The Constitution of the United States was not the first attempt to organize our government once the United States declared Independance. The original “constitution” was called the Articles of The Confederation and Perpetual Union or Articles of Confederation for short. For simplicity I will refer to it as The Articles in this essay series.
I’ve been doing this series a little backwards, starting with the Constitution’s amendments, then the Constitution itself and now the forerunner document, but if you are reading this after the fact, you may be starting here. So it all depends on if you are going in tag order, chronological order or in the order the documents were written. Welcome to my journey of amatuer history commentary.
But lets get back on topic. When the young nation first declared independence, it was quickly seen that something needed to be done about forming a new government to replace the one they had rejected. The influences on this document started long before independance.
Earlier, long before the Declaration of Independence was issued, an idea was presented among the colonies that has become known as the Albany Plan. It was presented in 1754 and embraced the idea to have a local centralised government for the colonies. At the time, it was only thought to be a localized government still under Parliament. Only seven of the colonies adopted the plan, and it was never carried out but it birthed the idea of the colonies – or states – under a single central government. The Albany Congress had actually been called by the British Government when there was some issues about negotiations between a colony (New York) and the Iroquois Indians (specifically the Mohawk Native Americans). Only seven of the colonies sent delegates (hence the low adaption). The idea of a centralized American government had been loosely talked about before – including by Ben Franklin who added the famous “Join or Die” illustration to his newspaper to illustrate the point. However it wasn’t till the Albany Congress that anything was put down on paper in any sort of formal situation. The Plan proposed that the colonies, with the exception of Georgia and Delaware, would join together. The British Government would be in charge of selecting who ran the colonial government so it doesn’t really match the government they eventually would make.
Fast forward 20 years, and the American Colonies wanted far more with their own government. They still wanted to centralize, but without Great Britain’s involvement. In 1774, they sent delegates to meet together in what was called the Continental Congress. It was this group that would draft the first two important documents of the United States. The first was the Declaration of Independance.and the Second was the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.
There were two Continental Congresses. The first met between September 5th and October 26, 1774. It was an attempt to at first find a way to compromise between the American Colonies and Great Britain. They issued two documents to that end: The Document of Rights and Articles of Association, both which showed they were loyal to Great Britian, but were against the taxes that Parliament was enforcing on them without any representation in Parliment. They disbanded shortly afterwards.
The Second Continental Congress assembled on May 10, 1775 and would be the one to form the new government. They once again, now that war had started, tried to find a compromise to bring an end to the war. They drafted a petition to ask the King to help solve their differences but the King rejected it. They tried their best to try to end things, to try and profess loyality to help lessen the war, but in the end, Independance was sought. States started to tell their delegates to vote for independence.
The Continental Congress decided to create two committees to write up a document that would bring a confederation (hence the name) between the states. The first would write the declaration. While it was in its final revisions, they formed the second commitee to write the Articles of Confederation. By November 1776, the Congress had adopted the Articles. Within a year 11 of the states had ratified it (one took till May 1781).
The Articles however didn’t last long, and by the time it was a decade old, Congress had already called for a convention to ‘revise it’. What ended up happening was those in charge of the revisions tossed it out for a new thing all together which superseded the Articles in 1789. So it only lasted 12 years. In fact, some may not even remember that there was any form of government before the US Constitution.
The Articles were drafted during the early days of the American Revolution, even overlapping the drafting of the Declaration of Independance. There were many debates over the extent of powers they should give their young government. As has always been the case in our nation’s history (and obviously continues to be so), state rights vs. national government rights were one of the major debates.
In the end, the Articles created a small central government, giving most of the power to the states. They only gave congress the power to deal with foreign governments (including declaring war/peace), and to decide disputes between the states. Anything not specifically mentioned (which was alot) was in the State’s hand. This of course would cause some problems.
The Articles were a collection of 15 sections (preamble, 13 articles and a conclusion/signatory). I used a typed up copy (as I found the scanned of the original hard to read on a screen) created by Yale Law School’s Lillian Goldman Library (I have included the link below.)