The Revolutionary Congress was less a government than an exigency committee. It had no authority save in tacit general consent. Need of an express and permanent league was felt at an early date. Articles of Confederation, framed by Dickinson, of Pennsylvania, were adopted by Congress in November, 1777. They were then submitted to the State Legislatures for ratification. By the spring of 1779 all the States but Maryland had given their approval. Upon the accession of the latter, on March 1, 1781, the articles went into effect at once.
The Confederation bound the States together into a "firm league of friendship" for common defence and welfare, and this "union" was to be "perpetual." Each State retained its "sovereignty" and "independence," as well as every power not "expressly delegated" to the central Government. Inhabitants of each State were entitled to all the privileges of citizens in the several States. Criminals fleeing from one State to another were to be returned.
Congress was composed of delegates chosen annually, each State being represented by not less than two or more than seven. Each State had but one vote, whatever the number of its delegates.
Taxation and the regulation of commerce were reserved to the State Governments. On the other hand, Congress alone could declare peace or war, make treaties, coin money, establish a post-office, deal with Indians outside of the States, direct the army, and appoint generals and naval officers. Many other things affecting all the States alike, Congress alone could do. It was to erect courts for trial of felonies and piracies on the high seas, and appoint judges for the settlement of disputes between the States. It was to make estimates for national expenses, and request of each State its quota of revenue.
To amend the Articles, the votes of the entire thirteen States were demanded. Important lesser measures--such as those regarding war or peace, treaties, coinage, loans, appropriations--required the consent of nine States. Upon other questions a majority was sufficient. A committee, composed of one delegate from each State, was to sit during the recess of Congress, having the general superintendence of national affairs.
The faults of the Confederation were numerous and great. Three outshadowed the rest: Congress could not enforce its will, could not collect a revenue, could not regulate commerce.
Congress could not touch individuals; it must act through the State Governments, and these it had no power to coerce. Five States, for instance, passed laws which violated the treaty provision about payment of British creditors; yet Congress could do nothing but remonstrate. Hence its power to make treaties was almost a nullity. European nations did not wish to treat with a Government that could not enforce its promises.
Congress could make requisition upon the States for revenue, but had no authority to collect a single penny. The States complied or not as they chose. In October, 1781, Congress asked for $8,000,000; in January, 1783, it had received less than half a million. Lack of revenue made the Government continually helpless and often contemptible.
Yet in spite of their looseness and other faults, the adoption of the Articles of Confederation was a forward step in American public law. Their greatest value was this: they helped to keep before the States the thought of union, while at the same time, by their very inefficiency, they proved the need of a stronger government to make union something more than a thought. The years immediately after the war were an extremely critical period. The colonies had indeed passed through the Red Sea, but the wilderness still lay before them. The great danger which had driven them into union being past, State pride and jealousy broke out afresh. "My State," not "my country," was the foremost thought in most minds. There was serious danger that each State would go its own way, and firm union come, if at all, only after years of weakness and disaster, if not of war. The unfriendly nations of Europe were eagerly anticipating such result. At this juncture the Articles of Confederation, framed during the war when union was felt to be imperative, did invaluable service. They solemnly committed the States to perpetual union. Their provisions for extradition of criminals and for inter-State citizenship helped to break down the barriers between State and State. Congress, by discharging its various duties on behalf of all the States, kept steadily before the public mind the idea of a national government, armed with at least a semblance of authority.
[Illustration: Coin.] The Franklin Penny. "United States" "We Are One" "Fugio" "1787" "Mind Your Business"
The war had cost about $150,000,000. In 1783 the debt was $42,000,000--$8,000,000 owed in France and Holland, and the rest at home. The States contributed in so niggardly a way that even the interest could not be paid. Five millions were owing to the army. Deep and ominous discontent spread among officers and men. An obscure colonel, supposed to be the agent of more prominent men, wrote to Washington, advocating a monarchy as the only salvation for the country, and inviting him to become king. In the spring of 1783 an anonymous address, of menacing tone, was circulated in the army, calling upon it for measures to force its rights from an ungrateful country.
That the army disbanded quietly at last, with only three months' pay, in certificates depreciated nine-tenths, was due almost wholly to the boundless influence of Washington. How powerless the Government would have been to resist an uprising of the army, was shown by a humiliating incident. In June, 1783, a handful of Pennsylvania troops, clamoring for their pay, besieged the doors of Congress, and that august body had to take refuge in precipitate flight.
The country suffered greatly for lack of uniform commercial laws. So long as each State laid its own imposts, and goods free of duty in one State might be practically excluded from another, Congress could negotiate no valuable treaties of commerce abroad.
The chief immediate distress was from this wretchedness of our commercial relations, whether foreign or between the States at home. If our fathers would be independent, king and parliament were determined to make them pay dearly for the privilege. Accordingly Great Britain laid tariffs upon all our exports thither. What was much harder to bear, an order of the king in council, July 2, 1783, utterly forbade American ships to engage in that British West-Indian trade which had always been a chief source of our wealth. The sole remedy for these abuses in dealing with England at that time was retaliation, but Congress had no authority to take retaliatory steps, while the separate States could not or would not act sufficiently in harmony to do so. If one imposed customs duties, another would open wide its ports, filling the markets of the first with British goods by overland trade, so that the customs law of the first availed nothing. If Pennsylvania and New York laid tariffs on foreign commodities, New Jersey and Connecticut people, in buying imported articles from Philadelphia or New York, were paying taxes to those greater States. North Carolina was in the same manner a forced tributary to South Carolina and Virginia, as were portions of Connecticut and Massachusetts to Rhode Island.
[Illustration: Coin.] Dollar of 1794. The First United States Coin. "Liberty" "1794" "United States of America"
We also needed a complete system of courts, departments for foreign and Indian affairs, and an efficient executive. The single vote for each State was unfair, allowing one-third of the people to defeat the will of the rest. The article requiring the consent of nine States made it almost impossible to get important measures through Congress. Delegates should not have been paid by their respective States. In consequence of this provision, coupled with other things, Congress decreased in numbers and importance. In November, 1783, less than twenty delegates were present, representing but seven States, and Congress had to appeal to the recreant States to send back their representatives before the treaty of peace could be ratified.
But the one grand defect of the Confederation, underlying all others, was lack of power. The Government was an engine without steam. The States, just escaped from the tyranny of a king, would brook no new authority strong enough to endanger their liberties. The result was a thin ghost of a government set in charge over a lot of lusty flesh-and-blood States.
The Confederation, however, did one piece of solid work worthy of everlasting praise. The Northwest Territory, embracing what is now Ohio, Indiana. Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, had been ceded to the Union by the States which originally claimed it. July 13, 1787, Congress adopted for the government of the territory the famous Ordinance of 1787. It provided for a governor, council, and judges, to be appointed by Congress, and a house of representatives elected by the people. Its shining excellence was a series of compacts between the States and the territory, which guaranteed religious liberty, made grants of land and other liberal provisions for schools and colleges, and forever prohibited slavery in the territory or the States which should be made out of it. Thus were laid broad and deep the foundation for the full and free development of humanity in a region larger than the whole German Empire.
The passing of the Ordinance was probably due in large measure to the influence of the Ohio Company, a colonist society organized in Boston the year before. It was composed of the flower of the Revolutionary army, and had wealth, energy, and intelligence. When its agent appeared before Congress to arrange for the purchase of five million acres of land in the Ohio Valley, a bill for the government of the territory, containing neither the antislavery clause nor the immortal principles of the compacts, was on the eve of passage. The Company, composed mostly of Massachusetts men, strongly desired their future home to be upon free soil. Their influence prevailed with Congress, eager for revenue from the sale of lands, and even the Southern members voted unanimously for the remodelled ordinance. The establishment of a strong and enlightened government in the territory led to its rapid settlement. Marietta, 0., was founded in April, 1788, and other colonies followed in rapid succession.