While it is not my usual routine to write articles in a series, in honor of our nation’s 235th birthday I want to take some time to examine the process that led to the ratification of the Constitution.
Therefore, each of the next three weeks I will post one installment of a short refection on the ratification debate.
To understand the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, it is necessary to first establish the context, for the study of a text without a context is a pretext.
Was the Constitution the first document produced to form the United States of America? Does it mark the beginning of our nation and its government?
No, before there was a Constitution, there was a United States of America. This nation was not formed under the auspices of the Constitution–the Constitution was formed under the Auspices of the United States.
Years before there was a Constitution, there were the Articles of Confederation and it was at the final ratification of this document that the United States of America officially was born. This often over-looked and much maligned document was drafted in 1777 by the same Continental Congress that passed and proclaimed the Declaration of Independence. The Articles acknowledged the inherent sovereignty of the constituent States while at the same time establishing a league of friendship and perpetual union.
The Articles of Confederation:
The Articles of Confederation were written, debated and ratified during the Revolutionary War when the States were fighting for their lives against the overbearing Imperial government intent upon reducing all of them to mere appendages of the London-based bureaucracy. In consequence, they reflect the lack of confidence felt in any highly centralized state power. The States were jealous of their ability to control their internal affairs. These privileges had been won in various ways in the different States but in each of them they had gained the authority of custom and Tradition. And in every State they were held dear and looked upon as necessary for a free and prosperous nation. Therefore, the Articles, while creating a central government that could address such issues as war and peace, most of the actual power was reserved to the individual States.
The maintenance of the sovereignty, freedom and independence of the individual States was facilitated by the fact that under the Articles there was no Executive or Judicial branches in the central government, only a legislature and that consisted of only one house. This one house Congress was composed of committees of delegates appointed by the States. Congress was charged with the responsibility to prosecute the Revolution, declare war, maintain the Army and Navy, establish relations with other government, send and receive ambassadors and other functions such as establish policies for any territories acquired that were not under State control.
In the depths of war the Articles of Confederation were adopted by the Second Continental Congress on November 15, 1777. The Articles actually became the official and original organic document establishing the government of the United States of America on March 1, 1781 when Maryland, the last of the thirteen states ratified the document.
Today we reap the fruits of the reality that winners write history. For two hundred plus years we have all been taught that the Articles of Confederation were an abject failure. We are lectured on the fact that they did not have the power to create or sustain a viable nation. It is common knowledge that if they would have continued in force there would have been wars between the states and a dysfunctional economy.
Yes, this is what we are taught. This is what every school child for ten generations has learned as the bedrock of civics and the study of American politics and History. But does the accepted history fit the facts?
What were some of the accomplishments of the Articles of Confederation?
- The government of the United States was established under the Articles not the Constitution.
- The government as established under the Articles successfully fought and won the Revolutionary War
- The government as established under the Articles concluded the peace which gained not only the independence of the thirteen original colonies but all the land east of the Mississippi River and south of Canada.
- The government as established under the Articles established diplomatic relations with the rest of the world and worked successfully to get the new United States of America recognized as an independent nation.
- The government as established under the Articles negotiated our first treaty with a foreign power (France).
- The government as established under the Articles led all the States to renounce their claims to the western lands.
- The government as established under the Articles passed the Land Ordinance of 1785 which provided for the survey and sale of the western lands surrendered by the original thirteen states. These sales provided income for the new nation without taxation
- The government as established under the Articles through the set aside of land established federal support for a public education system.
- The government as established under the Articles passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which provided the process through which every subsequent State after the original thirteen became States, with full equality with the original States.
- The government as established under the Articles outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territory.
- The government as established under the Articles passed a bill of rights that protected the settlers of territories from abuses of power.
This is a very long list of positive accomplishments for a government that is portrayed as an abject failure. This brings us to the question, “What was the problem?”, a question I will address next week.
Dr. Robert R. Owens teaches history, political science, religion, and leadership for Southside Virginia Community College. Dr. Owens is the author of “America Won the Vietnam War,” “The Asuza Street Revival,” and called “The Constitution Failed.” He is available for speaking engagements.