The Articles of Confederation – Historical Interpretations
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The Articles of Confederation – Historical Interpretations


Discussions around ways of bringing the colonies
together occurred on the eve of the Declaration of Independence. In June 1776 a small group from within the
Second Continental Congress were commissioned to draft a constitution for the new nation. The committee had one person from each of
the 13 colonies/states, however, the Committee left much of the writing to John Dickinson. By 12 July 1776 Dickinson had produced a draft
of the Articles of Confederation which was finally passed by Congress in November 1777. As we know the Articles would not be ratified
by the States until March 1781. The Articles of Confederation were famously
upheld as establishing a “firm league of friendship” for the newly United States. The ways in which the significance of the
Articles of Confederation has been interpreted by historians highlights the significance
of this step on the road to creating a new nation. Gordon Wood emphasises that “the creation
of the articles of Confederation sparked no extensive exploration into the problems of
politics”; this was possibly a result of the fact that the newly created states did
need to find a way to co-operate as they fought for their independence against the British. This notion of the support for a document
to secure the relationship of the states is echoed in the interpretation by Merrill Jensen
who asserts that the “Articles of Confederation were not characterized by chaos and increasingly
bad economic times . . . rather the articles provided themselves to be a perfectly viable
structure for a free society, encouraging trade prosperity and adherence to the highest
ideal . . . “. Clearly from this view, Jensen believes that the Articles were inspired by
ideas and ideals that sought to provide a political system where the tyranny the Americans
believed that they had experienced under Britain could not occur again. According to historian Charles Beard, the
defects or problems that did exist in the Articles of Confederation “were not the
serious menace to the social fabric which the loud complaints of advocates of change
implied.” What Beard does highlight, is that some of
the concerns about the powers of a central congress that emerged during the establishment
and ratification of the Articles of Confederation were to remain a feature of debate in the
political system of America until 1789. According to Edmund Morgan, “the Articles
of Confederation . . . assigned what appeared to be a formidable list of powers to the Congress
. . . though these powers when set forth in black and white looked imposing, they hardly
merited any alarm over states’ or popular liberty; for they were actually no more than
Congress had been exercising on a de facto basis since independence, and the states had
nevertheless grown steadily stronger and popular liberties more extensive. . . . under the Articles of Confederation
the achievements of the United States were impressive. When the Articles of Confederation were adopted,
the country was at war for its existence. When they were abandoned, the war had been
won, peace had been concluded on favorable terms, a postwar depression had been weathered
successfully, and both population and national income was increasing . . . “. This somewhat
celebratory interpretation of the achievements of the Articles of Confederation by Edmund
Morgan does stand in contrast to the historical perspective of the Articles voiced by George
Washington after the war of independence when he stated in 1784 that in his mind, the Articles
of Confederation was a “half-starved limping government”. But what must be conceded is that they did
see the new United States through a war against Britain

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