Thursday, May 23, 2013

The First United States Government

Independence Hall

As I work on each book of this series, I take careful note of all the important historical events—and some obscure ones—that took place during the period I’m covering, whether they make it into the story or not. During the end of Crucible of War and the beginning of Valley of the Shadow, Congress was in the process of devising an official government for our newly independent nation. It’s an interesting subject, and in this post I’m going to flesh it out more than I have space to in the book.

I suspect most people in this country think that the first and only confederation of states in our history was the confederation established by the Southern states during the Civil War. Actually, that would be wrong. In fact, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union established the first official government of the United States of America and served as its first constitution.

Even before passing the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress realized that it was going to be hard, if not impossible, to effectively govern without a, well, government. Congress had taken upon itself unprecedented political, diplomatic, military, and economic authority, and those powers needed to be regarded as legitimate both at home and abroad. In that era few nations had written constitutions; however, most of the 13 states were already busily writing one for themselves. Most leaders keenly felt the need to adopt a written constitution to define the powers and obligations of the new United States as well. Consequently, on June 12, 1776, a day after it appointed a committee to prepare a draft of the Declaration, Congress also appointed a committee to draft a proposed constitution for a union of the states.

Everyone acknowledged the need, but believe me, the process of hammering out a form for the new government acceptable to all the states was a contentious process. Congress was divided between those who wanted a strong centralized government, and those who wanted to protect the power of the individual states. Sound familiar?

After a whole lot of debate, negotiation, and maneuvering between factions, Congress finally approved the Articles of Confederation on November 15, 1777, and sent them to the states for ratification a couple of days later. As a practical matter, even before they were finally ratified by the last of the 13 states on March 1, 1781, the Articles provided legitimacy to Congress at home and abroad to wage the war against Britain, to conduct diplomatic relations with foreign nations and conclude alliances, and to manage domestic territorial issues and Indian relations.

When the Articles were ratified, Congress officially became the Congress of the Confederation. The Articles set rules for current and future operations of the United States government, empowering it to wage war and make peace, negotiate diplomatic and commercial agreements with foreign countries, and decide disputes between the various states. The Articles retained to the states sovereignty over all governmental functions not specifically relinquished to the national government. In other words, the Articles established what was pretty much already in effect: a loose confederation of strong sovereign states held together by a central government that didn’t have a whole lot of real power, most of which continued to reside in the state governments.

And there was the rub. Because of their experience with Britain, the states were suspicious of a strong central government that might restrict their rights and the rights of individual citizens. Again, sound familiar? It’s been a continuing theme in American politics up to this day, and I think that’s generally a good thing. Although robust political discourse can create problems, it also has the potential to keep both federal and local governments in check. You’ll notice that I say “has the potential.” But that’s a subject for another day . . .

After the war ended, many people, especially those who had served in the Continental Army, began to complain that the federal government was too weak to be effective. The Articles didn’t provide for a president, executive agencies, federal courts, and a tax base. Without the power to levy taxes, the federal government had no way to pay off debts incurred during the war except by requesting money from the states. And you can guess how that that was likely to go.

The need for a stronger federal government eventually led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. After another contentious process, the present United States Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation on March 4, 1789, with its first president, George Washington, at its head.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

You’ll find a whole lot more more information online, including at the Library of Congress and Wikipedia, among many other sites.

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