Skip over navigation

The Articles of Confederation (1781-1789)

The Founding Fathers

Articles 3-4

Articles 1-2

Article 5

Summary—Interstate Relations

Each of the thirteen states that make up the United States commit to a firm "friendship" with each of the other states. They are united for the purposes of defending themselves against military threats, protecting their independence, and ensuring the general well being of all of the states and good relationships between them. Each state commits to help any other state to defend itself against any attack on the basis of their religion, their right to self-government, their freedom to trade, or for any other reason.

To ensure friendly relationships and good business between people living in different states, any free person living in one state, not counting slaves, has the same rights as a free person living in any other state.

If a person charged as a criminal or traitor in one state runs away to another state, the government of the first state has the authority to bring the criminal back to the state in which the crime was committed.

Any official records, documents, trials and decisions made by the court system in one state will be recognized by each of the other states.

Commentary

Delegates to congress expressed a lofty idealism when they talked about the "friendship" of the thirteen states and of the states' willingness to work together for their mutual benefit and towards the common good. The reality of the situation was that each state jealously guarded its own power, had no qualms about usurping power from or abusing the power of less powerful states, and ruthlessly supported its own cause at the expense of the common good. The bonds of friendship, rather than being enforced by a structured and centralized government, faltered because of the unwillingness of states to focus on their role as part of a bigger nation.

The Articles of Confederation were worthless in enforcing good interstate relations because they did not endow Congress with the authority to regulate interstate trade or to intervene in questions of interstate disputes, except as a last resort. The Articles also made it too difficult for Congress to easily pass legislation beneficial to the common good. Furthermore, Congress itself was so plagued by poor interstate relations and low morale that it was often unable to address areas that did fall under its direct control.

The failure of a supreme authority to regulate interstate commerce became a problem because, although Congress was endowed with the sole authority to negotiate foreign treaties, it did not have the power to control trade between individual states and foreign countries. States were solely granted the right to levy imposts on foreign goods, and they freely interpreted this to mean goods from other countries as well as other states in the United States. States insisted on printing their own paper money and requiring it in kind for payment of tariffs of purchase of goods. Bordering states that shared the same rivers struggled to exert control by imposing competing tolls. In addition to a variety of different customs regulations and currencies, state governments sought commercial advantage over other states, and based their policies on what would bring their state the biggest rewards, not what was best for the common economic good.

These interstate trade wars developed because states with clear commercial advantages abused their power. The disadvantaged states without ports could not import goods directly into their state and had to rely on neighboring states with ports. These neighboring states often charged to transport goods either into or out of the state. The only recourse for the states without ports was to retaliate by enacting their own tariffs on imported goods. Therefore, the consumer was caught up in a confusing and costly interstate battle resulting from interstate jealousies and a system of commerce that lacked uniformity. Consumers, farmers, and merchants bore the brunt of these policies, but appeals for change accomplished nothing.

Committees of merchants organized to appeal for a more regulated system of commerce. Nationalist politicians did what they could to make improvements to the system. Alexander Hamilton tried in 1781, and again in 1783, to draft an amendment that granted Congress the right to levy and collect an impost. This would not only provide some regulation to the world of trade, but would also provide Congress with a much-needed source of revenue. Many states were surprisingly eager to relinquish their control of commerce in order to relieve some of the confusion, but it required unanimous approval before it could become law. Unfortunately, Rhode Island opposed both measures, insisting that this infringed upon the sovereignty of the states. The inability of Congress to make much needed change without a unanimous decision, not to mention their inability to regulate commerce, fueled interstate tension further. Rhode Island especially irked the majority of states for not graciously succumbing to the desires of the other twelve states.

Rhode Island again became the source of interstate frustration when it passed debt-repayment laws that required all creditors to accept the highly inflated and worthless Rhode Island currency. This attempt to quickly pay of its debt demonstrated a naivete about the fine points of finance, and appalled commercial men in other states. It would have been better for Rhode Island's line of credit had the state tried to pay off the actual value it owed over a longer period of time. Instead, creditors from other nations and other states were forced either to take full payment in paper currency, of a greatly diminished value, or give up their repayment altogether. Rhode Island established criminal penalties for refusing to accept its currency and removed the right to trial-by-jury in cases related to debt-collection. Acting solely in its own interest, Rhode Island jeopardized not only the United States' line of credit with foreign creditors but also threatened to remove civil liberties. Without a strong central government to control the behavior of individual states, there was no recourse when an individual state acted against the general welfare of the United States.

The same lack of "friendship" between states existed between delegates to Congress as well. Sometimes openly hostile to delegates from other states, openly criticizing others in letters and other public forums, the delegates did not behave like friends, or even like polite acquaintances. A general lack of camaraderie plagued Congress in the form of low attendance and states refusing to compromise their own best interest. Congress was often unable to exert the few powers it did have to sooth interstate rivalries simply because of lack of a quorum. In other cases, Congress was unable to act objectively because it was so easily manipulated by powerful states. When appealed to by one state, Congress had to carefully weigh that state's influence (especially financial) when deciding whether to intervene. For example, when Vermont, which had been formed by land taken from New York, appealed to Congress to be accepted as a new state, New York withheld its requisitioned funds to pressure Congress into deciding on its behalf. The "perpetual union of firm friendship" lacked both the friendship and the coercive power necessary to regulate interstate relations. Relying on the pure motives of states, motives that were in fact driven by self-interest and jealousy, destroyed the possibility of a firm league of friendship.

Ironically, one of the only attempts of self- regulation between two states actually succeeded in becoming a uniform policy and became the first step towards a revision of the Articles of Confederation. This self-regulation was also deemed technically illegal by the Articles, which did not allow states to contract treaties outside of the forum of Congress. Nevertheless, leaders from Maryland and Virginia agreed to meet in Alexandria to discuss a mutually agreed upon regulation of commerce on the Potomac and Pocomoke Rivers. As was typical of the time, the Virginia delegation did not get the message and failed to attend. When the Maryland delegates arrived with no reception, they contacted two of the Virginia delegates and persuaded them to go ahead with the meeting anyway, which they did at Mount Vernon. The results of the meeting went far beyond the original goals; not only did the delegates resolve the dispute relating to the two rivers, they also established a uniform policy of commerce and trade regulations in all areas of exchange between the two states. Additionally, their success inspired them to call a convention of all states interested in discussing issues of common commerce in Annapolis. This Annapolis Convention is what eventually led to the call for a Constitutional Convention in May 1787. Ironically, it seems that the states were eager to befriend each other in order to work towards their mutual interests, but somehow the Articles reinforced jealousies rather than effectively encouraging the friendship necessary to enact uniform policies towards the common good.

More Help

Previous Next

Follow Us