|The Articles of Confederation
Part 1: The Basic Rights
The American colonies were in the middle of a war when they declared themselves independent from Great Britain. By the end of 1776, just a few short months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, 10 of the 13 colonies had their own constitutions. Four years later, they all did.
The colonists who wrote these constitutions thought it very important that they have written documents. The British constitution wasn't written down, so British laws could be interpreted any way the judges saw fit. The American colonists wanted the powers of the government to be in writing, so everyone would know what they were.
The colonists also wanted their individual and natural rights protected. They thought that the British government didn't respect what they saw as natural rights (such as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"). To this end, most state constitutions included a bill of rights to protect these natural and individual rights. This bill of rights included many of the rights guaranteed by the current Bill of Rights, including:
* freedom of speech
* freedom of religion
* freedom of the press
* trial by jury
* search warrant for property searches
These constitutions also restricted the power of government. Fearful of another king, the American colonists wanted a government that would serve them, not the other way around. One state, Pennsylvania, didn't even have a governor.
Part 2: The Power of the States
This distrust of the power of the government made for very weak colonial governments. And as the war went on, the Americans realized that they needed some form of central government to deal with things like paying soldiers and negotiating with other countries. The result was the Articles of Confederation.
Approved in 1777, the Articles established a Confederation government, which was a fancy way of saying that the central government didn't have a whole lot of power. The national legislature was the Confederation Congress. Each state could send from two to seven delegates, but each state also had only one vote. Even if New York sent seven delegates, they all together had only one vote. (So they had to agree on what they were voting for or against.)
Any important decision had to be approved by 9 of the 13 states. This included laws, treaties, and payment for soldiers. Here is a breakdown of the powers granted and denied the Confederation government:
declare war and make peace
maintain an army and navy
make treaties with other countries
establish a postal service
stop states from printing their own money
regulate trade with other countries or between states
Part 3: The First National Government
To us today, viewed through the looking glass of the Constitution, these look like trouble. How can a central government hope to survive if it can't raise taxes or doesn't even have a court system?
But to the American colonists of 1777, this was a giant step forward. They were willing to put some of their trust in the hands of a national government, but they also wanted the power to keep that government in check and even dissolve it, if they thought it was necessary.
Besides, they were in the middle of a war. It wasn't until 1781 that the Articles of Confederation was finally adopted. By that time, the Revolutionary War was almost over.
Despite what we today think are their glaring weaknesses, the Articles established the first national government for the new nation, the United States of America. In light of the terrible treatment the American people had received so very recently, this new government was a welcome sight indeed.
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