Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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CONFEDERATION, Articles of, (IN U. S. HISTORY). Nov. 15, 1777, the continental congress adopted Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union between the thirteen colonies which had united in the declaration of independence. These were as follows, the more important being given in full. ART. I. "The style of this confederacy shall be 'The United States of America.'" ART. II. "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 in congress assembled." ART. III. "The said states hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever." ART. IV. secured to the free inhabitants of each state the privileges and immunities of free citizens in the several states, and provided for the mutual extradition of fugitives from justice. ART. V. related to the organization of congress. It was to consist of one house, whose members were to be appointed annually by the state legislature, and were to be liable to recall by the legislature at any time. Each state was to have not less than two or more than seven delegates, paid by the states, but each state was to have but one vote. ART. VI. prohibited the states from alliances or treaties with any foreign state, or with any one of the United States without consent of congress; from granting titles of nobility; from laying imposts or duties which should interfere with treaties already proposed to France or Spain; from keeping vessels of war or soldiers, excepting militia; and from engaging in war unless declared by congress, or unless imminent danger should arise. ART. VII. allowed the states to name the army officers except those of the rank of general. ART. VIII. directed congress to make requisitions upon the states for their respective quotas of the money necessary for national expenses, and ordered the state legislatures to levy the taxes necessary, "within the time agreed upon by the united states in congress assembled." ART. IX. gave congress the right to make peace and war, treaties and alliances, and prize rules, to grant letters of marque and reprisal, and to constitute admiralty courts; but no treaty was to restrain the state legislatures from laying prohibitory duties, or such duties as should be binding upon their own citizens. It made congress a court for the trial of territorial disputes between the states. It gave congress power to regulate the value of coin and the standard of weights and measures; to manage Indian affairs subject to the legislative rights of the states; to control the postal service, and direct land and naval forces and their operations; to borrow money; to make requisitions upon the states for their quotas of men and money; and to appoint a "committee of the states," consisting of one delegate from each state, and any other executive committees or officers as might seem necessary. But the more important powers, such as making war, peace, treaties, or requisitions, borrowing, coining or appropriating money, forming an army or navy, or appointing a commander-in-chief, were not to be exercised without the affirmative vote of nine states; nor should any other power, except that of adjournment from day to day, be exercised without the affirmative vote of seven states. ART. X. authorized the "committee of the states," nine of their number being present, to act for congress in its recess, except in the more important points above mentioned. ART. XI. authorized Canada to join the confederacy; but no other colony was to be admitted without the vote of nine states. ART. XII. "solemnly pledged" the public faith of the states for the payment of the money borrowed or appropriated by congress. ART. XIII. "Every state shall abide by the determinations of the united states in congress assembled, on all questions which by this confederation are submitted to them. And the articles of this confederation shall be inviolably observed by every state, and the union shall be perpetual; nor shall any alteration at any time hereafter be made in any of them; unless such alteration be agreed to in a congress of the united states, and be afterward confirmed by the legislatures of every state."


—These articles were ratified, upon the order of the state legislatures, by their delegates in congress, who "solemnly plighted and engaged the faith of their respective constituents" that the articles should be obeyed both by the state governments and by their people, and went into operation March 2, 1781. (See CONGRESS, CONTINENTAL.)


—The relative viciousness of the articles above given is difficult to determine. Perhaps the palm in this respect should be awarded to the theory of article II., exemplified in practice by article IX. By article II. the new government was made in every sense a league, formed by state legislatures, ratified by state legislatures, and checked, controlled and dominated by state legislatures. Whence the legislatures derived their authority to form, proprio vigore, any such general league can not be known, for the question was never mooted at the time. They had never enjoyed any such authority under the British constitution, for there (see STATE SOVEREIGNTY) the treaty power was a royal prerogative, and not in the legislature at all. But the root principle asserted and maintained in the revolution was "the right of the people to alter or abolish" their governments, and to assume the royal prerogatives. It was the part of the people, then, and not of the state legislatures, to establish the new government, and, had the people framed these articles, the act, however unwise, would have been perfectly legal. But the seizing of the royal prerogative, in the confusion of war, by the state legislatures, was evidently usurpation, extra-legislative, and to be palliated only on the assumption that popular acquiescence gave popular consent. (See CONGRESS, CONTINENTAL.) The whole system must therefore be considered, in our political history, as a period of interregnum, covering the time between the downfall of royal authority under the British constitution in 1776-80, and the final establishment of the popular will in its place in 1789 under the American constitution.


—Of the practical application of the general theory to the other articles it is difficult to speak temperately. Congress had no power to prevent or punish offenses against its own laws, or even to perform efficiently the duties enjoined upon it. It alone could declare war, but it had no power to compel the enlistment, arming on support of an army. It alone could ascertain the needed amount of revenue, but the taxes to fill the requisitions could only be collected by the state legislatures at their own pleasure. It alone could borrow money, but it had no power to repay. It alone could decide territorial disputes between the states, but it had no power to compel either disputant to respect or obey its decisions. It alone could make treaties with foreign nations, but it had no power to prevent individual state legislatures or private citizens from violating them at pleasure. Even commerce, foreign and domestic, was to be regulated entirely by the state legislatures. The complete nullity of congress was further assured by the provision which required the vote of nine states to pass important measures, for, the absence of a state delegation being as effectual as a negative vote upon matters affecting the interests of a state, the state legislatures, in order to avoid the expense of maintaining delegates, might safely take refuge in neglect to choose members of congress. The only guarantee for the observance of the articles was the naked promise of the states, and this was almost immediately found to be utterly worthless. The two essential requisites were supplied by the constitution, which, first, provided that the supreme law of the land, above and beyond state laws or constitutions, should flow from it, and, second, created a system of United States courts, extending throughout the Union and empowered to define the boundaries of federal authority and to enforce its decisions by federal power. (See JUDICIARY.) The United States thus lost its factitious character of a league, and took on that of a national government based on popular will. The period of gestation, beginning in 1776 with the theoretical assertion of popular will as the basis of government, ended 12 years afterward with the birth of the constitution.


—The short and inglorious history of the confederacy, covering a period of less than eight years in all, is a dismal record of requisitions by congress for money, of neglect or refusal of payment by the states, of consequent default in the payment of the principal and interest of the federal debt, of treaties violated with impunity by state legislatures, private citizens, and foreign nations (see JAY'S TREATY), and of foreign aggressions on American commerce, intestine disorders in the states, and Indian depredations on the western frontier, against which the impotent congress could give no protection. The public debt amounted, Jan. 1, 1783, to $42,000,375, the annual interest charge being $2,415,956. Seven years afterward, by Hamilton's report, it had increased, through fresh loans, lapsed principal and unpaid interest, to $54,124,463. In October and November, 1781, congress made requisitions for $8,000,000; in January, 1783, $500,000 had been collected. During the next four years, 1782-6, congress made requisitions for $6,000,000 to pay the interest on the public debt, and received $1,000,000. In 1787 the first installment of the principal of the foreign debt was to fall due, and as a preparation for this new demand the state legislatures of New Jersey and Rhode Island, in 1786, made their own paper currency legal tender for federal requisitions. Congress was justified in the declaration, in 1786, that any further reliance upon "requisitions" would be no less dishonorable to the understandings of those who entertained such confidence than dangerous to the welfare and peace of the Union.


—The needful remedy, the grant of a permanent federal revenue, was very apparent. Feb. 3, 1781, before the final ratification of the articles, congress appealed to the states to give congress power to levy an ad valorem duty of 5 per cent. to pay the interest and principal of the debt. Rhode Island refused, and Virginia, at first consenting, afterward withdrew her consent. The second of Rhode Island's three objections, that the plan "proposed to introduce into that and the other states officers unknown and unaccountable to them, and so was against the constitution of the state," marks with singular clearness the utter lack at the time of even the conception of a real national government. March 15, 1783, after mentioning the "delay and repugnance" of the states in paying the public debt, the French minister informed the federal superintendent of finance that "without a speedy establishment of solid general revenue, and an exact performance of the engagements which congress has made, you must renounce the expectation of loans in Europe." April 18, 1783, congress again appealed to the state legislatures, this time for a grant of power to congress to levy duties for only 25 years, through officers appointed by the states but accountable to congress; and also for the establishment by the states of special taxes for the payment of $15,000,000 annually of the debt already due. The latter request proved so unpopular that it was very soon abandoned, and every effort was made to gain the necessary consent of all the states to the former. In 1786 New York, all the other states having consented, accepted the plan, but reserved the power of levying and collecting the duties, and appointing and removing the officers. Such an acceptance was of course a refusal, and New York's veto seemed for the moment to destroy all hope of the continuance of the Union. Congress, which was then in session in New York, twice appealed to the governor to reconvene the legislature, and the governor twice refused, on the ground that he had no right to do so except on "extraordinary occasions." It had become evident that some power stronger than the persuasions of congress was needed to wrest from the reluctant legislatures the control over the revenues and commerce of the country.


—That the unpaid, half-fed and half-clothed continental soldiers should have disbanded at the close of the war without any attempt to obtain their dues after the manner of the Spanish regiments in the Netherlands, by forcible levy upon a portion of the country, is attributable rather to their own patriotism, and to the commanding influence of Washington and his lieutenants, than to the gratitude of the people or the fair dealing of the states. In 1778-9 provision had been made for half pay for the officers of the army; the soldiers had not even been paid since 1777, when their arrearages had been settled in continental money, the dollar being "worth about four pence." After the adoption of the articles in 1781. when the vote of nine states became necessary for appropriations, all prospect of liberality, or even of common honesty, toward the army disappeared. March 10, 1783, while the army was encamped at Newburgh, an anonymous address called a meeting of the officers, rehearsed their grievances, and advised, in case of further refusal of justice by congress, that "courting the auspices and inviting the direction of your illustrious leader, you should retire to some unsettled country, smile in your turn, and mock when their fear cometh on." Washington, by personal influence and entreaty, averted the danger, but his urgent representations induced congress, March 22, to make the army creditors of the United States to the amount of $5,000,000. With this act of doubtful liberality the army was perforce content, and was disbanded with no further token of gratitude from the states whose independence it had won. Most of the states disapproved of the prodigality of congress, and the Massachusetts legislature solemnly protested against it as tending to "raise and exalt some citizens in wealth and grandeur to the injury and oppression of others." (For the retention by Great Britain of military posts in the west, see JAY'S TREATY; for the loss of the navigation of the Mississippi, see ANNEXATIONS, I.)


—In April, 1783, before the formal conclusion of peace, but after the actual close of the war, the British parliament intrusted the regulation of commerce between the United States and Great Britain to the king in council. The council's design was to disregard congress, treat the several states as independent republics, and conclude consular conventions with each on England's own terms. In July, by orders in council, all American commerce was excluded from the West Indies, and, in trading with Great Britain, American ships were to carry only the produce of their respective states. April 30, 1784, congress asked the state legislatures to grant to congress power for 15 years to prohibit the entrance into the United States of vessels belonging to a foreign nation not having a commercial treaty with the United States. This grant was also refused, except on conditions, by ten states, and entirely refused by three. Apparently the states preferred to be subject to Great Britain rather than be subject to their own creature, the "fœderal" congress.


—SHAYS' REBELLION. The close of the war found the people of Massachusetts with no money and little property, manufactures, fisheries or commerce, and distressed not only by state taxes but by suits for long dormant debts. During the autumn of 1786 tumultuous gatherings of people in western Massachusetts, roused by "the extortions of the lawyers," surrounded the court houses and stopped the operations of the courts. Congress, under the subterfuge of levying 1,300 men in New England to take part in a mythical Indian war, made a feeble attempt in October to sustain the state government; but, before the levy was made, governor James Bowdoin had borrowed money in Eoston and sent a militia force under general Lincoln against the insurgents, who were now mustered into an army of about 2,000 men under Daniel Shays, lately a captain in the continental army. In February, 1787, Lincoln succeeded in scattering Shays' force, and driving the leaders into New Hampshire. No extra-political event had so strong an influence in compelling the formation and adoption of the constitution as this rebellion, for it showed that the state legislatures severally could not enforce that public order the care of which they had refused to intrust to the central government. (See INSURRECTION, DOMESTIC.)


—A full congress would have consisted of 91 delegates. In practice the presence of 30 was an unusual event, and these were not the first rate men of the country. With some exceptions the state governments were most attractive to the able and ambitious. In June, 1783 (see CAPITAL, NATIONAL), Congress was driven from Philadelphia by a handful of dissatisfied and insubordinate militiamen. Dec. 23, 1783, by resolution congress informed the states that less than 20 delegates, representing seven states, had been present since Nov. 3, and that at least two more states must be represented to ratify the treaty of peace. The treaty was at last ratified Jan. 14, 1784, 23 delegates, representing nine states, being present. During the summer of 1787, while the convention which was to change the form of government was in session, (see CONVENTION OF 1787), congress passed the ordinance of 1787, which secured freedom to a large part of the country and furnished a model for the organization of future territories. July 14, 1788, congress announced the ratification of the constitution by nine states, and made arrangements for the day and place of its formal inauguration, at New York, March 4, 1789. After Jan. 1, 1789, congress was kept in formal existence by the presence of one or two delegates who adjourned from day to day. March 2, it flickered and went out without any public notice. During its existence as a continental and a confederate congress the American people had suffered distress great in comparison with the periods before 1775 or after 1789, but it had at least maintained the union of the states and prepared the way for a union more intimate than would have been practicable in 1776. The hand could not have been altogether nerveless which caught the sceptre as it dropped from the hands of the king, and transferred it in safety to a government of the people. (See UNITED STATES, REVOLUTION, DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, CONTINENTAL CONGRESS, STATE SOVEREIGNTY, CONVENTION OF 1787.)


—See 3, 4 Public Journals, and 1 Secret Journals of Congress (Confederacy), 10 Bancroft's United States; 2 Hamilton's United States; 2 Pitkin's United States; 2 Hamilton's United States; H. Sherman's Governmental History; Story's Commentaries, § 218; 1 von Holst's United States, 27: Blunt's Formation of the Confederacy; Frothingham's Rise of the Republic; Prince's Articles of Confederation; 1 Curtis' History of the Constitution, 124; 2 Rives' Life of Madison: 2 Marshall's Life of Washington, 108, 6 John Adams' Works (Discourse on the Constitution); Sheffield's Observations on American Commerce; Addresses and Recommendations of Congress (containing the Newburgh Addresses); 8 Washington's Writings, 396; 1 Sparks' Life of Morris. 253; 2 Hamilton's Life of Hamilton, 185, Minot's History of Shays' Insurrection, and other authorities under MASSACHUSETTS; authorities under REVOLUTION and CONTINENTAL CONGRESS. The text of the articles, with proceedings thereon, is in 1 Stat. at Large (Bioren and Duane's edition), 10-20; in 2 Public Journals of Congress (Confederacy); in 4 Elliot's Debates; and in Hickey's Constitution, 129, 483.


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