Daily Archives: September 15, 2007

Civics on Saturday – The Articles of Confederation

Thanks for the extension, Everyone! I’ve read the document and have a pretty good grasp on it, I think. Away we go!

My memory is such that a lot of my childhood is just gone. There are bits and flashes, but I have really no cohesive, coherent memories of any time before, say, the age of 18. I had completely forgotten that there was a founding document that came between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Mr. Chili, when I mentioned it to him, matter-of-factly said “Of course, the Articles of Confederation. What was that? Seventh grade social studies?”

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See? THIS is why I’m glad I’m undertaking this little learning project.

Since I have no conscious memory of having studied the Articles of Confederation and, obviously, nothing of any substance to add, I’ve boosted the entire intelligent portion of this post from The National Archives:

Throwing off the British monarchy on July 4, 1776, left the United States with no central government. It had to design and install a new government–and quickly. As early as May 1776, Congress advised each of the colonies to draw up plans for state governments; by 1780, all thirteen states had adopted written constitutions. In June 1776, the Continental Congress began to work on a plan for a central government. It took five years for it to be approved, first by members of Congress and then by the states. The first attempt at a constitution for the United States was called the Articles of Confederation.

This first constitution was composed by a body that directed most of its attention to fighting and winning the War for Independence. It came into being at a time when Americans had a deep-seated fear of a central authority and long-standing loyalty to the state in which they lived and often called their “country.” Ultimately, the Articles of Confederation proved unwieldy and inadequate to resolve the issues that faced the United States in its earliest years; but in granting any Federal powers to a central authority–the Confederation Congress–this document marked a crucial step toward nationhood. The Articles of Confederation were in force from March 1, 1781, until March 4, 1789, when the present Constitution went into effect.

The Articles of Confederation were really all about states’ rights. There were provisions in the document for “a firm league of friendship” among the states “for their common defence, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare…” (remember this line -it’s going to come up again in about six years). The Articles ordered “free ingress and regress to and from any other state*” while mandating extradition of anyone “charged with treason, felony, or other high misdemeanor…” The document forbade any state declaring war or entering into any treaties or agreements with foreign governments – or with any other states – and kept the states from interfering with treaties entered into by the federal government. In Article XI, Canada was “admitted to, and entitled to all the advantages of this Union.”

After reading this document, I can see why it failed. While I think that states’ rights are important, the Union never would have survived without a much stronger centralized power structure – indeed, even with a federal government, the Union almost didn’t survive the Civil War. I almost see this in a classroom metaphor – every student is an individual and can be working to his or her skill level, but there’s a centralized power – the teacher – keeping everyone working toward the same general goals.

That we have a strong and well defined federal government, while still maintaining state sovereignty, is truly an amazing exercise. While it has its definite drawbacks – among them the issue of gay marriage and whether one state has to recognize the laws of another in honoring those contracts – it’s still a pretty damned good system. Precarious, to be sure, and requiring all our diligence to maintain, but pretty damned good nonetheless.

*when I read this line, all I could think of was this scene in The Hunt for Red October:

Capt. Vasili Borodin: I will live in Montana. And I will marry a round American woman, and raise rabbits, and she will cook them for me. And I will have a pickup truck… maybe even a …”recreational vehicle.” And drive from state to state. Do they let you do that?
Captain Ramius: I suppose.
Borodin: No papers?
Ramius: No papers, state to state.
Borodin: Well then, in winter I will live in… Arizona. Actually, I think I will need two wives.
Ramius: Oh, at least.

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