By Allen Watson
The British surrendered at Yorktown in October of 1781 and George Washington took the oath of office to become president in April 1789. Yes, you are reading that correctly – there was almost an eight-year lag time from the end of fighting to when our first president took office. What happened during those eight years was the first great experiment the United States undertook. It was an experiment of government that almost destroyed a nation that had just been born. It is also an example of how decentralized government can dissolve under its own weight.
Most people don’t realize that we were governed in our early years by a document other than the Constitution. In March of 1781, with the war almost over, the states ratified the Articles of Confederation (AOC), a document that gave significant autonomy to each individual state and nearly no power to the federal government. The reasons for this are clear: The colonies-turned-states had just gotten themselves out from under the central and total power of a king. The Founders were not about to reestablish an authority over them with much power. Meanwhile, Washington returned to Mount Vernon, happy to go back to running his farm.
To understand the AOC, it is important to understand the mindset of leaders and citizens from each state. Unlike today, when we all tend identify as citizens of the United States, people during the 1780s had no concept of being united. Sure, they fought together during the war, but having a common enemy does that; it bonds people who otherwise wouldn’t be bonded. After they won, the common enemy was gone. The need to be united went away and people went back to being citizens of their respective states. It was almost as if there were 13 separate little countries. The word “confederation” really means a loose alliance, and that is exactly what we had – a loose alliance of states that begrudgingly called themselves a country.
Problems quickly arose under the Articles. Here is a quick list of the features of the AOC:
- There was no Executive Branch. The “President” simply presided over Congress.
- Delegates to Congress were chosen by each individual state legislature, leaving the general population out of the process, at least directly.
- Congress could request taxes be paid, but could not require them.
- There was no federal court system.
- Each state had one vote on issues in Congress, regardless of their population.
- Congress could not draft troops for a federal army, though states could contribute if they wanted to.
- There was no control of trade between states.
- Passing laws required 9 of 13 states, and amending the AOC had to be unanimous.
Under the AOC, the federal government had no real power. Just by looking at the list above, you can see potential problems. Without the ability to tax, the federal government could not fund itself or any national projects. Each state was responsible for their own infrastructure. More importantly, the country was deeply in debt. The US borrowed significantly to fight the war, but now had no way to compel the states to pay the debts.
It’s a good thing that foreign powers at the time were bogged down in their own messes, because this would have been the perfect time to invade. The US was a new nation, in deep debt, and highly vulnerable. Without the ability to raise an army, if there was an invasion, no standing army would be there to meet them. The states would have to voluntarily send troops to protect whichever state got invaded. If a foreign adversary landed in New York, Congress would have had to request help from other states.
There was no way to address conflicts that arose between states. Harbor states, such as South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, and Maryland were able to force other states to pay duties on foreign goods that entered through their ports. The other states would retaliate with trade policies that hurt the harbor states. Each state also had their own currency, making trade between states exceedingly difficult as the valuation on each currency was different.
None of the states wanted to defer to Congress on issues of foreign policy. Many states conducted foreign policy on their own with other countries, making the US a cluster of treaties and agreements, most of which conflicted with national ones.
Larger concerns came from within the states themselves with respect to the power that each state legislature or governor wielded over the citizens. Left unchecked by any higher authority, many states violated the rights of their people. This was most evident during Shays’ Rebellion, an event that pushed many to the realization that a new guiding document was needed. Because of the inability of Congress to pay veterans of the war and the debt collecting actions of many states, protests and rebellions broke out. In Massachusetts, it turned ugly. Courts were shut down by protests and veteran Daniel Shays led an organized rebellion to take a federal armory at Springfield. Though the rebellion was successfully put down by a Massachusetts militia, it highlighted the many weaknesses of the AOC. Many leaders, including George Washington, were now calling for reforming the structure of the government. The Articles of Confederation were simply not meeting the needs of the young country.
Today, the federal government has significant power. Since the Constitution was written, the powers of each branch have evolved and expanded, but the call for a decentralized government has always remained strong. It is built into the fabric of our founding. The push and pull of state and federal government has been around since before the Revolutionary War ended, plagued us to the point of Civil War, and has echoes in many national issues today. From gun control and abortion, to education and environmental issues, the battle between state and federal control wages on.