Remembering the Articles of Confederation

On March 1, 1781, the Articles of Confederation were finally ratified when Maryland agreed to approve the Continental government some three and a half years after it was submitted to the states for ratification.

Despite the fact that it took so long to make the government official, it was the defacto government during most of the Revolutionary War and thereafter until the Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1787.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Articles were an inadequate form of government and the wise Founders recognized this and gathered to create the Constitution. But the government was certainly sufficient to shepherd the country as it defeated the greatest empire in existence. It was also sufficient for keeping peace and for establishing one of the greatest legislative achievements ever accomplished: the passage of the Old Northwest Ordinance, according to Bradley Birzer, professor of history at Hillsdale College.

The period under the Articles of Confederation was also the only time in American that Americans were truly free.

To those who would disagree with the notion that the articles kept the peace, Birzer writes:

 [H]istorians often dismiss this by citing Daniel Shays and his uprising as a clear example of the failure of the Articles. If we do, however, we must state the exact same thing about the US Constitution and its “failure” to prevent South Carolina from seceding in late 1860. Shays, however, did not want to secede. He merely wanted to get the government to take the demands of western Massachusetts farmers seriously. That he did so through violence was nothing new or exceptional. One might even readily argue that such a course had always been the course of last resort under the English Common Law.

That we remember the Articles poorly has far more to do with the ultimate success — in and out of the academy — of American nationalists than it does with actual failure or success of the Articles themselves.

The Articles were drafted primarily by John Dickinson, who took almost a month to produce a draft and submit it to the Continental Congress. Congress then went to work on the draft to create something that could and would pass.

Birzer writes that three questions needed asking and answering by the Congress. First, how would the new Congress count votes, by state population or one vote per state? Second, would the new Congress tax individual property holders directly, or would it instead call for levies on a state-by-state basis? Third, what should the country do as a whole with the western lands, considering the overlapping claims upon them?

In each of those questions, state sovereignty won out, as evidenced by these two articles:

Article II: Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.

Article III: The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.

It was the danger of losing state sovereignty to a central government that so concerned the anti-Federalists who opposed the Constitution and who pushed for a Bill of Rights before they would agree to its ratification. Sadly, all that the anti-Federalists warned would happen have happened, which has put us in the sad state of affairs in which we currently find ourselves.

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