Sunday, September 13, 2009

The American Revolution Produces Our First Constitution, the Articles of Confederation

On September 17, we can commemorate our national Constitution, 1787, the one in solid place today, the one that is always being scrutinized, what does it say? That’s what the Supreme Court does.

But less than ten years before, some influential Americans, central government proponents, were looking for a more solid direction for the states, which were going their own way. People weren’t too unhappy about it. After all, they were Virginians or New Yorkers first, or whatever their location, before joining any states’ federation for the common good! And they certainly didn’t want to fund any central government! That was an open invitation to corruption. Look at why they were fighting Great Britain; to be free of that uncontrolled power.

The 2nd Continental Congress began to consider the Articles of Confederation, the “United States of America”, in 1776 – 1777.

It was an attempt to designate what, if any, role could be better handled by the states together. From the beginning, dissension between the central versus anti-central government supporters was intense. Funding for a Confederation was actually non-existent, because the states generally never paid their assessments. The states retained enormous power. Over the long run, the articles would be untenable.

They were not ratified until 1781, over the contentious issue of how new states should be admitted. The 13 articles withered on the vine. Their most ferocious critic was, you guessed it, Alexander Hamilton. His message was, “I told you so!”

He saw, that with their financial structure, they were doomed. After a few years, many of the delegates to the Confederation government showed little interest in the proceedings.

There was nothing democratic about how delegates were selected. Many you could identify as machine politicians. The franchise was restricted to those with power and property. No others need apply. Changing this has been unbelievably slow. Consider that women didn’t get the vote until 1920 and poll taxes weren’t eliminated until 1964!

I believe that war (World War I and Vietnam here) seems to produce great domestic changes.

There is some technical quibbling on whether the Articles are a constitution at all. Well, they sound awfully like a constitution to me! The states are all included; the same articles apply to all of them. They are intended to be perpetual, not change every three months. There are rules on how and when delegates may serve. We have that in our present constitution.

A difference is that the powers retained by the states are far greater, although this issue is not completely resolved today.

The Articles did consider some very important issues though. Their main purpose was to prevent states from individually waging wars, making alliances, running as individual countries. There were questions if states could retain armies and navies. Militias were okay. Did citizens had the right to move unhindered from state to state? Issues such as extradition for criminals were considered. The Confederation was to be the final arbiter of disputes between states and it alone could regulate currency. Today, we take these issues either for granted, or look to our Supreme Court to resolve them.

Since the states still held the “power of the purse” and Alexander Hamilton’s objections were correct, it was time for something new. So in 1787, we wrote our second constitution. It’s the one that’s around today.

Please note: I found very clear and engaging testimony in the following source: Carol Berkin, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc., 2002. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

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