Deficiencies of the Confederation



Prominent among the problems of postrevolutionary America were the deficiencies of its fundamental charter, the Articles of Confederation. And yet, many of the problems of the day would have been acute no matter what the government, given the situation of the United States: a new nation, possessed of a vast but sparsely populated territory, burdened with foreign and domestic debt, its commerce disrupted by a protracted war. The population stretched over a long, thin littoral, surrounded on three sides by resentful neighbors or suspicious powers, separated within its borders by physical barriers to travel and easy communication as well as by long-standing feelings of localism and deeply different ways of life. All this boded weakness and disunion. Some might dream of America cutting a figure in world affairs, but the immediate realities pointed in quite another direction.

Beyond these difficulties inherent in the situation loomed a further range of problems attributable to, or at least exacerbated by, the government of the Confederation. There seemed to be no prospect of coping with the war debts that were overwhelming both nation and states; the British could not be compelled to honor their agreement under the Treaty of Paris to vacate the western forts; the western settlers increasingly felt they owed little to a government that could guarantee the security neither of their person nor of their trade routes. Ultimately a new government, formed on different principles than those of the Articles of Confederation, would come to cope with these problems.

In stressing the defects of the Confederation and in ignoring its substantial achievements (carrying the war for independence through to victory, forming a diplomatic corps of genuine distinction, providing for the orderly organization and incorporation of a vast public domain), we notice those sources of discontent that contemporaries traced to the Articles themselves. The movement to amend and finally to replace the Articles grew out of a clear conviction that the fault lay not in the stars but in themselves. The political undertaking consisted in making that realization prevalent and, above all, in not letting people evade the imperatives for action implicit in it. The managers of the movement for a new government thus had to contend with every passion and cause that might make men loath to overturn existing structures: familiarity, caution, timidity, indifference, mistaken confidence, present interest, future hope. Further, they had both to convince a nationally distributed majority that the distempers of the time were indeed systemic disorders and to keep that majority energized with the bracing thought that they were living through not merely awkward or bad times but critical ones. The pressing question, they argued, concerned not the daily balance sheet--how good or bad are things at the moment?--but rather the whole movement or tendency of political affairs. There is a cumulative momentum in bad governance: things go from bad to worse to worst, from Shaysite disorders and the disregard of Congressional requisitions to recourse ultimately to antirepublican measures and disunion. The proper remedy, once adopted, would develop its own cumulative momentum, restoring tranquility and prosperity at home and honor to the republican cause.

The materials drawn from a decade of complaint, politicking, and agitation do not purport to be a full account of even the major forces at work. Thus the deep divisions over the national assumption of state debts, the bitter rivalry over claims to western lands and their development, the mutual suspicions and fears entertained by the staple-producing South and the mercantile Northeast, are barely hinted at though they carried certain implications for the organization and powers of government. The debate focused on larger and more general questions: How much of a central government was needed for the United States of America? Supposing the Confederation fell short of that need, how much of a change was required to render it "adequate to the exigencies of the Union"?

The most energetic and unremitting critic of the Articles was Alexander Hamilton. His letter to Governor Clinton (no. 1), written while he was still in his early twenties, was part of a sustained effort to raise the Confederation's tone, vigor, and powers. His early criticism of the quality of representation in Congress conceded, while lamenting, the precedence of state over nation. Hamilton might view it as "a most pernicious mistake," but each state did in fact prefer "to promote its own internal government and prosperity" and, to do so, "selected the best members to fill the offices within itself, and conduct its own affairs." When Jefferson--no provincial--spoke of "my country," he referred as a matter of course to Virginia, and in this he was hardly alone. Constitution-making, revisal of laws, governance--all at the state level--called forth the energies and concerns of the ablest, and at times left Congress (as Washington all but said out loud) trivial and contemptible (Letter to George Mason, 27 Mar. 1779). By 1780 Hamilton's criticism took in the very premises of the Articles (no. 2). The problems of the Confederation were owing not merely to small men thinking small thoughts. The defects were radical, and effective remedies could not be less so. In this context the pleas of the man responsible for the financial affairs of the nation bespoke utter desperation and pathos: Robert Morris was equally short of indispensable information and of money, and could barely believe that even the plainest talk would get him either (no. 3). Two years later he could write, without satisfaction, of exhausted American credit: "The thing has happened which was expected" (no. 7).

Meanwhile, Congress wrestled with contending anxieties, its sense of urgency quickened by the audible stirrings of an armed, unpaid, and under-occupied officer corps. (See the Newburgh Resolves and the matters leading up to them in Journals 24:295--314.) How far ought the federal principles underlying the Confederation to be altered to secure a more adequate and reliable revenue? Could it be done without subverting "the fundamental principles of liberty" (nos. 5, 6)? Congress's inability to cope with large matters and small persuaded nationalists that change was overdue, and even those with the deepest misgivings concerning nationalist intentions acknowledged something should be done. Yet Richard Henry Lee feared being hastened into ill-considered measures more dangerous than the distempers they were to cure (no. 8). Similar misgivings were detailed in letters written by Massachusetts' delegates to the Continental Congress in response to the resolutions of the state legislature calling for a convention to recommend revision of the Articles. Prudence dictated making enlargement of Congressional power only temporary especially in view of the difficulty of amending the Articles. Then, too, a general convention might well be the occasion for frustrated aristocrats to do their worst. Caution was the byword. (Massachusetts Delegates to Gov. James Bowdoin, 3 Sept. 1785; Nathan Dane to Rufus King, 8 Oct. 1785.)

Such hesitation and misgiving struck Washington as inexplicable. America's dependence on commerce with foreign nations was by now hardly a matter for speculative inquiry. The urgent business at hand was to set that commerce right with a single, just national policy. Anything hindering that development betrayed America's fondest hopes and brightest prospects (nos. 9, 11). William Grayson of the Virginia delegation saw part of the problem, but was less sure than Washington of the appropriate remedy (Letter to James Madison, 22 Mar. 1786); Rufus King, writing to his partner in the previous year's rejection of the Massachusetts resolutions, saw the deteriorating situation with a new urgency (no. 10). Yet when Congress attempted to address directly the problems of nonuniform commercial policies, nonpayment of state quotas, insufficient sources of national revenue, and nonattendance by state delegates, its proposed amendments to the Articles could never even be brought to a vote (no. 12). Five weeks later the Annapolis convention set in motion the campaign for a fuller and more ambitious convention.

That campaign was much helped by the agitation over paper money in New Jersey and Rhode Island and especially by the fright occasioned by Shays's rebellion in western Massachusetts (nos. 13, 14). But it still was easier to see that something had to be done than to know what to do (no. 15). The partition of the country into separate confederacies was bruited about, and even monarchy was hinted at. Madison found "men of reflection much less sanguine as to a new than despondent as to the present System" (Letter to Edmund Pendleton, 24 Feb. 1787). But being the kind of man he was, Madison addressed in his mind the subject of the forthcoming convention and tried to think clearly, calmly, and as he confessed to Washington (see ch. 8, no. 6) radically about the "Vices of the Political system of the U. States." His memorandum bearing that name (no. 16) is a distillation of close observation and trenchant analysis. By the time Madison was sitting in Philadelphia waiting for the other Convention delegates to assemble, he had done his homework well.

Those on the outside looking on (although unable to look in) were of divided minds about what the Convention might do and about what needed remedying. Richard Henry Lee still worried about flying from one extreme to the next in undertaking reforms. Moreover, it seemed to him, impatience had come to attribute to failures of governmental structure what really was owing to "vicious manners" (no. 18). It was unrealistic to expect those neglectful of their duties under one form of government to be scrupulous about them under another. But at the same time Lee saw fit to propose some structural reforms--an exclusive power in Congress over paper money, a general supremacy over state legislation--which "would be a great step towards correcting morals." Edward Carrington traced the "nefarious Acts of State Governments" to something other than "the natural dispositions of the people." A profoundly faulty system had produced "disgust and apathy throughout"; seducers of the people and traducers of the facts worked upon a credulous public, unchallenged by men of integrity (no. 19). Jefferson responded cautiously from Paris; in general, he thought, the defects of the Confederation being limited and specific, the remedial changes ought to be commensurate (no. 20).

These fundamentally different orientations persisted when the handiwork of the Convention came under public scrutiny and debate. The Federal Farmer deplored the skewed vision and exaggerated expectations that had led people to magnify "extravagantly" the Confederation's defects and attribute to the system what were "merely the consequences of a severe and tedious war" (no. 25). Centinel, too, saw no reason to charge the natural consequences of private extravagance to a lack of energy in government (no. 24). All in all, the Anti-Federalist critics were willing to concede weaknesses in parts of the existing structure, but not a fundamental viciousness in the entire system (no. 27). The depictions of crisis were overwrought, a "gilded bait" (as Centinel put it), given the lie by the actual condition of the people (Plebeian, no. 26). There can be no doubt that the Federalist's famous characterization of life under the Articles--"almost the last stage of national humiliation"--was "high-wrought" if not overwrought. Hamilton's decade of frustration had exploded in an attack marked by audacity, persistence, overwhelming rhetorical power, and a ready command of every weapon at hand (nos. 21, 22, 23). Next to this bravura performance, John Jay's Address to the people of New York might seem like tepid stuff. His condemnation of the vices of the Confederation, however, was no less damning, though subdued in tone. Inexperience--"an amiable mistake"--and a general preoccupation with private and local matters had led to a "new and wonderful system of government" that now (Spring 1788) had left "almost every national object of every kind . . . unprovided for." Americans needed only to take note of their painfully acquired experience. And that, apparently, was what they did (no. 28).

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 5, Introduction
The University of Chicago Press

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