History of the United States
Volume III


Chapter IX
Confederation and Union

During the progress of the Revolution the civil government of the United States was in a deplorable condition. Nothing but imminent peril of the country had, in the first place, led to the calling of a Continental Congress. And when that body assembled, it had no method of proceeding, no constitution, no power of efficient action. The two great wants of the country were money to carry on the war and a central authority to direct the war: the former of these was never met; and Washington was made to supply the latter. Whenever Congress would move in the direction of a firmer government, division would spring up, and action would be checked by the remonstrance of jealous colonies. Nevertheless, the more far-seeing statemen of the times labored constantly to create substantial political institutions.

Foremost of all those who worked for better government was Benjamin Franklin. As early as the times of the French and Indian War he began to agitate the question of a permanent union of the colonies. During the troubled years just preceding the Revolution he brooded over his cherished project, and in 1775 laid before Congress the plan of a perpetual confederation of the States. But the attention of that body was wholly occupied with the stirring events of the day, and Franklin's measure received but little notice. Congress, without any real authority, began to conduct the government, and its legislation was generally accepted by the States. Still, the central authority was only an authority by sufferance, and was liable at any time to be annulled by the caprice of State legislatures.

Under such a system thinking men grew restless. On the 11th of June, 1776, a committee was appointed by Congress to prepare a plan of confederation. After a month the work was completed and laid before the house. Another month was spent in fruitless debates, and then the questions was laid over till the following spring. In April of 1777 the discussion was resumed, and continued through the summer. Meanwhile, the power of Great Britain being overthrown, the States had all adopted republican governments, and the sentiment of national union had made considerable headway. Finally, on the 15th of November, a vote was taken in Congress, and the Articles of Confederation reported by the committee was adopted. The next step was to transmit the articles to the several State legislatures for ratification. The time thus occupied extended to the following June, and then the new frame of government was returned to Congress with many amendments. These having been considered and the most serious objections removed, the articles were signed by the delegates of eight States on the 9th of July, 1778. Later in the same month the representatives of Georgia and North Carolina affixed their signatures. In November the delegates of New Jersey, and in the following February those of Delaware, signed the compact. Maryland held aloof; and it was not until March of 1781 that the consent of that commonwealth could be obtained. Several of the States, especially Maryland, had withheld their ratification on account of the troublesome land question. Seven of the thirteen States laid claim to Western lands, based chiefly on their colonial charters and extending to the Mississippi River. The States not having such claims took the ground that the others should cede these lands to the general government, and Maryland refused to ratify the Articles until they promised to do so. Through the cession of these lands the government came into possession of a vast territory, an empire in extent, which, as a common possession, became a bond of union of inestimable value.

The government of the United States under the Articles of Confederation was a democratic republic. It presented itself under the form of a Loose Union of Independent Commonwealths--a confederacy of sovereign States. The executive and legislative powers of the general government were vest in Congress--a body composed of not less than two nor more than seven representatives from each State. But Congress could exercise no other than delegated powers; the sovereignty was reserved to the States. The most important of the exclusive privileges of Congress were the right of making war and peace, the regulation for foreign intercourse, the power to receive and send ambassadors, the control of the coinage of money, the settlement of disputed boundaries, and the care of the public domain. But there were most serious defects in the Articles of Confederation. There was no chief executive and no general judiciary. Above all, Congress had no power to enforce its own laws and the national government had no direct relations with the citizen. Its relations were with the State, and, if the States chose to disregard the laws of Congress there was no power to coerce them. The consent of nine States was necessary to complete an act of legislation. In voting each State cast a single ballot. The union of the States was declared to be perpetual.

On the day of the ratification of the articles by Maryland the old Congress adjourned, and on the following morning reassembled under the new form of government. From the very first the inadequacy of that government was manifest. To begin with, it contradicted the doctrines of the Declaration of Independence. Congress had but a shadow of authority, and that shadow, instead of proceeding from the people, emanated from States which were declared to be sovereign and independent. The first great duty of the new government was to provide for the payment of the war debt, which had now reched the sum of thirty-eight million dollars. Congress could only recommend to the several States the levying of a sufficient tax to meet the indebtedness. Some of the States made the required levy; others were dilatory; others refused. At the very outset the government was balked and thwarted. The serious troubles that attended the disbanding of the army were traceable rather to the inability than to the indisposition of Congress to pay the soldiers. The princely fortune of Robert Morris was exhausted and himself brought to poverty in a vain effort to sustain the credit of the government. For three years after the treaty of peace public affairs were in a condition bordering on chaos. The imperiled state of the Republic was viewed with alarm by the sagacious patriots who had carried the Revolution to a successful issue. It was seen that unless the Articles of Confederation could be replaced with a better system the nation would go to ruin.

The project for remodeling the government originated at Mount Vernon. In 1785, Washington, in conference with a company of statesmen at his home, advised the calling of a convention to meet at Annapolis in the following year. The proposition was received with favor; and in September of 1786 twelve representatives of five States assembled. Since only a minority of States were represented in the conference, it was resolved to adjourn until May of the following year, and all the States were urgently requested to send representatives at that time. Congress also invited the several legislatures to appoint delegates to the proposed convention. All of the States except Rhode Island responded to the call; and on the second Monday in May, 1787, the representatives assembled at Philadelphia. Washington, who was a delegate from Virginia, was chosen president of the convention. After some discussion it was decided to set aside the ARticles and frame a new Constitution. Edmund Randolph, a delegate from Virginia, offered a plan of government which came to be known as the Virginia plan. It provided for such radical changes as giving Congress full power over foreign and interstate commerce, power to tax and to enforce its own laws, and it made the individual citizen amenable to national laws, as well as to those of his State. This plan was long debated and after many modifications it was adopted and became the Constitution of the United States. The convention finished its great work on the 17th of September and sent the newly framed document to the various States to be ratified.

Under the Constitution of the United States the powers of government are arranged under three heads--Legislative, Executive, and Judicial. The legislative power is vested in Congress--a body composed of a Senate and a House of Representatives. The members of the Senate are chosen by the legislatures of the several States, and serve for a period of six years. Each State is represented by two Senators. The members of the House of Representatives are elected by the people of the respective States; and each State is entitled to a number of representatives proportionate to the population of that State. The members of this branch are chosen for a term of two years. Congress is the lawmaking power of the nation; and all legislative questions of a general character are the appropriate subjects of congressional actions.

The executive power of the United States is vested in a President, who is chosen for a period of four years by a body of men called the electoral college. The electors composing the college are chosen by the people of the several States; and each State is entitled to a number of electors equal to the number of its representatives and senators in Congress. The duty of the President is to enforce the laws of Congress in accordance with the Constitution. He is commander-in-chief of the armies and navies of the United States. Over the legislation of Congress he has the power of veto; but a two-thirds congressional majority may pass a law without the President's consent. he has the right of appointing cabinet officers and foreign ministers; but all of his appointments must be approved by the Senate. The treaty-making power is also lodged with the President; but here again the concurrence of the Senate is necessary. In case of the death, resignation, or removal of the President, the Vice-President becomes chief magistrate; otherwise his duties are limited to presiding over the Senate.

The judicial power of the United States is vested in a supreme court and in inferior courts established by Congress. The highest judicial officer is the chief-justice. All the judges of the supreme and inferior courts hold their offices during life or good behavior. The jurisdiction of these courts extends to all causes arising under the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States. The right of trial by jury is granted in all cases except the impeachment of public officers. Treason against the United States consists only in levying war against them, or in giving aid and comfort to their enemies.

The Constitution further provides that full faith shall be given in all the States to the records of every State; that the citizens of any State shall be entitled to the privileges of citizens in all the States; that new Territories may be organized and new States admitted into the Union; that to every State shall be guaranteed a republican form of government; and that the Constitution may be altered or amended whenever the same is proposed by a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the legislatures of the several States. In accordance with this last provision fifteen amendments have been made to the Constitution. The most important of these are articles which guarantee religious freedom; change the method of electing President and Vice-President; abolish slavery; and forbid abridgment of suffrage on account of race or color.

On the question of adopting the Constitution the people were divided. It was the first great political agitation in the country. Those who favored the new frame of government were called Federalists; those who opposed, Anti-Federalists. The leaders of the former party were Washington, Jay, Madison, and Hamilton, the latter statesman throwing the whole force of his genius and learning into the controversy. In those able papers called the Federalist he and Madison successfully answered every objection of the anti-Federal party. Hamilton was the first and perhaps the greatest expounder of constitutional libery in America. To him the Republic owes a debt of perpetual gratitude for having established on a firm and enduring basis the true principles of free government.

Before the end of 1788 eleven of the States had adopted the Constitution. By its own terms the new government was to go into operation when nine States should ratify. For a while North Carolina and Rhode Island hesitated, but their consent was finally obtained. In accordance with the provisions of the Constitution and a resolution of Congress, the first Wednesday of January, 1789, was named as the time for the election of a chief magistrate. The people had but one voice as to the man who should be honored with that high trust. Early in April the ballots of the electors were counted in the presence of Congress, and George Washington was unanimously chosen President and John Adams Vice-President of the United States. On the 14th of the month Washington received notification of his election, and departed for New York. His route thither was a constant triumph. With this auspicious event the period of revolution and confederation ends, and the era of nationality in the New Republic is ushered in.


Return to Ridpath's History of the United States Table of Contents
Return to E-Books Index
Return to California AHGP Home Page
Return to Sacramento County AHGP Home Page


Webmaster
© 2000-2002 by Jacque Rogers