The Articles of Confederation were commonly referred to as “a rope of sand” – meaningless and useless. However, would a rope of sand be preferable to what some founding fathers felt would be the alternative, a “rod of iron?” And how long did the Articles of Confederation last?
“To all to whom these Presents shall come, we the undersigned Delegates of the States affixed to our Names send greeting.”
Well, that sounds pretty good. Presents? No, not exactly. Rather, that is the first sentence of the preamble to one of the first governing documents of the United States – the Articles Of Confederation.
On June 12, 1776, a day after appointing a committee to prepare a draft declaration of independence, the Second Continental Congress resolved to appoint a committee of thirteen to prepare a draft of a constitution for a confederate type of union. The last draft of the Articles was written in the summer of 1777 and the Second Continental Congress approved them for ratification by the States on November 15, 1777, in York, Pennsylvania after a year of debate.
The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, customarily referred to as the Articles of Confederation, was the first constitution of the United States of America and legally established the union of the 13 states that had declared independence from Great Britain. The ratification process was completed in March 1781; legally federating the sovereign and independent states, already cooperating through the Continental Congress, into a new federation styled the “The United States of America.” Under the Articles, the states retained sovereignty over all governmental functions not specifically relinquished to the central government.
The Articles set up a national legislature that could raise an army and navy, declare war and negotiate treaties, borrow and coin money, run a postal system, and handle relations with Native Americans. The single-body Congress under the Articles of Confederation comprised the entire national government. There was neither an executive nor a judicial branch. In fact, in November 1777 the draft of the Articles that the Continental Congress submitted to the states for ratification specifically rejected a plan for an executive.
The Articles of Confederation provided instead for a “Committee of States” to “execute in the recess of Congress, such of the powers of Congress as the United States, in Congress assembled, shall by the consent of nine states, from time to time, think expedient to vest them with.”
Under the Articles, the president of the Continental Congress was simply the presiding officer of the legislature and had no executive functions. The importance of the office can best be described as a clerk, designated to perform his duties. Presidents served one-year terms, and they were usually men whose talents matched their limited powers.
Perhaps one of the more vocal opponents to this constitution was none other than George Washington. While calling on Congress to regulate military and monetary affairs, for example, the Articles of Confederation provided no mechanism to force the states to comply with requests for troops or revenue. At times, this left the military in a precarious position, as George Washington wrote in a 1781 letter to the governor of Massachusetts, John Hancock.
In September 1783, George Washington wrote to George Clinton, complaining:
“Congress have come to no determination yet respecting the Peace Establishment nor am I able to say when they will. I have lately had a conference with a Committee on this subject, and have reiterated my former opinions, but it appears to me that there is not a sufficient representation to discuss Great National points.”
Another army general frustrated with the lack of funding was General Henry Knox. He wrote to Governor Morris of Pennsylvania:
“As the present Constitution is so defective, why do not you great men call the people together and tell them so; that is, to have a convention of the States to form a better Constitution.”
This sparked a great debate in American history over the role of government. Next time – The Constitution of the United States.