The United States Get A Government: The Articles Of Confederation

If you learned all your American History in an American high school, this subject was probably glossed over in a paragraph or two, being seen as either unimportant or embarrassing. Who wants to know that these United States stumbled and very nearly fell before they truly took off on their path to world prominence? Or to admit that this virtuous and temperate nation played fast and loose with its creditors, and little adhered to the very alliance by which it was born? Then again, what child matures to adulthood without its adolescent errors? And, more, what erring youth ever so quickly righted its faults?

It was on this date in 1777 that the Continental Congress formally adopted The Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the newly formed United States of America (final ratification would not be completed for another three and a half years.) Most importantly, The Articles provided for a perpetual union; this idea shows up no fewer than six times in The Articles, including right in the preamble. The Articles clearly envisioned the growth of the new nation, and allowed additional colonial territories to be admitted to the union if nine of the original thirteen colonies gave consent. There was an explicit exception to this clause: Canada was to be permitted to join the United States automatically whenever she might choose to!

The articles provided for a notably weak central government, for the colonists feared creating a new King, and they placed the key powers with the states. Within a decade the manifest problems with the Articles would prompt a call for a major revision of them, which in turn led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

One aspect of The Articles which proved to look good in principle but which turned out very poorly in practice was widespread limitations on time in office. With the aim to keep any one man or group from acquiring significant power, the limitations for service were quite short, and very restrictive as to repeat service: three years for the delegates to the unicameral Congress, one year for the President, and no office holder could immediately follow himself or his successor in that office. The authors of The Articles believed that such restrictions would ensure that no one gained significant power (largely true, in fact) and thereby would ensure “good” government (which turned out to be untrue.) The frequent turnover of officials meant that at any given time, only a few members of the government were experienced (imagine running a major corporation with 66% of the management being newhires!) The result was that The Articles government was barely functional. Foreign powers despaired of accomplishing anything with the new nation. A Spanish diplomat observed that European nations delayed and stalled to gain advantage, while America simply delayed and stalled.

Perhaps worse still for the long-range prospects of the country, the newly organized United States were particularly bad about repaying the massive war debts they had accrued during the revolution, because the central government had no power to tax, only to request funds from the individual states. This inability to tax was designed to keep the central government quite weak, and it was successful in attaining that goal. Too successful. In London, John Adams noted that America was not taken seriously in Europe, save among a few intellectuals; from Paris, Thomas Jefferson observed that he had been unable “to discover the smallest token of respect for the United States in any part of Europe.” The reason? Bad credit.

The United States still owed France for the tens of millions of pounds that were borrowed during the revolution, some of which was never repaid (the rapidly deteriorating political situation in France at that time being a convenient excuse to avoid the obligation, though amends were later made by the United States’ powerful support of France through two World Wars.) Ironically, the United States were better about settling up with all other creditors, though it was France and France alone who made the revolution possible with her generous loans and outright gifts. More than 70% of the money borrowed to fund the American revolution was French (the Americans disliked the notion of collecting taxes to support their war, and preferred to borrow from European allies, much to France’s understandable dismay.) It would take Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury, to set the new nation on a sound financial footing by honoring its debts, but by that time France’s own revolution was in full swing – a revolution in part fomented by the financial strain the American Revolution had put upon France’s treasury – and France’s revolutionary government was quite uncertain and quite unpredictable.

Frequent turnover and turmoil, plus bad credit seriously reduced the effectiveness of the United States government under The Articles. Even with these significant debilities, however, much was accomplished under the Articles of Confederation, including the peace treaty with Britain ending the Revolution and recognizing full independence.

Perhaps the greatest, most enduring accomplishment under the Articles was the Great Northwest Ordinance which organized the territory that became the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Importantly, The Ordinance provided for the establishment of new states that would become co-equal with the original thirteen. Such a granting of equal power to newly settled lands was unprecedented in history, and represents a key contribution of the Articles government to the current form and character of the United States.

And the Ordinance also left an indelible mark upon the American landscape. The newly organized lands were to be surveyed and divided into parcels of square miles and sub-parcels of quarter square miles (“quartersections.”) This division of the land is clearly visible from the air when one flys over the old Northwest Territory, and it’s also apparent in some of the unimaginative yet descriptive road names one finds in, say, Michigan: Five Mile Road, Six Mile Road and so forth.

This parceling out of the land was so useful, and so successful, that it was carried on into the lands of the Louisiana Purchase, and so a vast swath of the United States displays, when viewed from the air, a regular, square, and very extensive pattern of roads and property lines. Though as you head north or south, about every ten miles you’ll encounter a small east/west jog in the otherwise straight road: the surveyors had to adjust for the longitude at regular intervals.

Though the Articles of Confederation lasted barely ten years, they paved the way for America as we know it today. And though the Perpetual Union that the Articles established was sorely tested in the 1860’s, it nevertheless endured, and does to this day, in large measure because Abraham Lincoln and his supporters took the notion of Perpetual Union very seriously. We still have our mile-square real estate lines, and we still have our Union and its government. I appreciate the landscape, and I cherish these United States.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything.
You’re a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree.

— Michael Crighton

SOMETHING TO PONDER: who really deserves to be known as “The First President of The United States of America?”

Is it George Washington, who served as the first president under the present Constitution? That’s what is usually said, and with excellent reason: George Washington was indeed the first chief executive of The United States, for no such position existed under The Articles.

But what about the first holder of the office of President to serve a full term after The Articles were ratified in March of 1781? Or, for that matter, what about the first holder of the office after The Articles were ratified, whether or not he served a full term? How about the man who held the title when The Articles were adopted in 1777? Consider as well the first holder of the title “President” when the United Colonies became the United States? And, while every American school child knows of George Washington, who were these other folks?

Think about it …