Shortly after Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the delegates at the Second Continental Congress agreed that a new government was necessary to govern the now-independent colonies. After much debate, they drafted and adopted the Articles of Confederation in 1777.
Although the Articles were not officially ratified until 1781 (Maryland refused to ratify because of a territorial dispute), they served as the de facto constitution until that time. Under the authority of the Articles, the states created a national Congress comprised of annually elected delegates from all thirteen states. Each state had one vote in Congress, and, in most cases, decisions were made based on majority rule.
The national Congress’s powers over the states were specific and definite: it had the sole power to negotiate treaties, declare war, and make peace. It also reserved the right to maintain an army and navy and regulated interaction with Native Americans in the West. The delegates also granted Congress the power to resolve interstate disputes, grant loans, print money, and operate a national postal system. Eventually, Congress was also authorized to govern western territories until they achieved statehood.
All powers not granted to Congress were reserved for state governments. Congress had no power to levy taxes, for example. It could only request that the individual states raise revenue to cover their share of national expenses. Furthermore, any amendments made to the Articles required unanimous agreement from the states.
The Articles made the national Congress weak on purpose. Having just won independence from Britain, many Americans feared that creating a strong federal government with too much authority over the states would only replace King George III with another tyrant. Instead, they envisioned Congress to be a supervisory body that would tie the states loosely for the common good. The early United States was thus a confederation of nearly independent states, not the solid federation with a strong government that it is today. The states were in many ways like individual countries bound together to keep Britain at bay.
Americans were especially afraid of federal taxes. Remembering the “No taxation without representation!” cry from the Colonial era, they stipulated that only the individual states could levy taxes. This system proved to be a completely ineffective way of bankrolling a federal government, and in fact, many of the states refused to pay their fair share. Most years, in fact, the Congress received less than a third of what it asked for from the states. Moreover, Congress had been granted no rights to control interstate commerce. States were thus given a free hand to draft conflicting and confusing laws that made cross-border trade difficult.
The new Congress immediately began printing paper currency to pay for the Revolutionary War. The money became the standard U.S. currency during the war, but when hard times hit and inflation skyrocketed, these Continental dollars became worthless. Many Americans, especially soldiers, small business owners, and farmers, were hit hard. Congress requested that the states increase taxes to help pay for a new national currency, but most states refused and instead printed their own paper money. This, too, succumbed to inflation, and by the end of the war, Americans had fistfuls of worthless money.
Congress had much more success dealing with U.S. territories west of the Appalachians. Prior to the Revolutionary War, many of the original thirteen colonial legislatures made territorial claims to these lands. Interstate disputes over these western areas were common and heated: Maryland (which had no western claims) even refused to ratify the Articles of Confederation until the other states had ceded their claims. The conflict was resolved in 1781 when Virginia ceded all western lands to Congress’s control so that all Americans could benefit from the land. Other states followed suit, and within a few years the national government was responsible for governing these territories.
Congress then passed the Land Ordinance of 1785 to establish order in the West. The ordinance stipulated that new western towns were to be thirty-six miles square, with one square mile set aside for schools. All public lands were to be auctioned off to the highest bidders, providing all Americans the chance to migrate and settle in the West.
Later, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to establish a process for admitting these territories to the Union as states. Each territory was to be governed by Congress until it contained 5,000 free, white males. Then settlers could vote whether to become a permanent state on equal footing as all the other states in the Union.
The Northwest Ordinance also abolished slavery in the territories and granted freedom of religion and the right to trial by jury. Although the ordinance promised decent treatment to Native Americans, it did not, in reality, extend these rights to them. In fact, the United States obtained much of this land by extortion and violence against Native Americans.
These land ordinances were the only major successes that Congress had under the Articles. The Northwest Ordinance proved incredibly successful and influential because it allowed the small country to grow without devolving into an undemocratic empire. Unlike European powers that exploited their territories as colonies to be mined, Congress declared that all American territories could become fully equal states with the same status and privileges as the original founding states. In later years many Americans would interpret this to mean that it was their duty to expand democracy as far west as they could.
The Northwest Ordinance also sparked debate about the future of slavery in the West. A growing number of Americans during these years began to question the moral implications of slavery in a land where “all men were created equal.” The ban on slavery in the Northwest Territories would prove to be the first of many restraints on the slaveholding South in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Despite these successes in the West, many Americans were dissatisfied with life under the Articles of Confederation. Economic depression hit soon after the American Revolution ended, as many people, especially farmers, could not pay off their debts with the worthless state and Continental dollars. Most state legislatures refused to assist these impoverished farmers.
Increasingly angry, some of these farmers grabbed their muskets and marched their state capitals to redress grievances. The most notorious of these miniature revolts was Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts, named after its Revolutionary War hero leader, Daniel Shays. Although officials in Boston quickly mustered a militia and quashed the rebellion, legislators nationwide agreed that change to the government was necessary if the United States were to survive.
Despite its failures, the Articles of Confederation and the national Congress it created were landmarks in world history. The Articles were one of the first written constitutions in the world in which rights, duties, and powers of government and the people were expressly delineated for everyone to read.
Even though Congress, too, proved to be a failure, it was the first attempt in history to create a republican, representative government in a large country. Of course, the United States was not a true democracy at this time—every state still had voting restrictions that included women, blacks, Native Americans, and men without property—but the Articles were a bold first step.