The Articles of Confederation (1781-1789)

by: The Founding Fathers

Articles 3-4

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

From the SparkNotes Blog