AP U.S. History Notes

Articles of Confederation

Forming a Confederation

The thirteen American colonies had finally become "free and independent states," but the task of knitting together a nation still remained. The Revolutionary War had served as the catalyst for the American debate over the form of government that would best serve an independent republic. The colonists posed a range of questions about their new nation’s government. They tried to determine who ‘the people’ were in the Declaration of Independence, and how their definition would affect slaves, women, those without property, and Native Americans, among others.

While the war was still being waged, notions of what republicanism meant were being formed on a state by state basis. Many, like Thomas Paine, felt that republicanism was a moral code of behavior, as well as a system of government in which the supreme power of the country is vested in an electorate. Citing England’s history, he believed that when citizens became selfish or corrupt the republic would give way to tyranny. Fewer supported the opposing point of view that the importance of individual self-interest was the basis of a republic's strength.

In 1776, the Continental Congress called the colonies to draft new state constitutions. As the states formed their constitutions, colonists considered the balance of power between the state governments and the government at the national level. Using their colonial charters as a basis, the states implemented their own ideas for the role of government in society.

All of the new constitutions were built on the foundation of colonial experience combined with English practice and showed the impact of republican ideas. Some state constitutions reflected the approach that the sovereignty of the states would rest on the authority of the people, while others allowed the government to wield more power. This debate helped to frame each of the state constitutions.

Connecticut and Rhode Island created their constitutions by simply removing any language that referenced colonial ties. In contrast, most of the other colonies reworked their constitutions in great detail, trying to capture the spirit of republicanism, an ideal that had long been praised by Enlightenment philosophers.

The Massachusetts assembly contributed an important procedure to American constitution-making when they called a special convention to draft their constitution. Once the document was created it was then submitted directly to the people at town meetings for ratification, with the provision that two-thirds would have to approve it, which they did. The procedures used by the Massachusetts convention were later imitated during drafting and ratification of the federal Constitution. Massachusetts also had a much stronger executive branch than the other states did.

The new state constitutions varied mainly in detail. All of them combined the best of the British government, including its respect for status, fairness, and due process, with unique American inclusions of individualism and control over excess governmental authority.

Each constitution began with a bill of rights, which protected people’s civil liberties against all branches of the government. Virginia's bill of rights served as a model for all the others, and included a declaration of principles, such as popular sovereignty, rotation in office, freedom of elections, and a list of fundamental rights such as humane punishment, speedy trial by jury, freedom of the press and of conscience, and the right of the majority to reform or alter the government. Other states added to this list of rights, including guaranteed freedom of speech, of assembly, and of petition. State constitutions frequently included the right to bear arms, to a writ of habeas corpus, and to equal protection under the law.

Generally the states incorporated a separation of powers to safeguard against abuses. Many limited the powers of the executive and judicial branches, while increasing the power of the annually elected legislative branch to ensure that much of the authority rested with the people.

The state constitutions had some obvious limitations. The constitutions were established to guarantee people their natural rights, but they did not secure equality for everyone. Women were not allowed to participate in politics, many southern colonies excluded slaves from their inalienable rights as human beings, and no state permitted universal male suffrage.

The Revolution also left the colonists with the responsibility of creating a new national government. Even before the Peace of Paris, the delegates of the Continental Congress recognized that they were essentially a legislative body exercising governmental powers without any constitutional authority. Plans to frame a permanent government were started as early as July 1776 when a committee headed by John Dickinson prepared to draft a national constitution. Congress debated the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” for more than a year before submitting them to the states for ratification.

All of the states were required to approve the Articles before they would go into effect. They were promptly ratified by every state except Maryland who insisted that the seven states who claimed lands west of the Appalachians —New York, Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia—should cede them to Congress

Maryland cited several reasons for this requirement. The claims in the west were overlapping and vaguely defined. The six states without western lands felt those who did have land holdings would not have retained them if it had not been for the unified efforts of all the states in the Revolution. Colonies claming western lands had an unfair advantage because they could sell the property off to pay war debts, while those colonies without western lands would have to rely heavily on tax receipts to recoup war costs.

Maryland finally gave in when New York surrendered its western claims, and Virginia finally relinquished a large region north of the Ohio River in early 1781. Thus, the transfer of public land from the states to the central government helped to solidify the union. Congress promised to use these western lands for the “common benefit” by creating a number of new states.

The Articles of Confederation were put into effect in March of 1781, just a few months before the victory at Yorktown. The Articles linked the 13 states together to deal with common problems, but in practice they did little more than provide a legal basis for the limited authority that the Continental Congress was already exercising. The Congress still had no courts, no power to levy taxes, no power to regulate commerce, and no power to enforce its resolutions upon the states or individuals. Each state had a single vote regardless of population. A vote from nine states was required to approve bills dealing with war, treaties, coinage, finances, or the military, while amendments to the Articles themselves required unanimous ratification. In whatever areas Congress held authority, it had no way of enforcing the powers it did have.

Despite their weaknesses, the Articles were the most practical form of government for the new nation. The establishment of a more formal and powerful central government would have caused dissention and prolonged debates between the colonies at a time when the focus needed to be on the Revolution that had yet to be won. The Articles also provided a clear stepping-stone to America’s present Constitution by promoting the formation of a union and clearly outlining the powers the central government could exercise.

Social Revolution

The political revolution in the late eighteenth century that resulted in the Articles of Confederation also caused a social revolution. Riots and social conflict marked the Revolutionary era in America. The Revolution brought the concept of equality into mainstream American thought. Many colonists seized the opportunity to introduce social reform as they created their state constitutions.

The spirit of equality was represented in many ways. Property qualifications for voting were lowered, admitting the overwhelming majority of white males. However, governmental officeholders often had to meet a higher landholding requirement. In Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina seats in the state legislature were reapportioned so the backcountry western districts were given fair representation.

Social democracy was stimulated by the formation of trade organizations for commoners, like artisans and laborers. Inheritance laws were abolished, including primogeniture, which awarded all of a father’s property to the eldest son, and entail, which gave the property owner the right to prevent his heirs from ever disposing of the land.

As approximately 80,000 Tories, or British Loyalists, departed from America they left behind many large estates that were confiscated by the state legislatures. The land was then broken up and sold as small farms or passed out as compensation to war veterans.

During this time of social revolution, steps were taken toward greater religious freedom and the separation of church and state. The Anglican Church was disestablished because of its association with the British crown, and it re-formed as the Protestant Episcopal Church.

As religious freedom expanded, new faiths emerged and some of the first national church bodies were formed. The Methodists came together in a general conference in 1784. The newly formed Episcopal Church gathered in 1789 to unite the various dioceses. The Presbyterians also held their first national assembly in 1789. In 1790 the Catholic Church placed its first bishop in America.

All but Virginia had removed tax support for the church before the end of the Revolution. Finally, in 1786 the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, enforced the separation of church and state in Virginia. The statute stated that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry…nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief…but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.”

The principles of liberty and equality had clear implications for slavery. The Revolutionary War opened paths to freedom for some slaves. Lord Dunmore, Virginia’s governor, promised freedom to any slave who fought on the British side. Far more blacks joined the British army than the American army. After the war, many of these former slaves ended up in the British colonies in the West Indies, while some were evacuated to Canada and liberated.

In response to Lord Dunmore’s promise, General Washington and Congress reversed the policy of excluding blacks from American forces in 1775. About 5,000 blacks served in the Patriot army and navy, but most of these were free men from the northern states. There were black soldiers in every major battle from Lexington to Yorktown, and the slaves who fought for American independence won their freedom.

In 1774, the Continental Congress called for complete abolition of the slave trade, and many of the states responded positively. Beginning with Pennsylvania in 1780, the northern states all abolished slavery outright or provided for the gradual emancipation of blacks. In most of these states slaves born after a certain date were to be freed once they reached a stated age, generally 18 or 21 years old.

In contrast, no states south of Pennsylvania abolished slavery. Many of the southern states did go as far as relaxing manumission laws, which removed restrictions on the right of individual owners to free their slaves. Because of these laws, between 1782 and 1790 individual Virginian slave owners freed as many as 10,000 slaves.

During that period many slaves ran away, especially those in the upper south. The runaways would take refuge in the growing number of African-American communities in the north. Due to the emancipation laws in the north, there were several free black neighborhoods in which the runaways could begin new lives. Still runaways and freed blacks often had to contend with harsh discrimination. In many areas they could not purchase property or hold certain jobs, and they were not allowed to educate their children.

While many opponents of slavery continued to hope that the institution would soon disappear, it was only expunged from areas where it was not economically important. Ironically, with the dawn of a new age of equality, the complete abolition of slavery was still not possible. Though most of America’s Founding Fathers wanted to abolish slavery, their idealism was forfeited for political unity. A fight over slavery would have taken too long to resolve and would have divided the fragile national unity that was desperately needed to establish the republic.

As Americans continued to consider the rights of the individual, subtle changes to the legal rights of women transpired. In the eighteenth century women had remained confined to the domestic sphere. They could not vote, preach, hold office, or obtain a divorce. In many colonies they had no legal rights over their children and could not legally own personal property.

Wartime experiences gave women a new sense of independence and responsibility. During the Revolution, women were forced to take on many roles that were previously considered masculine. Women plowed fields, managed shops and businesses, and supported the armies by handling supplies, serving as couriers, and performing more traditional roles like cooking and nursing. Women even occasionally took their husband’s places in the line when they could no longer fight.

In 1776, Abigail Adams, an independent woman of the time advised her husband, John Adams, “In the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the Ladies…Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.” She felt that men were “naturally tyrannical” and told her husband that if they did not remember the ladies, the women would “foment a Rebellion” of their own. John Adams treated her remarks as a joke and responded that the men knew better than to repeal their masculine systems.

The legal status of women improved marginally as a result of the Revolution. In some northern states divorces were easier to obtain. The most significant change for women was expanded educational opportunity, which was brought about by the egalitarian rhetoric of the Revolution. Some reformers argued that only educated and independent mothers could raise children fit for republican citizenship. Many felt that mothers were given the responsibility to cultivate habits of virtuous citizenry in their children and that once educated, they could better cultivate in their families the virtues demanded by American society. The idea of female education caught on and female literacy gradually rose.

Still, the Revolution did not change the basic circumstances for women and most continued to do what was considered traditional women’s work. Women gained no permanent political rights, and married women still lost control of any property they owned to their husbands.

The Revolution permanently changed the tone of American society. In the middle of the eighteenth century the colonists began to think of themselves as a separate society, distinct from Britain and greater Europe. The Revolution led to the growth of American nationalism and the beginning of a national tradition.

The break from Britain fueled the national desire to create an American culture. In the early eighteenth century, Americans witnessed a sudden flourishing of the arts and education. The Revolution provided inspirational and patriotic subjects for artists to capture. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded at Boston during the Revolution. The artist John Trumbull fought in several of the Revolutionary battles and produced such patriotic works as The Battle of Bunker Hill, The Declaration of Independence, and The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis.

The influence of Revolutionary nationalism on American education was reflected in the success of textbooks written by authors such as Noah Webster, later famous for his dictionary. In 1787 the first American history textbook was created.

Postwar nationalism also had a sustained effect on education. Before the Revolution, there were nine colleges in the colonies. In the 1780s eight more were added, and in the 1790s six more opened their doors. Several of these new colleges were state universities that had been provided for in the state constitutions. For example, Georgia chartered its University in 1785 and the University of North Carolina was chartered in 1789 and opened in 1795. Public education became increasingly important to the colonists as they attempted to achieve universal private and civic virtue.

As the Revolution drew to a close, Americans were increasingly aware of their common interests and proud of their common heritage. The growth of American nationalism was critical to the new nation’s survival.

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Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Articles of Confederation" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 26 May. 2024. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/articles-of-confederation/>.