Module 02 Sections
One Country or Thirteen?
Careful readers of the Declaration of Independence will have noticed that there is a fundamental tension evident within the document. The Declaration is titled “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America,” and it begins with the words, “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people…(emphasis added).
These elements, along with our long political history, lead the reader to think of the United States as a singular unit.
The end of the document, however, tells a different tale. There we see the united States (notice the capitalization) referenced. We also find that the colonies “are, and as of right ought to be Free and Independent States.”
So was the United States one country, with a singular people? Or were the United States 13 countries, with thirteen peoples?
There is no clear answer to this question to be found within the document itself, and this lack of clarity would come to be an issue as the young nation made its first attempt to govern itself. In many ways, it is still with us.
The Articles of Confederation
When we think of the United States Constitution, we rarely consider the first United States Constitution: the Articles of Confederation. Just five days after the motion for independence was introduced into the Second Continental Congress, a committee was formed to prepare a plan for confederation. The work of this committee formed the basis for the Articles of Confederation, which were adopted by Congress 16 months later and sent to the states for ratification on November 17, 1777. By March of 1779, every state but Maryland had ratified the Articles. After a good deal of political wrangling involving the large states’ land claims in the west, Maryland finally ratified the Articles, which then went into effect on March 1, 1781.
Have a look at this short video as an introduction to the Articles:
The Articles created a “league of friendship” among the states, thus addressing the question of whether the US was one nation or thirteen free and independent states by concluding, more or less, that the correct answer was thirteen.
This is most clear in Article II, which states unambiguously that “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…”
So what powers are delegated to the United States? As it turns out, not many.
The Articles of Confederation created an extraordinarily weak central government that very clearly left most of the important functions of government to the states. Matters of foreign affairs, military affairs, and war largely defined the federal government. The Articles created a government consisting only of a legislative branch; there was no executive authority, nor was there a judiciary. Each state could have between two and seven representatives in Congress, but each state had only one vote.
Further, while the new federal government acknowledged and accepted debts accrued prior to its adoption, tax collection was left to the states. There was also no national currency, which made financial concerns difficult at best.
A profound weakness of the Articles was that nine of thirteen states had to agree in order for anything to happen. This super majority meant, in effect, that almost nothing could get done in Congress. But this difficulty paled in comparison to the difficulty of amending the Articles, which required unanimous consent.
In the final analysis, the Articles created a government with no executive or judicial branches, which could not operate but by sizable majorities, and which could not be changed in any meaningful way without unanimous consent. There was no workable system of taxation, nor was there a national currency.
There was only a league of friendship.
Listen to 60-Second Civics: “Episode 1975: Congress, the states, and trade under the Articles” to get a sense of the scope of the problem:
George Washington’s Circular Letter to the States (1783)
While a league of friendship was undoubtedly better than many of the alternatives, it was by no means sufficient as a governing concept for the United States. The failures of the Articles were felt almost immediately, and most acutely by none other than George Washington. Under the Articles, the states were repeatedly unable to respond to requests for men, supplies, and money during the Revolutionary War. Washington, having suffered the ill–effects of a poorly designed constitution during war time, did what he could to make peace time more agreeable.
After the conclusion of the War (but before the Treaty of Paris was even signed), Washington sent his Circular Letter to the States in order to address the many defects of the Articles, and to urge his fellow countrymen to act while there was still time.
You can read the letter here:
There are a few things to highlight here, the first of which is Washington’s belief that the young nation’s situation was dire. He presents this in stark terms when he writes:
Such is our situation, and such are our prospects: but notwithstanding the cup of blessing is thus reached out to us, notwithstanding happiness is ours, if we have a disposition to seize the occasion and make it our own; yet, it appears to me there is an option still left to the United States of America, that it is in their choice, and depends upon their conduct, whether they will be respectable and prosperous, or contemptible and miserable as a Nation; This is the time of their political probation, this is the moment when the eyes of the whole World are turned upon them, this is the moment to establish or ruin their national Character forever, this is the favorable moment to give such a tone to our Federal Government, as will enable it to answer the ends of its institution, or this may be the ill-fated moment for relaxing the powers of the Union, annihilating the cement of the Confederation, and exposing us to become the sport of European politics, which may play one State against another to prevent their growing importance, and to serve their own interested purposes. For, according to the system of Policy the States shall adopt at this moment, they will stand or fall, and by their confirmation or lapse, it is yet to be decided, whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse: a blessing or a curse, not to the present age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn Millions be involved.
For Washington, there was no time to waste. The Revolution itself, in his estimation, could be either a blessing or a curse depending on the path taken by the Americans at this critical juncture.
So what did Washington recommend? In short, he recommended a much stronger federal government, a federal government which would have Americans forgetting their “local prejudices” in favor of a more national orientation:
There are four things, which I humbly conceive, are essential to the well being, I may even venture to say, to the existence of the United States as an Independent Power:
1st. An indissoluble Union of the States under one Federal Head.
2ndly. A Sacred regard to Public Justice.
3rdly. The adoption of a proper Peace Establishment, and
4thly. The prevalence of that pacific and friendly Disposition, among the People of the United States, which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the Community.
In short, Washington advised that people subvert their attachment to the states to a love of the nation as a whole.
And for the better part of three years, nothing happened. Washington’s warnings went unheeded, and the Articles kept right on failing.
In order to understand Shay’s Rebellion, and the central role that the Articles of Confederation played, have a look at this video:
And listen to 60-Second Civics: “Episode 1978: Shays’ Rebellion” to get a fuller picture of the rebellion itself:
Shays’ Rebellion was a localized event in Massachusetts, but the shockwaves it created reverberated throughout the states. The more insightful Americans at the time realized, quite quickly, that the events that played out in Shays’ Rebellion could, and likely would, reoccur over time. They also realized that when that happened, it would be much, much worse.
Once again, George Washington sounded the alarm. In a letter to Henry Knox, written on December 26, 1786, he stressed that “There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to.”
Something had to be done. And finally, other people were taking notice too.
The Call for a Constitutional Convention
The Annapolis Convention of September 14, 1786 was looking like a pointless endeavor. The Convention was called in order to address commercial problems in the states. Only nine states replied favorably to the call for the Convention, though, and delegates from only five were present when the meeting convened on September 11.
Listen to 60-Second Civics: “Episode 1979: The Annapolis Convention” for a brief treatment of the background and result of this Convention:
In an attempt to salvage something from the meeting, the Convention adopted an address prepared by Alexander Hamilton, who was a delegate from New York.
In his address, Hamilton called for delegates to be sent from all of the states to a Convention to be held in May of the following year in Philadelphia, in order to discuss the ways in which the Articles of Confederation might be strengthened.
Here is Hamilton’s address as adapted by the Annapolis Convention:
The most important part of this document clearly echoes Washington’s concerns:
That there are important defects in the system of the Federal Government is acknowledged by the Acts of all those States, which have concurred in the present Meeting; That the defects, upon a closer examination, may be found greater and more numerous, than even these acts imply, is at least so far probable, from the embarrassments which characterize the present State of our national affairs, foreign and domestic, as may reasonably be supposed to merit a deliberate and candid discussion, in some mode, which will unite the Sentiments and Council’s of all the States. In the choice of the mode, your Commissioners are of opinion, that a Convention of Deputies from the different States, for the special and sole purpose of entering into this investigation, and digesting a plan for supplying such defects as may be discovered to exist, will be entitled to a preference from considerations, which will occur, without being particularized.
Your Commissioners decline an enumeration of those national circumstances on which their opinion respecting the propriety of a future Convention, with more enlarged powers, is founded; as it would be an useless intrusion of facts and observations, most of which have been frequently the subject of public discussion, and none of which can have escaped the penetration of those to whom they would in this instance be addressed. They are however of a nature so serious, as, in the view of your Commissioners to render the situation of the United States delicate and critical, calling for an exertion of the united virtue and wisdom of all the members of the Confederacy.
Congress endorsed the proposed Convention to be held in Philadelphia, and issued a resolution urging the states to elect delegates. All of the states did so except Rhode Island.
This would have seemed to render the entire endeavor pointless, because, as you remember, the Articles of Confederation required unanimous consent for any amendments to the document. With Rhode Island sitting out the Philadelphia Convention, any agreement reached there would not be binding.
But Washington’s concerns were clearly becoming everyone’s concerns, and something was, finally, about to happen.