The Articles of Confederation was the first constitution of the United States of
America. The Articles of Confederation were first drafted by the Continental Congress in
Philadelphia Pennsylvania in 1777. This first draft was prepared by a man named John
Dickinson in 1776. The Articles were then ratified in 1781. The cause for the changes
to be made was due to state jealousies and widespread distrust of the central
authority. This jealousy then led to the emasculation of the document.
As adopted, the articles provided only for a “firm league of friendship” in which each of
the 13 states expressly held “its sovereignty, freedom, and independence.
” The People
of each state were given equal privileges and rights, freedom of movement was
guaranteed, and procedures for the trials of accused criminals were outlined. The
articles established a national legislature called the Congress, consisting of two to
seven delegates from each state; each state had one vote, according to its size or
population. No executive or judicial branches were provided for.
Congress was charged
with responsibility for conducting foreign relations, declaring war or peace, maintaining
an army and navy, settling boundary disputes, establishing and maintaining a postal
service, and various lesser functions. Some of these responsibilities were shared with
the states, and in one way or another Congress was dependent upon the cooperation
of the states for carrying out any of them.
Four visible weaknesses of the articles, apart from those of organization, made it
impossible for Congress to execute its constitutional duties. These were analyzed in
numbers 15-22 of The FEDERALIST, the political essays in which Alexander Hamilton,
James Madison, and John Jay argued the case for the U.S. CONSTITUTION of 1787.
The first weakness was that Congress could legislate only for states, not for
individuals; because of this it could not enforce legislation. Second, Congress had no
power to tax. Instead, it was to assess its expenses and divide those among the states
on the basis of the value of land. States were then to tax their own citizens to raise
the money for these expenses and turn the proceeds over to Congress. They could not
be forced to do so, and in practice they rarely met their obligations. Third, Congress
lacked the power to control commerce–without its power to conduct foreign relations
was not necessary, since most treaties except those of peace were concerned mainly
with trade. The fourth weakness ensured the demise of the Confederation by making it
too difficult to correct the first three. Amendments could have corrected any of the
weaknesses, but amendments required approval by all 13 state legislatures. None of the
several amendments that were proposed met that requirement.
On the days from September 11, 1786 to September 14, 1786, New Jersey, Delaware,
Pennsylvania, and Virginia had a meeting of there delegates at the Annapolis
Convention. Too few states were represented to carry out the original purpose of the
meeting–to discuss the regulation of interstate commerce–but there was a larger
topic at question, specifically, the weakness of the Articles of Confederation. Alexander
Hamilton successfully proposed that the states be invited to send delegates to
Philadelphia to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the
exigencies of the Union.” As a result, the Constitutional Convention was held in May
The Constitutional Convention, which wrote the Constitution of the United States, was
held in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787. It was called by the Continental Congress and
several states in response to the expected bankruptcy of Congress and a sense of
panic arising from an armed revolt–Shays’s Rebellion–in New England. The
convention’s assigned job, following proposals made at the Annapolis Convention the
previous September, was to create amendments to the Articles of Confederation. The
delegates, however, immediately started writing a new constitution.
Fifty-five delegates representing 12 states attended at least part of the sessions.
Thirty-four of them were lawyers; most of the others were planters or merchants.
Although George Washington, who presided, was 55, and John Dickinson was 54,
Benjamin Franklin 81, and Roger Shermen 66, most of the delegates were young men in
their 20s and 30s. Noticeable absent were the revolutionary leaders of the effort for
independence in 1775-76, such as John Adams, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson.
The delegates’ knowledge concerning government, both ideal and practical, made the
convention perhaps the most intelligent such gathering ever assembled.
On September 17 the Constitution was signed by 39 of the 42 delegates present. A
period of national argument followed, during which the case for support of the
constitution was strongly presented in the FEDERALIST essays of Alexander Hamilton,
John Jay, and James Madison. The last of the 13 states to ratify the Constitution was
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