hand, Congress could coin money and conduct foreign policy but decisions on making war, entering into treaties, regulating coinage, and some other important issues required the vote of nine states in the Congress.
Not unsurprisingly, given the colonists’ opposition to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, during the Revolutionary War the Americans took action to wrest the coveted land west of the Appalachians away from the British. George Rogers Clark, a general in the Virginia Militia (and older brother of William of “Lewis and Clark” fame) is celebrated for the Illinois Campaign and the captures of Kaskaskia (Illinois) and Vincennes (Indiana). For the Porte de Vincennes metro stop in Paris, click HERE.
As the French, Dutch and Spanish squabbled with the English over the terms of a treaty to end the American War of Independence and dithered over issues of interest to these imperial powers ranging from Gibraltar to the Caribbean to the Spice Islands to Senegal, the Americans and the English put together their own deal (infuriating the others, especially the French). This arrangement ceded the land east of the Mississippi and South of the Great Lakes (except for Florida) to the newly born United States. The Florida territory was transferred back once again to Spain. The French had wanted all that land east of the Mississippi and West of the Appalachians to be ceded to its ally Spain who also controlled the Louisiana Territory at this time. Given how Spain returned the Louisiana Territory to France by means of a secret treaty twenty years later, the bold American diplomatic dealings in the Treaty of Paris proved to be prescient; the Americans who signed the treaty with England were Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Jay.
The treaty with England was signed in 1783 and ratified by the Confederation Congress then sitting at the Maryland State House in Annapolis on January 14, 1784
However, hostilities between American militias and British and Native American forces continued after Cornwallis’ defeat at Yorktown and even after the signing of the treaty that officially ended the war; in fact, the British did not relinquish Fort Detroit and surrounding settlements until Jay’s Treaty which took effect in 1796. Many thought this treaty made too many concessions to the British on commercial and maritime matters and, for his efforts, Jay was hanged and burned in effigy everywhere by anti-Federalists. Jay reportedly joked that he could find his way across the country by the light of his burning effigies. Click HERE for a political cartoon from the period.
A noted achievement of the Confederation Congress was the Ordinance of 1787 (aka the Northwest Ordinance), approved on July 13, when the Congress was seated at Federal Hall in New York City. The Northwest Territory was comprised of the five territories of Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio – the elementary school mnemonic was “I met Walter in Ohio.” Four of these names are Native American in origin; Indiana is named for the Indiana Land Company, a group of real estate investors. The Ordinance outlawed slavery in these areas (but it did include a fugitive slave clause), provided a protocol for territories’ becoming states, acknowledged the land rights of Native Americans, established freedom of navigation on lakes and rivers, established the principle of public education (including universities), … . In fact no time was wasted: Ohio University was chartered in 1787; it is located in Athens (naturally) and today has over 30,000 students. The Ordinance was re-affirmed when the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation.
With all these successes in war and in making peace, what drove the Americans to abandon the proven formula of a confederation of tribes or provinces and seek to replace it? Again, mystère.
While the Articles of Confederation were successful when it came to waging war and preparing for new states, it was economic policy and domestic strife that made the case for a stronger central government.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the power to tax stayed with the individual states; in 1781 and again in 1786, serious efforts were made to amend the Articles so that the Confederation Congress itself could levy taxes; both efforts failed leaving the Congress without control over its own finances. During and after the war, both the Congress and individual states printed money, money that soon was “not worth a continental.”
In 1785 and 1786, a rebellion broke out in Western Massachusetts, in the area around Springfield; the leader who emerged was Daniel Shays, a farm worker who had fought in the Revolution (Lexington and Concord, Saratoga, …) and who had been wounded – but Shays had never been paid for his service in the Continental Army and he was now being pursued by the courts for debts. He was not alone and petitions by yeoman citizens for relief from debts and taxes were not being addressed by the State Legislature. The rebels shut down court houses and tried to seize the Federal Armory in Springfield; in this, they were thwarted only by an ad hoc militia raised with money from merchants in the east of the state. After, many rebels including Shays, swiftly escaped to neighboring states such as New Hampshire and New York, out of reach for the Massachusetts militia.
Shays’ Rebellion shook the foundations of the new country and accelerated the process that led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. It dramatically highlighted the shortcomings of such a decentralized system in matters of law and order and in matters economic; in contrast, with the new Constitution, Washington as President was able to lead troops to put down the Whiskey Rebellion and Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury was able to re-organize the economy (national bank, assumption of states’ debts, protective tariffs, …). Click HERE for a picture of George back in the saddle; as for “Hamilton” tickets, just wait for the movie.
The Articles continued to be the law of the land into 1789: the third text of U.S. scripture, the U.S. Constitution, was ratified by the ninth state New Hampshire on June 21, 1788 and the Confederation Congress established March 4, 1789 as the date for the country to begin operating under the new Constitution.
How did that work out? More to come. Affaire à suivre.