Prelude to the Constitution (Part 2)

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In Part I of this series, I noted two of the federal government’s supposed weaknesses under the Articles of Confederation: its inability to regulate trade among the states and its inability to tax the states. I also noted that the former was indeed a weakness but the latter was not, and that amendments to the Articles of Confederation could have resolved both problems. But, back then — as now — the politically-minded understood that their personal power would flow with the power inherent in being able to tax and regulate.

Leaders like Alexander Hamilton of New York and James Madison of Virginia criticized the limits that the Articles of Confederation placed on the central government.  Supposedly George Washington called the federation “little more than a shadow without substance.” Whether that was true or not, what follows gets interesting:

At James Madison’s mischievous behest, the Virginia Legislature in January 1786 invited all of the states to send delegates to Annapolis, Maryland, to “discuss ways to reduce interstate conflicts.” Only five of the 13 states — New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia — agreed to send delegates to the gathering. Those five states sent a total of just 11 delegates: Egbert Benson and Alexander Hamilton (NY), Abraham Clark, William Houston, and James Schureman (NJ), Tench Coxe (PA), George Read, John Dickinson, and Richard Bassett (DE), Edmund Randolph and James Madison (VA). The delegates “endorsed a motion that called for all of the states to meet in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787 to discuss ways to improve the Articles of Confederation” in what they hyped as a “Grand Convention.”

Rhode Island refused to send any delegates to Philadelphia, and several wise individuals when asked to be delegates — including Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry — declined. In fact, Henry proclaimed that he “smelt a rat.” In any case, when instead of producing an amended version of the Articles of Confederation, the delegates produced an entirely new document, the federal Constitution, only Rhode Island refused to ratify it.

Comparatively, the Articles of Confederation — officially in effect from March 1, 1781, to March 4, 1789 — stood the new sovereign states in quite good stead as each state, and the people, learned the advantages and challenges of community and personal independence while exercising the responsibilities of self-government.

Despite his preference for a strong federal government, Alexander Hamilton perhaps put it best — in a letter to his wife Eliza just two days before his death — when he compared the Articles of Confederation to the Declaration of Independence:

The Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation basically went hand in hand; the Articles empowered Congress to conduct foreign policy and to fight the war while pretty much leaving domestic matters, with a nod toward cooperation, to the states.  While it wasn’t officially adopted until 1781, the Articles provided, in the meantime, a basic framework and operating procedures for nuts and bolts government… for all practical purposes, the country was operated in a way compatible with the Articles of Confederation for a period of fourteen years including the Revolutionary War period.

Part III of this three-part series will appear in mid-September.

Richard Olivastro is president of Olivastro Communications; a professional member of the National Speakers Association; and, founder of Citizens For Change (www.CFC.us). He can be reached via email: RichOlivastro@gmail.com; telephone: 877.RichSpeaks.