U.S. Information Agency, An Outline of American Government

Part I--THE CONSTITUTION: AN ENDURING DOCUMENT [Excerpt]

. . . The 13 British colonies, strung out along the eastern seaboard of what is now the United States, declared their independence from England in 1776. A year before, war had broken out between the colonies and Great Britain, a war for independence that lasted for six bitter years. While still at war, the colonies -- now calling themselves the United States of America -- drafted a compact which bound them together as a nation. The compact, designated the "Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union," was adopted by a Congress of the states in 1777, and formally signed in July 1778. The Articles became binding when they were ratified by the 13th state, Maryland, in March 1781.

The Articles of Confederation devised a loose association among the states, and set up a federal government with very limited powers. In such critical matters as defense, public finance and trade, the federal government was at the mercy of the state legislatures. It was not an arrangement conducive to stability or strength. Within a short time -- less than six years -- the weakness of the Confederation was apparent to all. Politically and economically, the new nation was close to chaos. In the words of George Washington, the 13 states were united only "by a rope of sand."

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The period between the adoption of the Articles of Confederation in 1781 and the drafting of the new Constitution in 1787 was one of weakness, dissension and turmoil. Under the Articles of Confederation, no provisions were made for an executive branch to enforce the laws nor for a national court system to interpret them. A legislative Congress was the sole organ of the national government, but it had no power to force the states to do anything against their will. It could -- theoretically -- declare war and raise an army, but it could not force any state to meet its assigned quota for troops or for the arms and equipment needed to support them. It looked to the states for the income needed to finance its activities, but it could not punish a state for not contributing its share of the federal budget. Control of taxation and tariffs was left to the states, and each state could issue its own currency. In disputes between states -- and there were many unsettled quarrels over state boundaries -- Congress played the role of mediator and judge, but could not require the state to accept its decisions.

The result was virtual chaos. Without the power to collect taxes, the federal government plunged into debt. Seven of the 13 states printed large quantities of paper money -- high in face value but low in real purchasing power -- in order to pay veteran soldiers and a variety of creditors, and to settle debts between small farmers and large plantation owners.

By contrast, the Massachusetts legislature imposed a tightly limited currency and high taxes, triggering formation of a small army of farmers led by Daniel Shays, a former Revolutionary War army captain. In a bid to take over the Massachusetts statehouse, Shays and others demanded that foreclosures and unfair mortgages be dropped. Troops were called out to suppress the rebellion, but the federal government took notice.

Absence of a uniform, stable currency also disrupted trade among the states and with other countries. Not only did the value of paper currency vary from state to state, but some states (like New York and Virginia) levied duties on products entering their ports from other states, thereby provoking retaliatory actions. The states could say, as had the federal superintendent of finance, that "our public credit is gone." To compound their problems, the newly independent states, having separated violently from England, no longer received favored treatment at British ports. When Ambassador John Adams tried to negotiate a commercial treaty in 1785, the British refused on the grounds that the individual states would not be bound by it. The British were also angered by the failure of Americans to pay for property confiscated during the Revolution.

A weak central government, without the power to back its policies with military strength, was inevitably handicapped in foreign affairs as well. The British refused to withdraw their troops from the forts and trading posts in the new nation's Northwest Territory, as they had agreed to do in the peace treaty of 1783. To make matters worse, British officers on the northern boundaries and Spanish officers to the south supplied arms to various Indian tribes and encouraged them to attack American settlers. The Spanish, who controlled Florida and Louisiana, as well as all territory west of the Mississippi River, also refused to allow Western farmers to use the port of New Orleans to ship their produce.

Although there were signs of returning prosperity in some areas of the fledgling nation, domestic and foreign problems continued to grow. It became increasingly clear that the Confederation's central government was not strong enough to establish a sound financial system, to regulate trade, to enforce treaties or to exert military force against foreign antagonists when needed. Internal divisions between farmers and merchants, debtors and creditors, and among the states themselves were growing more severe. With Shay's Rebellion of desperate farmers in 1786 vividly in mind and only recently crushed, George Washington warned: "There are combustibles in every state which a spark might set fire to."

This sense of potential disaster and the need for drastic change pervaded the Constitutional Convention that began its deliberations on May 25, 1787. All of the delegates were convinced that an effective central government with a wide range of enforceable powers must replace the impotent Congress established by the Articles of Confederation.