The Articles of Confederation – Becoming the United States – Extra History – #1
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The Articles of Confederation – Becoming the United States – Extra History – #1


The United States Constitution created a republic that has lasted for well over 200 years, but it was not the first national government of the United States of America. That distinction goes to the short-lived Articles of Confederation, without which the Constitution as it exists today might never have been formed. [Music] The British Parliament had just about had it with their American colonists. First they ran up enormous debts fighting the French, which, …respectable enough, I guess, but they now refused to pay the taxes that would fund it, and they even had the gall to argue that Parliament had no right to issue taxes to them at all, and now some radicals in Boston had ruined an entire shipment of taxable goods in a shocking disregard for tea. Parliament weighed their options and decided to take a risk. They would punish Boston and the entire colony of Massachusetts, making an example of them to warn other colonies against taking similar rebel actions. They shut down Boston Harbor And revoked the Massachusetts colony the right to govern itself. But there was a problem with Parliament’s carefully considered, surgically precise retaliation. It sucked. After all, there were still many Americans who were still loyal to the crown. Their loyalty sprang not from a fear of punishment, but from a genuine and even patriotic belief that the British government was the best government on Earth because it guaranteed representation and rights and all these wonderful things that Parliament had just deemed necessary to strip away. But the radicals and Loyalists were united in one belief: that a display of American unity would help Parliament and King George III reconsider the justice of these acts and repeal them. Delegates of the colonies convened at a Continental Congress in 1774 to draft a nice, thoughtful letter explaining their objections and asking Parliament to kindly repeal these laws. By the end of the week, though, what had originally been intended as a gentle letter of friendship had transformed into an open rebuke and a vow to embargo British goods. Many of the delegates cheered this display of resolve. One, shouting to be heard above the cheers warned that this act would be a declaration of war. Nobody listened. They were too busy congratulating themselves on the inevitable capitulation of Great Britain. But just in case, they did agree to reconvene in half a year if Parliament didn’t meet their demands. Half a year later, shots had been fired, and the American Revolutionary war was underway. So the Continental Congress met again. Despite everything that had happened, those who had been loyal to the crown still held out hope for peace. They decided to write another letter, because that first one had just worked out so well. But this time, they would write directly to the king and promised that they were still loyal and totally understood that his bad ministers had led him astray. King George refused to even read this letter and declared all the colonies to be in open rebellion. So 0 for 2 on the letter thing. It didn’t help at the same time Congress had been drafting this petition for peace, they had also mustered a Continental army, appointed a general by the name of George Washington, and had begun to organize armed resistance. Many Loyalists saw this as a necessary act of self defense, but radicals saw it as the first step towards American independence. The idea of independence had begun to gain popularity, but the delegates of the Continental Congress could not act on it. Not only did many hope to still reconcile with Great Britain, but they also had to answer to the governments in their home colonies, and their governments said absolutely not, nope, do not even think of declaring independence. Once again, the time was ripe for a thoughtful, strategic intervention by British Parliament. And once again, they did not miss the opportunity. They announced a blockade of all thirteen colonies and effectively expelled them from the Empire. The last hope for reconciliation was snuffed out. The colonies stopped being colonies, and instead became self-governing states. They threw out their old system of government and the Loyalists who ran them, and wrote new state constitutions. Their delegates at the Continental Congress received new instructions: please, yes, do declare independence now. Heck, Rhode Island got so excited, it declared itself an independent nation before anybody else could. Swept up in the enthusiasm of nation-building, in the summer of 1776, the Continental Congress resolved to declare independence, seek foreign allies, and write a constitution. Ideas for a constitution that brought the colonies together in an alliance had been floating around for decades, but the most influential model had come from Benjamin Franklin, a philosopher, statesman, and hobby kite enthusiast Franklin had become fascinated with the Haudenosaunee, Native American peoples who had formed a confederacy of six nations. Their leader saw an echo of his own peoples’ divided past in the British colonies and urged them to form a confederacy of their own. This idea had sparked Franklin’s immense curiousity. He embarked on a study of the Haudenosaunee confederacy, European models of government, and even colonial alliances from the early days of settlement. In 1754, he had met from delegates from other colonies and laid out his plan of union. It synthesized elements of governments he’d studied into a uniquely American vision. The delegates enthusiastically adopted it. They brought it home to their governments, and their governments, just as enthusiastically, threw it out. The colonies had wanted to be able to determine their own fate, at least as far as Parliament would let them. Franklin’s plan asked them to give up some of their political power to a central legislature, which would control their foreign affairs, creating yet another unwanted layer of supervision to get in their way. No, thank you. But Franklin continued working on this plan. When he joined the second Continental Congress in 1775, he revised it and presented it as a plan for how this multi-state Congress should be organized. They had basically been winging it for the last year, coasting off of popular approval and the indulgence of the colonies, but they had no official grant of authority. Franklin hoped to fix that, but he had acted just a bit too early. The independence movement needed about another year to warm up to the idea of a constitution. So his proposal was pushed aside again. Okay, so fast-forward to where we were at the beginning of 1776. At last, the pendulum is swinging in favor of a constitution to spell out the rights and the responsibilities of the Continental Congress. An unlikely man takes the helm: John Dickinson, who has been a vocal Loyalist, staunchly opposed to both independence and revolution. Yet he has led the way for both of them: his newspaper articles about the need to resist British taxation through nonviolent boycott had shaped the early stages of colonial resistance, and since then, he’s authored so many documents on behalf of the Congress, that he’ll later be known as the “penman of the Revolution.” Dickinson fears that the states aren’t yet ready to govern themselves without the protections of British law. Seeing many of his fellow delegates argue for independence before they even have a constitution only makes him more convinced that they haven’t thought through what independence requires. So he volunteers to lead the committee to draft the constitution and get things started right. He blows the dust off of Benjamin Franklin’s plan and takes the name from the top of the page: Articles of Confederation. But this country needs a better name than the United Colonies of North America. They’re not colonies anymore, they’re states. How about the United States of America? Over the next few weeks, Dickinson leads the creation of a new constitution and updates Franklin’s work with his own ideas. He replaces the backbone of British law with a central legislature with authority over the states. He guarantees civil rights at the national level, and restricts foreign policy decisions to his new confederation Congress. He’s almost ready to submit his final draft when the moment he feared so much arrives. The Declaration of Independence is ready to go, and Congress must vote on whether or not to sign it. Dickinson does his best to block the vote, arguing that the states must ratify a constitution first. How can they declare independence when they don’t even have a national government? The other delegates scoff at this idea. They don’t need a national government. The states have been doing just fine on their own. Just as Franklin found 20 years earlier, the states still do not want to give up their power to a central legislature. After all, the whole point of this revolution was to get rid of British Parliament, why would they rush to put some other power in its place? The vote for independence goes to the floor. Everybody except Dickinson votes yes. He can’t vote yes in good conscience, and he won’t vote no to undermine the unanimous support from the other delegates. Instead, he resigns from Congress, his reputation in ruins, and he goes to serve in the war. Without Dickinson to defend it, the Articles of Confederation he drafted gets torn to pieces. The strong central legislature he proposed gets demoted to an advisory board. Civil rights protections disappear. This Congress has no power over the states and has to trust them to fund it voluntarily. Congress does get to keep the powers to make foreign treaties, but it’ll have no way to enforce them. It is this version of the Articles of Confederation, so different from what Dickinson wrote over a year ago that finally gets sent to the states for ratification. And even that will prove much more difficult than what is expected.

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