Before the Constitution was ratified, the newly formed United States was governed by a document called the Articles of Confederation.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Connor: Hey, Brittany.
Brittany: Hi, Connor.
Connor: You know, we’ve talked before on many episodes about the Constitution of the United States, but, contrary to what some may believe there were things that happened before the Constitution came into being. That is not the beginning of time. The Constitution wasn’t written even until 1787. And we officially, you know, got independence in 1783.
Brittany: The war ended, I guess we, yeah, the war ended right in 1783.
Connor: Right, the treaty. And, you know, there was this period of time when the founding fathers were trying to figure out what they wanted to do now, and, what did we have before that time? What existed before the Constitution? Well, it was a document called the Articles of Confederation, and that’s what I wanna talk about today with you. For starters, the Articles of Confederation, and maybe we just call them articles for the remainder of this episode. They were actually written before the war ended in 1777. So just after Independence was declared in 1776. And of course, you know, the colonists didn’t know how long the war would last. And so clearly they wanted something ready to go. They needed a way to organize themselves and form a government to kind of unite them. They had come together as part of the Continental Congress. They had declared war, rather than declared their independence. And Britain started, declaring and waging war against them. But they needed a way to kind of come to an agreement of how these different colonies, which were almost treated like different countries in a way, how they would relate to one another. So, in 1777, when they were written, it was finally ratified a few years later in, 1781. Now, what’s interesting is in the Constitution, there’s this kind of idea contained in it about federalism, this idea that you would have the ability of the colonies and now states to retain power, but also share power, delegate power to the federal government. And so, under Federalism, you have kind of these separate governments all, sharing power and delegating power and different kind of authorities and jurisdictions. And so the states would kind of, say to the national government, they’d say, okay, well we’re gonna let you do these things, but not these other things. And the Articles of Confederation were a little bit, different than that. Britney, do you wanna take a stab at explaining that?
Brittany: Yeah, so the articles, confirmation, or articles, I guess I don’t have to say the whole thing, were different in that they let like you said, each state stay sovereign, which we talked about before, which means independent. So it was like its own country, you know, they were unified because they were the United States. They were, you know, declaring their independence from Britain, but they were still allowed to do their own thing. Yeah. Which was, I think, pretty cool. So Congress also played a smaller role. There was still Congress, but they were essentially a mediator of last resort, so to speak. So they would solve conflicts only when the states couldn’t figure them out themselves. And even then, like they would exhaust or they would go through every other option of trying to solve their own problems before they went to Congress. And it’s funny, that was my rule as a teacher is if, you know two students had a fight, I would not intervene because what would that teach them that would teach ’em all through their life? If they have a problem with somebody, they’re gonna have to have someone intervene. So the only time I would intervene is if someone was being physically harmed and I needed to step in, or if, you know, like World War III was starting in my classroom, and that really never happened. And so I kind of wonder, you know, w would we have ever needed a bigger government? But, so that was why I think a positive, but a lot of people didn’t see it that way. So, Congress, again, is only called in as a last resort, very different from today. Congress was also, given just very specific authorities. So they had the authority to make treaties and alliances, which if you think about it, makes sense, right? Because if we are one country, you can’t have each of the states making different treaties with France, right? Like, let’s say we were all, like, we all had different deals with them. That makes some sense to me. So, okay, I get that. They also would maintain like our army, which makes sense. And they were also in charge of printing money, but as we’ve learned, that didn’t really go over so well either. So that’s not great. Another really interesting part is that this was actually the document that officially named the New country, the United States of America, which I did not know until I was doing research about it for this episode. So that’s the first time you actually hear it declared that this is the United States of America.
Connor: One thing that the articles did not give Congress the authority to do, Among a lot of things, was to create and enforce new taxes. And also the articles did not allow this new kind of national government or Congress to regulate business dealings between the states and different economies. And so this is what really led to the constitutional convention and trying to replace the articles. Many people saw this as a weakness. They didn’t like that the national government could not levy its own taxes and fund its own operations, that they were so dependent upon the states or the colonies who would, periodically resist. And they’d say, well, we’re not paying that, or we’re not contributing that. And so many people were like, well, if we’re gonna be one country, we need a way to, you know, finance that we need a way to pay the bills. And so a lot of people thought, well, if we can’t tax if we can’t make the colonies, you know, pitch in and pay money then the system is broken. And that was the view of a lot of people. Of course, today we can see all the taxes that have been assessed by the federal government and it’s just a massive amount of taxes by the federal government. And then you know, I don’t know about you, Brittany, but I look and I’m like, yeah, maybe the articles weren’t such a bad idea. Like giving the national government the ability to take so much money, probably not the best idea. But, you know, Congress, there were several people, or several, there were many people, back then who wanted more centralized authority. They wanted the national government to be able to do more. They didn’t like that the colonies were so independent. And, you know, these people during the Revolutionary War, they believed that they needed this central authority in order to win. Of course, you know, many people were skeptical or concerned with this idea because, you know, here they were fighting a tyrant in England and they didn’t wanna trade one form of authoritarianism for another. So there were many people who didn’t like this idea of creating a centralized power, a big national government in America when they were fighting a big government, you know, half a world away. And so, you know, we’ve talked before about the framers who crafted the Constitution, but Brittany who wrote the articles.
Brittany: Yeah, that’s a really great question, because there was a bunch of authors, actually, the first draft was written by Ben Franklin in 1775, and you’ll notice that was before the Declaration. So that’s what’s really interesting to me. You know, we think of the declaration as like, this is it, like this is how it started, but the plans were in motion. We’ve talked about this in other episodes. There were several things leading up that had happened before the declaration was even written. And this idea of, you know, what is our new government gonna look like if we actually do this? That was something that was already in the works. So Ben Franklin wrote it, I believe it was viewed as too radical, which if you know anything about Ben Franklin, he was kind of a radical dude in a lot of ways. So he writes it, they’re like, all right, this is okay, but we’re not gonna take it seriously. Ben Franklin always gets a little overboard on things like, all right, just calm down, Ben. So then a delicate from Connecticut, his name is it you say Sillus? Is it Sila? No, Silas. Right? That’s how that’s pronounced. Yeah. I always forget that name. Silas Dean, he wrote his own draft a little bit later, and they liked that one a little bit more. That one was taken, more seriously, but it was also revised. So then it went through a different draft. And then it wasn’t until the fourth draft, which was primarily written by a Pennsylvania delegate, John Dickerson, that it was finally sent to the States for approval, but shocking. The states couldn’t agree. And you know, we hear this all the time. In fact, we hear that now all the time, right? Congress can’t agree in anything, right? So states couldn’t agree. Maryland was especially just not having it because they were gonna lose a lot of their claims to land. And so they were like, no, we’re getting the short end of the stick here. This isn’t gonna, this isn’t gonna work for us. So Thomas Jefferson comes in, and Thomas Jefferson, at least in my opinion, cause I love Thomas Jefferson, was really good at wording things in a way that really just united people and got them amped up. I mean, look at the declaration when you look at that or read that, you’re just like, for me, I’m like, ready to rebel. And it’s not even, I’m not even there anymore. You know, it’s not 1776. So TJ comes in, he convinces the states that they need to get on board with the articles, and that was the version that passed.
Connor: It’s interesting because, you know, here they’re fighting a war, they’re going into a lot of debt and they’ve gotta pay this debt back. But of course, you know, the national government lacks the ability to, directly, you know, lay taxes. They couldn’t create taxes on people. And so there were these obligations to pay the money back without the ability to like force the colonies to contribute. And so again, that’s one of the things, I look at the articles, I’m like, well, you know, we’ve gone from one end of the spectrum to a total other end of the spectrum where, you know, Congress creates whatever taxes they want and takes all our money. So maybe there was some middle ground that we missed when the pendulum swung from one end to the other. But, you know, there were a lot of people who were not initially sold on this idea. There was a whole whiskey rebellion, which maybe will dedicate a separate episode. Yes, we are. But, there were a lot of people who resisted, and here they saw themselves as fighting for a kind of undisputed liberty. They wanted the ability to, you know, have their own property. So many of them, in fact, John Adams talked about once, how he says the real revolution was fought and won in the heart. This is not an exact quote I’m summarizing, but, it was one in the minds of the American people in the 15 years preceding the first shot at Lexington, which was in 1775, I believe it was. And so John Adams is talking about how what was going on is so many people were learning about liberty and where were they learning it from. Almost every single person who believed in kind of the Patriot cause learned it from one individual. John Locke. John Locke was an English philosopher who wrote about life, liberty, and property, which is similar to the words we have in our Declaration of Independence, life, liberty in the pursuit of happiness. And he talks at length in his books about how, governments, if they are to be just, and moral and have proper authority must protect people’s life, liberty, and property. And so here, these colonists are all starting to believe, these ideas that John Locke was writing so well about. And the revolution was that their minds were changing. They were all basically turning into libertarians and classical liberals, as we’ve talked about before. And so, as a result, you have people who believe very strongly in wanting to throw off the shackles of the English, you know, crown Great Britain. And they want to have full enjoyment of their property. They want full liberty. And so these taxes, again, remember the revolution was triggered by these tiny little taxes that were being imposed on people, but they objected in principle, not in amount. They’re not like, oh, well, you know, 1% tax ain’t so bad. Cuz we know like every tax, the income tax, social security, all these taxes that we have today were always introduced at a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny little rate. And they get the camel’s nose in the tent kids. If you don’t know what that means.
Brittany: The frog and boiling water kind of thing.
Connor: Yeah. Yeah. And so if you don’t know what a camel’s nose in the tent, you can ask your mom or the frog and boiling water, but, or your dad, but these taxes always start out small and then they just increase it, increase it. But the founding fathers were different. So many of these revolutionaries, they weren’t quibbling over amounts. They quibbled over it. In principle, they many of them recognize that if we let you know this tax go if we are okay with this, they’re just going to increase it because we’ve already then accepted that we’re okay with this type of tax. It’s just a negotiation over the amount. So that’s, you know, we’ll talk later about the whiskey rebellion, but there are a lot of people who, as you know, Congress was looking at them doing the Constitution and saying, oh, we need, we need more taxes, we need more ability to pay. There were a lot of people who did not like that idea.
Brittany: Now credit where credit is due. Because, again, I tend to be, you know, you and I have talked about how we love the Antied papers and you know, we like the Article Confederation, but credit where credit is due. The one thing that the articles did not have was a system of checks and balances. And, you know, I am a huge fan of separation of powers. I think that’s one of the best things the Constitution did. So, you know, at the time there was no executive, there was no judicial branch, only the legislative branch. So only Congress had any power to do anything. So I do think that was a flaw of the article. So I do think we have that too. Credit the Constitution with.
Connor: Yeah, I think that’s right too. The articles certainly weren’t perfect. And I think during the constitutional convention and the debates about how to improve the government between the colonies, there were a lot of interesting insights among them. The, you know, this importance of separation of powers having a judicial and an executive branch. But then you get problem like Alexander Hamilton and so many others who get into the executive branch, and the first thing they want to do is increase the power of the executive branch. Yeah. And they want to grow the government, and they want to say, well, we need to be able to do more. And you get these kind of ambitious people in there who want to, I don’t know, grow their own little empires or their whatever, and they start pushing for more power, more taxes. And so pretty soon the Articles of Confederation go by the wayside. You might say The Constitution is great, it’s so amazing. But, you know, there’s plenty of arguments on the other side that Yep. The Constitution has been insufficient to really protect our life, liberty, and property that it has not adequately, restrained the government. I think most of the time we’re recording this, Brittany very recently, the Supreme Court of the United States, handed a ruling down saying, Hey, Congress and President Biden, you can’t extend the unemployment.
Brittany: Oh, I’m glad you’re bringing this up.
Connor: Yeah. insurance anymore, all these bonuses and stuff you don’t have the power to do it. And so Congress was like, oh, well, the court said we can’t do it. And President Biden was like, oh, we can’t do it. And then the CDC comes out, which is really just an advisory, you know, a branch of, department.
Brittany: No legislative authority at all.
Connor: Right. And so they come out and they issue this imperial decree of like, Hey, excuse me, I said this wrong. This wasn’t about the unemployment, this was about.
Brittany: It was about the CDC evictions, I believe.
Connor: Yeah. It was about evicting people from their homes. And so you have, imagine Brittany, you know, if you owned a home and you rented it to other people, but they couldn’t pay you for like a year. Now the government has been saying you can’t kick those people out, but you yourself, you still have bills to pay. You have to pay the mortgage, but you’re not getting rental income anymore. It’s been this huge problem. And so the Supreme Court said, you know, Government can’t extend this. There’s no power. He can’t do this anymore. CDC went ahead and did it. Why am I saying all this? The point is that President Biden and others are like, well, you know, we’ll let the court, you know, deal with it. They know it’s not constitutional, and yet they do it anyways.
Brittany: He even said it. I believe he even said, it might not be constitutional, but Oh well. Like, it was just a blatant disregard.
Connor: Yeah. And so if the Constitution has been inadequate to prevent these, you know, tyrants from just, you know, decreeing what everyone should do, then, you know, it’s an interesting question right? But as you point out, Brittany, the articles, you know, weren’t perfect in their own way. And so, you know, I think this is an open debate as to how we could improve things to actually restrain the government. But the Articles of Confederation super interesting period of American history so much to learn about ’em. You guys could even go read ’em. Take, some time to read through ’em, and familiarize yourself with some differences between it and the Constitution. You could even go read some of the papers and journals from, colonists and Founding Fathers at the time talking about the pros and the cons, and lots to learn. Lots, lots, lots to learn. So Tuttletwins.com/podcasts. We’ll have a couple of resources for you there about the Articles of Confederation. Make sure you’re subscribed. Thank you guys for listening and sharing the podcast with others. And Brittany, great conversation. Until next time, we’ll talk to you later.
Brittany: Talk to you later.