Sunday, February 10, 2013

Founder's Follies II: The Confederate Period

This is the second installment in Chredon's in-depth analysis of where the Founders went wrong. 

See Issue I, The Founder’s World for background information on the issues at hand.

So, who was the first President of the United States?

That’s right – John Hanson of Maryland.

Or, perhaps it was Henry Laurens of South Carolina. Or Samuel Huntington of Connecticut.  It all depends upon when you start counting.

What, you thought it was George Washington? Well, that’s not surprising, given how History tends to gloss over the entire period in which the United States was run under the Articles of Confederation. It is one of the least-taught periods in US history, but if you want to understand the motivations that led to the creation of the Constitution, it’s required knowledge. The Constitution is a reactionary document – it attempts to strike a balance between the totalitarian monarchy of Great Britain and the total chaos of the Articles.

The Articles were written by the Second Continental Congress, the same group that wrote the Declaration of Independence, by a committee established the day after assigning Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin to write the Declaration. But while the Declaration was written, approved, and passed in less than a month, the Articles took over a year to write, and over five years to ratify. The Second Continental Congress, however, began at once to implement its procedures.

It would be unfair to claim that the Articles were the framework for a national government. At best, they were an alliance treaty. In modern times, they more closely match the NATO charter or the treaties that established the European Union than they do the Constitution. The thirteen states, having only recently declared their independence, were in no hurry to hand their hard-fought sovereignty over to some higher level of government. And this, more than anything else, was why the Articles did not work.

For a nation (or union of nations) at war, the weakness of the Articles made it difficult for the USA to make alliances and treaties with France, Spain, and other enemies of Britain, since there was no authority in the Congress to sign them. It made it difficult to borrow money to support the war because there was no guarantee of repayment. The Congress was trying to act collectively as though they had the authority to do so, when in fact they did not. But for all its weaknesses as a model for a nation at war, it was only after the war that the worst weaknesses emerged.

The weaknesses in structure of the Articles are outlined in a lot of places, but I’ll mention the most glaring ones here.
  1. The United States of America under the Articles was technically not a nation at all. Unlike the Constitution, which created a structure in which sovereignty was shared, states retained all sovereignty under the Articles and the national Congress was only “a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare.
  2. Because it had no sovereign authority, the Congress could not raise funds in any way. It could not tax or impose tariffs. It could only request money from the states. The states could choose to honor those requests, or not.
  3. States coined their own money and regulated the supply and value. Congress also printed its own money, called ‘Continentals,’ which depreciated rapidly and were largely seen as worthless.
  4. While each state could send from two to seven members to Congress, each state got only one vote.
  5. Passage of any measure required two-thirds of the states to agree.
  6. Any amendments to the Articles required unanimous consent of all thirteen states.

So what you really had was a national committee with no real power or authority. It could make decisions, but it could not enforce them. It could make treaties but could not ratify them or require the states to honor them. It could declare war, but could not raise an army or a navy.  

While the Revolutionary War went on, Congress was able to keep an army in the field, but just barely. Many states refused requests for troops or material unless battles were being fought in their state. Troops who were promised pay when they volunteered or were conscripted were seldom paid, ate poorly, lived in squalor, and were ill-supplied, especially compared to their British counterparts. Washington often despaired of winning the war simply because he feared his troops would starve before they could achieve victory. Still, with an active war on and the fear of the punishments King George might impose if they surrendered, the nation managed, with lots of help from the French, to work together and keep an army in the field long enough to defeat Cornwallis at Yorktown. Barely.

After the war was over, many of the states seemed content to forget that the Articles had ever been written. Most men who had served during the War returned to their home states and found local government sufficient to their needs. States neglected to send delegates to the US Congress since without the War, they saw no reason for it, Thomas Jefferson proposed a Committee of the States, to which each state would send a single representative, vested with the full authority of the Congress save the ability to amend the Articles. But as Jefferson himself observed, the Committee “quarreled very soon, split into two parties, and abandoned their post.”

In fact, the Congress of the Confederation proved more successful as a target for scapegoating. Veterans of the Revolution had been promised a pension of half their pay for life. When state governments came to collect taxes on their citizens, the citizens would complain that they had no money because they had not been paid while in the army and had not received their pensions. The states would blame this on the Congress, conveniently ignoring that Congress was not making good on its debts because the states refused to pay their obligations to the Congress.

The weakness of the Congress made several other problems possible:

Shays’ Rebellion. The Government of Massachusetts, in an attempt to pay off its own war debts, was taxing the farmers and tradesmen returning from the War. Those taxes were high, and the returning veterans were just beginning to get back to business as usual. Many had been forced to sell any items of value they had in order to live out the poverty of the war years. Many were in debt before the war and had made no payments during it. Many were owed back pay for seven years in which they performed no other labor. None were receiving their pensions. But Governor Bowdouin refused to hear their complaints and continued supporting the taxation of the veterans. This often included confiscating their property, selling their household goods, and throwing them into debtors prison. Daniel Shays,a hero of the Revolution and a veteran of Lexington, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga, began to organize farmers and tradesmen to prevent courts from being held, to stop the confiscation of property, and upon occasion to attack a prison and release those being held for debts. This prompted the Governor to call out a militia from Boston to meet the ‘rebels’ in combat and almost touched off a new Revolutionary War.

Tariff Wars: Without laws governing commerce between the states, many states seemed intent on enriching themselves through tariffs on trade with other states. (So much for a “firm league of friendship with each other.”) In one instance, Rhode Island was taxing all traffic between New York and Boston. In another, New York was taxing all ships that stopped there between Boston and Philadelphia. In one of the biggest cases of states defying the Congress, Connecticut sought to profit on international trade. When the British passed a resolution after the Treaty of Paris that no US-flagged ships could do business in British ports, the Congress of the Confederation requested that each state pass a similar resolution, closing all US ports to British ships. However, Connecticut, seeing the possibility of collecting tariffs on all British trade with New England, did not enforce the treaty and kept its ports open.

Currency Exchange: Prior to the Declaration, states printed or coined their own currency strictly for use within the colony. All of these currencies remained in effect until 1793, when the Constitution granted coinage to only the Federal government. But while they were in effect, the value of the different states’ currency was not uniform in relation to British pounds or Spanish dollars. This practice strangled trade, as the dearth of actual gold and silver coins made the continental paper money practically worthless.

British Occupation: The British maintained several outposts in land that had been ceded to the States in the Treaty of Paris, but Congress proved unable to raise a large enough army to dislodge them.

Treatment of British Loyalists: The Treaty of Paris included language to protect British loyalists still within the United States. They were not to be harmed, nor have their land or goods taken, and they were to be given assistance to return to Britain with all their possessions if they so desired. But Congress was unable to prevent many states from attempting to solve their own economic woes by confiscating everything the loyalists owned.

Piracy: Since only the states had Navies, it was impossible to coordinate the use of those ships to prevent piracy against US trade. Each state would use its navy to protect its own shipping, but seldom worked in any coordinated fashion to protect the trade of other states.

The Frontier: While the Northwest Ordinance and other legislation passed by the Congress worked well in settling conflicts of westward expansion, the inability to raise armies left many on the frontier open to attack from Indian tribes, the British, or British disguised as Indian tribes. Congress could neither make treaties with the tribes nor raise an army sufficient to protect the borders.

These are only a few examples of events that unfolded under the Articles of Confederation that had a direct impact on the formation of the Constitution.

Historical Notes:

Henry Laurens of South Carolina was President of the Continental Congress on the day that the Articles of Confederation were finally passed, Nov 15, 1777. Though it had yet to be ratified, the Continental Congress changed its name to the United States In Congress Assembled, to denote its new status as a group of free sovereign nations.

Samuel Huntington of Connecticut was President of the United States In Congress Assembled on March 1, 1781, the day that Maryland became the last of the thirteen states to ratify the Articles and thereby the day upon which they went into effect.

John Hanson of Maryland was the first person elected to the position President of the United States In Congress Assembled after the Articles were ratified. He took over the office on November 5, 1781.

George Washington was elected the first President of the United States under the Constitution, taking office on April 30, 1789.

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