Politics of the Founding

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The Articles of Confederation

  • passed by the Continental Congress 1777; ratified 1781
  • major characteristics:
    • Each state had one vote in Congress, determined by its delegation of two to seven members (Article V).
    • Minor matters required majority support, but it required nine states' votes in Congress (Article IX, paragraph 6 of 7) to:
      • make war
      • enter into treaties or alliances
      • coin money or regulate its value
      • ascertain expenses for the national defense and welfare
      • borrow money
      • appoint a commander in chief of the army or navy
      • admit a new colony, other than Canada, as a state (Article XI)
    • Taxes for federal expenses were to be raised by state legislatures (Article VIII).
    • "The Union shall be perpetual," and the Articles can be changed only with the assent of every state legislature (Article XIII).
      • compare the language of the Constitution's Amendment Clause (Article V)
        The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress...
  • Great accomplishments: settling states' western land claims; Northwest Ordinance, July 1787. Here's a map.
  • Nagging failures: inability to pay debt, control currency, raise expenses; inability to make coherent policy on trade with Britain.

Revising the Articles

  • Almost from the beginning, there was strong "nationalist" sentiment -- favoring a tax source and increased foreign policy powers for the Confederation Congress. In 1787, 10 or 11 of the state delegations were dominated by nationalists.
  • Feb. 1787: Congress calls for a convention of special state delegates "for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation." Convened in Philadelphia, May 25; adjourned Sept. 17.
  • anti-nationalists were triply under-represented at the Philadelphia convention:
    • The same legislatures that selected the overwhelmingly nationalist delegates to Congress also selected delegates to the convention.
    • Many anti-nationalists who were selected declined; only 6 or 7 who later opposed ratification were present among the initial 55 in attendance.
    • Only 3 of those continued to attend.
  • Congress did not vote on the Constitution itself, but rather just to transmit the convention's report to the states, which it did 28 Sept. 1787 with this letter
  • non-participation of Congress + dissolution of the convention => opponents had virtually nobody with whom to seek compromise: a take-it-or-leave-it choice.

Substantive issues at the Convention and in Ratification

The Ratification Campaign

  • Philadelphia convention proposes Constitution Sept. 17, 1797; Congress transmits Sept. 28

  • The first five ratifiers had strong commercial or security interests:
    • Delaware (Dec 7, 1787)
    • Pennsylvania (Dec 12, 1787): disappearing quorum, mob increased complaints of "illegality"
    • New Jersey (Dec 18, 1787)
    • Georgia (Jan 2, 1788)
    • Connecticut (Jan 9, 1788)
  • Massachusetts (Feb 6, 1788): antifederalist majority outmaneuvered; recommended amendments
  • [ Mar. 1788 RI referendum rejects call for ratifying convention]
  • Maryland (Apr 28, 1788): (easy)
  • South Carolina (May 23, 1788): districted to favor federalists; recommended amendments
  • New Hampshire (Jun 21, 1788): 9th state; antifederalist majority outmaneuvered; recommended amendments
  • Virginia (Jun 25, 1788): slight fedst. majority, hard fight; recommended amendments
  • New York (Jul 26, 1788): antifedst. majority; fait accompli; fedsts. delayed until 10 others had ratified; then threat (incl possible secession of NYC) forced their hand. Post office delayed Va. antifedst. letter proposing second convention. Recommended amendments.
  • [ Aug 2 1788 NC convention passes call for 2nd convention and adjourns ]

  • March 4 1789 new Congress first convenes

  • Nov 21, 1789 second NC convention ratifies
  • Mar 24, 1790 RI finally ratifies

Ratifying and changing the new Constitution: Articles V and VII

This page written by Randall Calvert ©2018