This article was published in the Autumn 1993 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
The Articles of Confederation
by Bobby Emory

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Why Consider
Historical Context
Philosophical Context
Developments in Philosophy
Philosophy Embedded in Document
Major Features
Reasons for Success
Achilles' Heel
Annotated Bibiography

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Why Consider?

If we are to design a new government, we can probably benefit from studying prior attempts to start new governments. One of the most dramatic changes in human history occurred with the founding of the United States. We tend to take our relative degree of freedom, representative government, and individual rights for granted, but until then, most major countries had a monarch who gave or withheld rights. It was a radical departure to suggest that ordinary people could govern themselves without help from their "betters." The Articles were a dramatic break with the past by eliminating the elite that the average citizen was forced to support - rather like the task we face today.

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Historical Content

The United States had declared independence from the most powerful nation on the earth and had the task of establishing a government that could defeat England and then defend the freedom they had won. In the heat of battle (the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the subsequent Revolutionary War) the Articles of Confederation were created. The Articles proved equal to the challenge and the war was successful. After several years of operating under the Articles, Shays' Rebellion (led by people who called themselves "Regulators") arose. The moneyed interests panicked over the fear that people might authorize paper money and delay foreclosure proceedings against small debtors. The cultural, educational, and economic elite demanded a new Constitution to protect their commercial interests. Thus ended one of the peaks of individual liberty in the history of man.

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5 Sept 1774 - 26 Oct 1774
First Continental Congress creates the Continental Association

10 May 1775
Second Continental Congress convenes

12 June 1776
John Dickinson appointed to head a committee to draw up a confederation

4 July 1776
[Declaration of Independence endorsed]

12 July 1776
The Articles of Confederation presented

2 Aug 1776
[Declaration of Independence formally signed]

15 Mar 1777
Congress endorses Articles

9 July 1778
Seven states have endorsed Articles, bringing them into effect; the rest endorse over the next 11 months

14 Jan 1784
[Official end of Revolution]

21 Feb 1787
Congress endorses Constitutional Convention

22 May 1787
Constitutional Convention begins

28 Sept 1787
Congress sends Constitution to States for ratification

21 Jan 1788
New Hampshire ratifies -- enough for adoption

2 July 1788
Ratification formally announced

1 Nov 1788
Congress under Articles of Confederation adjourns

1 Apr 1789
House of Representatives under Constitution reaches a quorum

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Philosophical Context

Let's examine the state of philosophy at the time and the points we see included in the Articles.

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Developments in Philosophy

The Wealth of Nations had just been published, giving a theoretical foundation for the overthrow of mercantilism (although I have no evidence members of Congress saw The Wealth of Nations). The intellectual (the Enlightenment) environment was beginning to give importance to the Individual and removing the rationalizations for the primacy of the collective over the Individual and of force over logic. Cato's Letters had been published. Tom Paine's Common Sense was published in numbers equal to 1/20 of the population of the colonies.

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Philosophy Imbedded in Document

A dedication to liberty. Concern for freedom given higher importance than providing commercial advantage or making government easy. Implies that putting up with a difficult and lengthy legislative process is preferable to trampling on the rights of individuals or states. Allows states to address their own situations. Equal suffrage for all economic classes without built-in control of local government by elites in control of the central government. Implies a confidence in the citizens governing themselves.

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Major Features

A weak central government. A unicameral legislature with one vote per state. Major actions require more than a simple majority. A president but without strong powers. Taxation only through the states. A free market in currency. Leaving most powers to the states meant that government was relatively close to the people.

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This is a short summary of the provisions of each Article.

Article 1
Name to be United States of America.

Article 2
States retain all rights not expressly delegated.

Article 3
States enter into league of friendship and mutual defense.

Article 4
Citizens of any State have same rights as residents of any State. Extradition allowed. Each State shall recognize court proceedings of other States.

Article 5
Authorizes Congress. Delegates picked by State Legislature for one year and may be replaced at will. Two to seven members per State ÐÐ one vote per State. Rotation in office (no more than three years of six). Delegates may not hold other paid U.S. offices. Each State maintains its own delegates. Freedom of speech and debate in Congress -- delegates cannot be arrested.

Article 6
States may not enter into separate treaties with other nations or each other. No State may levy duties that interfere with U.S. treaties. No warships or standing armies may be kept by any State unless authorized by Congress. Each state shall keep a militia and keep arms and provisions for it. No State shall engage in war unless attacked, authorized by Congress, or threatened by Indians.

Article 7
Each State can appoint officers (through colonel) for land forces raised by the State.

Article 8
All costs of war and all other expenses, shall be defrayed out of a common treasury. Each State shall contribute to the treasury in proportion to real estate value of each State. Taxes will be levied by the State Legislatures.

Article 9
Congress shall have rights to: determine war and peace, foreign affairs (but may not exempt foreigners from taxes levied by States against their citizens), grant letters of marque and reprisal, establish courts for trial of piracy, shall be the court of last appeal in boundary disputes between states, fix the standards for coinage (no provision for paper money), fix standards of weights and measures, regulate affairs of Indians (but States' rights may not be infringed), establish an interstate Post Office, appoint officers above colonel in the ground forces, appoint all naval officers, make rules for the military and direct their operations, appoint a "Committee of the States" to run the country when Congress is not in session. Most of the important actions, including borrowing money, require nine (of the thirteen) States to agree. The Committee of the States has many warmaking and executive powers.

Article 10
The Committee of the States has powers delegated to them by the nine States in Congress but cannot do anything that requires nine states.

Article 11
Canada can join the Confederation. Other new States require the approval of nine States.

Article 12
All debt contracted by Congress before the assembly of the U.S. is accepted.

Article 13
Every State shall abide by the determinations of the Congress. The Union shall be perpetual. Any alteration requires the approval of Congress and of every State Legislature. The Articles become effective when approved by the State Legislatures and ratified by their delegates in Congress.

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Reasons for Success

Most powers were left to the States. Most Federal action required a consensus of the States. There was no large and autonomous federal bureaucracy. The Federal government could not declare State laws invalid. By not allowing a Federal override of local action, often localities or states were able to respond to local needs, even if the power elites did not approve.

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Achilles' Heel

Philosophically, no solution to the slavery problem, no recognition of Indian rights (in fact, no guarantee of any individual rights), and the Confederation would only be a defender of individual liberty if the individual States were (in the historical case this was not a problem, but if we use it as a model, we must remember this prerequisite). In practical politics, an amendment process that allowed the original to be subverted and replaced by a Constitution that allowed a government more easily manipulated by individuals and groups wishing to use force to create benefits for elites. To defend the Articles, the amendment process was made difficult and the Confederation could not be replaced except on unanimous consent of the States. Unfortunately, the friends of the Confederation were unable to defend themselves in even one State, so it fell to the avarice of the power elite.

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An inspiring model for the structure of a free country. Would require supporting constitutions for the member states. Does not get around the need for eternal vigilance. Could be organized a little better. Probably has too much emphasis on preparations for war and on resolving boundary disputes.D

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Annotated Bibliography

The following were used in the preparation of this article. If any reader knows of a more appropriate reference, please inform the author through this newsletter.

The Almanac of American History; Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Used for dates. Since Schlesinger is no friend of liberty, I would hesitate to trust his reportage and especially his analysis.

Colonies into Nation: American Diplomacy 1763-1801; Lawrence S. Kaplan; Macmillan.
Provides a good sense of the buildup to the revolution and England's missed opportunities to avert it.

The Vineyard of Liberty; James Macgregor Burns; Knopf.
Primarily covers the beginnings of the Constitution. It comments on the alleged defects in the Articles. It includes an account of the ratification process (of the Constitution) which includes actions by the Anti-Federalists who wanted to stay with the Articles. The name comes from a letter by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia to Samuel Adams of Massachusetts urging opposition to the Constitution.

America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976; William Appleman Williams; Morrow (1976).
Interesting approach to American History. One of the few sources that includes the text of the Articles. Caution: the author is thoroughly socialist, but he is willing to look beyond the usual myths to attempt to understand the motivations of political actors.

Bobby Yates Emory, 54, has worked a career as a programmer and systems analyst at IBM. A longtime libertarian activist, he has run for offices from County Commissioner to U.S. Senator, and held political party offices from Precinct Chairman to Regional Representative to the National Committee.
You may also view the paper presented on this topic by by Bobby Emory at the Free Nation Foundation Forum on Constitutions

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