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Parent Category: 18th Century History Articles
Category: American Revolution
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As early as the year 1774, the colonies united in the plan of a congress, to be composed of delegates chosen in all the colonies, for the purpose of consulting on the common good and of adopting measures of resistance to the claims of the British government. The first great continental congress met on the 4th of September, 1774. Another congress assembled in May, 1775. This congress adopted sundry measures having reference to war, and finally made the declaration of independence, July 4th, 1776. The continental congress, the members of which were chosen by the state legislatures, conducted the affairs of the nation until near the close of the war.

§2. With a view to a permanent union of the colonies under a general government, the congress, in November, 1777, agreed upon a frame of government, contained in certain articles, called, "Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the States." These articles were to go into effect when they should have received the assent of all the states. But as the consent of the last state (Maryland) was not obtained until March, 1781, they went into operation only about two years before the close of the war.

§3. As a plan of national government, the confederation was soon found to be very defective. The union formed under it was a very imperfect one. Having been framed in time of war, it had respect to the operations of war rather than to a state of peace. Although it answered some good purpose in carrying on the war, it was not well adapted oven to the condition of the country then existing. Its defects appeared almost as soon as it went into effect; and after the return of peace, it was found that the union, instead of being strengthened and perpetuated by it, could be preserved only by a radical change in the system of government.

§4. The leading defect of the confederation was its weakness. Congress could do little more than to recommend measures. As it could not legislate directly upon persons, its measures were to be carried into effect by the states; but the states were not in all cases willing, and some of them did at times refuse to do so, and congress could not compel them. It belonged to congress to determine the number of troops and the sums of money necessary to carry on the war, and to call on each state to raise its share; but congress could not enforce its demands. It borrowed money in its own name, but it had not the means of paying it. It had no power to lay and collect taxes; this power was reserved to the states.

§5. Hence we see that congress was dependent for every thing upon the good will of thirteen independent states. It is a wonder that a government of such inherent weakness should bring the war to a successful issue. It was a sense of danger from abroad, rather than any power in the government, that induced a sufficient compliance with the ordinances of congress to achieve the independence of the states.

§6. On the restoration of peace, new difficulties arose. We have already spoken of the want of power in congress to lay and collect taxes for war purposes. Money was now wanted to discharge the public debt, and to pay the current expenses of the government; yet congress had no power to raise it, either by a _direct tax_ upon the persons or property of the citizens, or _indirectly_ by duties on goods imported, as at present under the constitution. The power to lay and collect duties was with the states; but it was of little use so long as each state could impose such duties as it chose. The states being unable to agree upon a uniform rate of duties, the goods would be imported into states which levied the lowest duties. It was expedient, if it had been possible, to borrow more money on the credit of the union, as the heavy debt contracted during the war remained unpaid, and congress had no means of paying it.

§7. But the inability to raise money was not the only difficulty that attended the want of power by congress to lay duties. This power was necessary also to regulate the foreign trade. We have already remarked, that it was the policy of Great Britain before the revolution to secure in the colonies a market for her manufactures. (Chap. XXVI.) Not only so; she had by her navigation acts, for more than a hundred years, imposed heavy duties upon foreign vessels coming into her ports, in order to secure the carrying trade to her own shipping. In addition to this, she also levied high duties upon the produce of the states sent to pay for the goods we were obliged to buy of her, our own people not having as yet the means, nor having had time, to establish manufactories, and to manufacture for themselves.

§8. Another of the numerous troubles which arose from this imperfect union was the want of peace and harmony between the states. Laws were enacted in some states with a view to their own interests, which operated injuriously upon other states. This induced the latter states to retaliate, by passing laws partial to themselves and injurious to the former. The states soon became disaffected toward each other; and their mutual jealousies and rivalries and animosities at length became so great as to cause fears that some of the states would become involved in war among themselves, and that the union would be broken up.

§9. In the hope of remedying the difficulty last mentioned, an attempt was made to procure the insertion, into the articles of confederation, of a provision giving to congress the power to regulate trade; but the attempt failed. In January, 1786, the legislature of Virginia proposed a convention of commissioners from all the states, to take into consideration the situation and trade of the United States, and the necessity of a uniform system of commercial regulations.

§10. A meeting was accordingly held at Annapolis, in September, 1786; but as commissioners from only five states attended, viz., New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia, the commissioners deemed it unadvisable to proceed to business relating to an object in which all the states were concerned; but they united in a report to the several states and to congress, in which they recommended the calling of a general convention of delegates from all the states, to meet in Philadelphia on the 2d Monday of May, 1787, with a view not only to the regulation of commerce, but to such other amendments of the articles of confederation as were necessary to render them "adequate to the exigencies of the union."

§11. In pursuance of this recommendation, congress, in February, 1787, passed a resolution for assembling a convention. All the states, except Rhode Island, appointed delegates, who met pursuant to appointment; and framed the present constitution of the United States. They also recommended it to be laid by congress before the several states, to be by them considered and ratified in conventions of representatives of the people. Conventions were accordingly called for this purpose in all the states, except Rhode Island, and the constitution was ratified by all of them in which conventions had been called, except North Carolina.

§12. The constitution was to go into effect if ratified by nine states. The ninth state, New Hampshire, sent its ratification to congress in July, 1788; and measures were taken by congress to put the new constitution into operation. Ratifications were received from North Carolina and Rhode Island the year after the organization of the new government.