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Forging a New Nation, The Articles of Confederation

Confederation government, weak national government, Confederation Congress, important states, unicameral legislature

Americans began their revolution without a national government, but the Continental Congress recognized the need for a government that could conduct the war, form relations with other countries, borrow money, and regulate trade. Eight days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a committee headed by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania submitted a blueprint for a powerful national government. Among other things, Dickinson’s plan gave all the states’ western land claims to the national government, and it created a congress in which states were represented equally rather than by population. The plan shocked delegates who considered the new nation a loose confederation of independent states, and they rejected it.

The Articles of Confederation, which included a strong affirmation of state sovereignty, went into effect in March 1781. They created a unicameral legislature in which each state had one vote. The articles gave the confederation jurisdiction in relations with other nations and in disputes between states, and the articles won control of western lands for the national government. In ordinances passed in 1784, 1785, and 1787 the Confederation Congress organized the new federal lands east of the Mississippi and between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes as the Northwest Territory. This legislation organized the land into townships six miles square, provided land to support public schools, and organized the sale of land to developers and settlers. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 guaranteed civil liberties in the territory and banned the importation of slaves north of the Ohio River. The creation of the territory was among the solid accomplishments of the Confederation government. Still, the government lacked important powers. It could not directly tax Americans, and the articles could be amended only by a unanimous vote of the states. Revolutionary fear of centralized tyranny had created a very weak national government.

The weakness of the national government made resolving questions of currency and finance particularly difficult. Neither the national government nor the states dared to tax Americans. To pay the minimal costs of government and the huge costs of fighting the war, both simply printed paper money. While this money was honored early in the war, citizens learned to distrust it. By 1780 it took 40 paper dollars to buy one silver dollar. When the Confederation Congress requisitioned funds from the states, the states were very slow in paying. And when the Congress asked permission to establish a 5 percent tax on imports (which would have required an amendment to the articles), important states refused. Under these circumstances the national government could neither strengthen the currency nor generate a stable income for itself.

The Confederation also had problems dealing with other countries. In the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolution, for instance, Americans agreed to pay prerevolutionary debts owed to British merchants, and to restore confiscated property to colonists who had remained loyal to the king (Loyalists). States refused to enforce these provisions, giving the British an excuse to occupy forts in what was now the Northwest Territory of the United States. In 1784 Spain closed the port of New Orleans to Americans, thus isolating farmers in the western settlements whose only access to the rest of the world was through the Mississippi River that ended below that port. The Confederation Congress could do little about these developments. These problems also extended to international trade. In the 1780s Britain, France, and Spain all made it difficult for Americans to trade with their colonies; at the same time, the British flooded American ports with their goods. Gold and silver flowed out of the country. The result was a deep depression throughout most of the 1780s. The Confederation Congress could do nothing about it.

The Confederation also had trouble dealing with Native Americans. The Confederation Congress negotiated doubtful land–cession treaties with the Iroquois in New York and with the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw nations in the South. The Creeks (as well as many of the Native Americans supposedly represented at the negotiations) resisted the onslaught of white settlers, and the Confederation was powerless to do anything about the wars that resulted.

The Confederation had internal problems as well. The economic disruptions of the Revolution and the 1780s left many farmers unable to keep up with their mortgages and other debts. State governments had often met this problem by printing paper money and by passing stay laws that prevented creditors from seizing the property of their debtors. In Massachusetts, however, the upper house of the legislature protected the investments of creditors by voting down debtor–relief legislation. In 1786 farmers in the western counties, led by revolutionary veteran Daniel Shays, held conventions to demand the abolition of the upper house. They then mobbed county courthouses and destroyed the records of many of their debts. They then marched on a federal arsenal at Springfield, where they were repulsed and scattered by the militia. Yet Shays’ rebels retained enough support to elect a legislature that in the following year enacted a stay law.



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