The Articles of Confederation were essentially the first constitution of the United States. The Continental Congress declared independence (1776). The following years the Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation (1777). It was described as a "firm league of friendship" between the 13 British colonies. The Colonies were essentially fighting strong central control in the form of the British Empire. The Articles reflected the concern of the various colonies with central control. Under he Articles the future states were not just autonomous, but sovereign. The states were maintained their "sovereignty, freedom and independence." There was no executive and judicial branches of government. Under the articles, the national government rested with Congress, essentially a legislative body in the for of a committee of delegates representing each state. The Congress had considerable responsibilities such as conducting foreign affairs, declaring war or peace, maintaining an army and navy and a variety of other less important functions. What Congress did not have was the power to collect taxes, regulate interstate commerce and enforce laws. Congress could only ask the states to provide funds. The Articles were adopted by Congress (November 15, 1777) and came into force when the last of the 13 states approved the document (March 1, 1781).
Each of the original colonies, had royal charters and duly elected legislatures. Unlike Britain itself they also had written constitutions. The Mayflower Compact might be seen as the first constitution (1620). The Puritans managed tom leave England before James I could stop them. And once in America, James decided to leave them be, at least they implanted the British flag there. The colonial legislatures influenced by John Locke and other Enligtenment thinkers decided that a formal written constitutiin was needed. The unfloding struggle between the Crown and parliament in England no doubt influenced them. The first detailed constituion was the Connecticut Fundamental Orders (1639). It was also the first written constitution in the world to declare the Lockiann idea that "the foundation of authority is in the free consent of the people."
The various state constitutions reflect their early political cultures, and they're notable for that alone! Pennsylvania's and North Carolina's constitutions created governments that could be described as popular democracies. Voters in Pennsylvania by a sufficient majority could veto acts of the legislature and write off a sizable portion of their debts. [Bridges]
These legislatures and contitutiins were tolerated by the Crown. This legal foundation in many cases developed during the English Civil War (1642-51) when the Crown essentially lost control of the colonies and Cromwell's Commonwealth took little interest. By the time of the Stuart Restoration (1660), the colonial legislatures and constitutions were so well established that the Stuart monarchs focused on the all important struggle with Parliament did not challenge the developing political structure in the colonies. And after the Golorious Revolution (1688) William and mary and then Ann accepted the colonial legislatures and constitutions. This was the political structure the Hannover monarchs inherited.
The First Continental Congress met in Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia (September 5 - October 26, 1774). Carpenter's Hall was also the seat of the Pennsylvania Congress (legislature). Unlike the individual colonies, there was no royal charter or constitutiion. And unlike the colonial legislatures, Congress was not recognized by the Crown. All of the colonies except Georgia sent delegates. These delegates had different origins. Some were elected by actyal balots, others were chosen bu the legislatures or by the committees of correspondence of the colonies. The initial intent of the colonies was to present a united front and show case a determination to British authorities. There was, however, no agreed goals. Pennsylvania and New York sent delegates with clear instructions to resolve the issues whicghb had develope wuith Britain. The other colonies sent less specific instructions, but primarily the desore was to defend colonial rights and the existing constutuinal arrangements. Here many wanted constitutiinal paity with parliamebnt. A minority at this stage were advocating the radical step of separation and independence.
The First Continental Congress adjourned (October 26, 1774). The delegates resolved to reconvene May 1775 if Parliament did not address their grievances. Delegates to the First Constitutional Congress went back to their colonies and promote Congressional mandates. Meanwhile in London, Parliamentary factions debate how to deal with the Americans. Some in Parliament wanted to offer concessions. Others wanted a more forceful respose. Royal officials refused to accept Congress's petitions or even acknowledge its existence. King George III opens Parliament (November 30, 1774) and in his speech he condemns Massachusetts and the Suffolk Resolves--"the die is cast". By the end iof the year, it is clear throughout the Colonies that Congress will need to reconvene and decide on a course of action.
Before Congress reconvenes to decide to proceed with Britain, actual fighting broke out in Massachusettes, the most radical state. The first shots occurred when Gen. Thomas Gage sent a force to disarm the militias in Lexingtion and Concord (April 1775). No one know who fired the first shot, but the Militia drove the British force back to Bistion and inflicted heavty losses on them. The enraged militias surronded the British in Boston. Gage gained a Pyrrhic victory in the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 1775).) The Continental Congress chose Virginian George Washington who had served in the Virginia Militia to take command of the militia force gathering around Boston. In part this was the work of John Adams who saw the need to draw Virginia into the conflict. Washington was agast at what he saw when he reached the militia fotces outdide of Boston (July 1775). They were disorganized and undisciplined. John Knox seized Fort Ticondaroga to the north and managed to transport the cannon to Washington in the dead of winter (January 1776). The cannon made the British position in Boston untenable and they were eventually forced to evacuate on Royal Navy ships (March 1776). This left the Patriots in total control of the Colonies.
Fighting broke out in Massachusetts before Congress recionvenes. Many delegates were en route to Philadelphia, when fighting began (April 1775). Congress formally reconvened (May 10, 1775). The Militias after the Concord and Lexington engagements, bittled the British up in Boston. Notable new delegated included Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and Lyman Hall (the lone delegate representing a single parish in Georgia). The developing situation in Massachusetts dominated proceedings. The British military governor, Gen. Gage, dissolved the legislature (1774).
Massachusettes formed a Provincial Congress, but its legality was unclear. The Massachusettes delegated declared that "General Gage hath actually levied war" against them. The Massachusetts patriots asked Congress to suggest a mechanism for creating a civil government for the colony. Congress despite the fighting in Massachusettes and Britain's unwillingness to negotiate continued to seek reconciliation. Large numbers of delegates were unwilling to abandon the effort to achieve a peaceful resolution. Congress adopts a dual approach. They appoint Virginian Col. George Washington to command the Continental forces (July 1775). At the same time, Congress drafts another petition (July 1775). William Penn is chosen to deliver the document to London. King George refuses to evebn receive him. The King issued a proclamation declaring America to be in a state of 'open and avowed rebellion', esebntially a declaratiion of war (August 23, 1775).
The Continental Congress finally decided on a break with Britain, A Committe was chosen to draft a formal document. Massachusettes delegate John Adams suggested that Virgininian Thomas Jefferson draft it. The fighting at the time was confined to Massaschusetts and Adams saw it was important to involve Virginia. And adams knew that Jefferson was an elegant writer. Jefferson drafted it (June 11-18, 1776). The resulting document which was only minimally edited is a key American symbol of liberty and Jefferson's most important contribution to the cause. Some of the phrases are a critical part of the American lexicon. Jefferson beautifully and consisely expressed the convictions that had slowly taken root in America. The political philosophy of the Declaration were based on the ideals of individual liberty conceived by John Locke and the French philosophers. Jefferson described the philosophy as "self-evident truths". He then listed grievances against the King to justify the rupture of ties with Britain that the Congress had decided to take. It became one of the great documents of democracy and liberty beginning with the Magna Carta.
The Articles of Confederation were essentially the first constitution of the United States. The Continental Congress declared independence (1776). The following years the Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation (1777). It was described as a "firm league of friendship" between the 13 British colonies. The Colonies were essentially fighting strong central control in the form of the British Empire. The Articles reflected the concern of the various colonies with central control.
Under the Articles the future states were not just autonomous, but sovereign. The states were maintained their "sovereignty, freedom and independence." There was no executive and judicial branches of government. Under the articles, the national government rested with Congress, essentially a legislative body in the for of a committee of delegates representing each state. The Congress had considerable responsibilities such as conducting foreign affairs, declaring war or peace, maintaining an army and navy and a variety of other less important functions. What Congress did not have was the power to collect taxes, regulate interstate commerce and enforce laws. Congress could only ask the states to provide funds. The Articles were adopted by Congress (November 15, 1777) and came into force when the last of the 13 states approved the document (March 1, 1781).
Historians roundly criticize the Articles of Confederation, largely because of its weakness. The Articles of Confederation was, however, the most logical form of national government that could have been adopted in the aftermath of the Revolutiion. The former colonies, now states, were sovereign and would not easily yield powers to a new national government. The perogatives of state legislatures, after all, were at the heart of the Reviolution. Moreover, we had thrown off a powerful national government and had no intention of creating a new one! [Bridges]
The Articles of Confederation created an anemic national government with no power to enforce its decisions. Each state, no matter how many delegates it sent to the Congress, had but one vote. Important measures needed a majority vote for passage, and amendments required no less than unanimous support for ratification. [Bridges]
Congress lacked the power to regulate interstate commerce, and commercial warfare erupted among the states.
Maryland and Virginia winessed the obscure "Oyster War" fought between fishermen from both states over the oyster catch in the Potomac.
Most states faced mounting debts stemming from the war. In Massachusetts the burdensome taxes and stagnant economy provoked a confrontation between farmers and the milita, endorsed by banking and business classes, known as Shays' Rebellion. The state and national governments struggled to put down this uprising. Bankers and merchants eventually had to rely on mercenary troops to end the five months conflict. [Bridges]
Shays' Rebellion was a wake-up call for James Madison and others who were concerned about the direction in which the new nation was heading. Maryland and Virginia representatives met to discuss ways of improving navigation on the Potomac River which forms much of the border between the two states. this led to the subsequent Annapolis Convention, called to discuss the Popmac problem and other concerns. It drew, however, delegates from only five states (September 1786). The delegates determined that they could not deal effectively with national commercial problems without major changes in the Articles. The delegates, exceeding their authority, issued a new call to all the states for a meeting in Philadelphia the following May for the "sole and express purpose to revise the Articles." [Bridges] The idea was to revise the Articles, not write a new Constitutiion.
Bridges, John. E-mail, January 21, 2014.
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