Why the Articles of Confederation Were Actually a Success
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Why the Articles of Confederation Were Actually a Success

[ Music ]>>Paul A. Gilje: First lecture
today I’m going to talk to you about — it’s really a question. Actually, both lectures are
set up as sort of questions. So the first question
is, “The Articles of Confederation:
Success or Failure?” Let me begin by reminding
you what the Articles of Confederation are; or were. The Articles of Confederation
were — well I should change
that phrase, have been considered
sort of the first form of government of
the United States. They were written in 1776, and that year is extremely
important for lots of reasons. They were written in 1776,
and have often been criticized as being — as creating a weak
and ineffectual government, and therefore have often
been portrayed as a failure. I, however, am going to
argue somewhat differently. I am going to suggest to you
that they were a success, that they succeeded in doing that which they were
written to do. I mean, so after talking we
have to think a little bit about how — what were people — what were the revolutionaries
thinking, what was in the revolutionaries’
mind in that crucial year, 1776 when the Articles of
Confederation are written. And remember, that the
Constitution is written 11 years later in 1787, ratified
in 1788 and put into place at that point. So it’s really I want to focus in on the Articles
of Confederation. In 1776 the revolutionaries
had a problem. There was a war. No one had anticipated this war. We look at this war
as inevitable today, but no one in 1774 when the
first continental Congress had met had anticipated
that the series of resistance measures
taken by Americans against British imperial
measures would lead to a war. And yet as of April
19th, 1775, a war began. When the second continental
Congress meets in May 1775, they inherit this war. And what was originally sort
of a group of representatives from different colonies who
had gotten together to sort of coordinate a resistance
movement, now had to sort of decide what they
were going to become; should they become a government,
should they become, you know, some sort of alliance,
should they become, you know, it wasn’t clear what
they were to become. You have to remember that
any given moment in history, just like in our
moment of history now, you don’t know what’s going
to happen in the future. And they were looking into the
future and they did not know where this resistance
movement was going to lead. Well, they go —
let’s say they sort of adopt the continental
army in June 1775, they begin to take measures
acting like a government, and yet they have
no sort of document that binds them together. So in 1776 — in
the summer of 1776, they decide to do a
number of different things. One, they decide — and
you probably know this, they decide to declare
independence. Two, they decide to formally
reach out and try to gain allies in their conflict
with Great Britain. And three, they create
a form of government. So let’s think about
it for a second, about what’s in their mind. To the revolutionaries who
wanted as they created this form of government to
create a republic, could not imagine a
republic, you know, comprehending a large
geographical area, a fundamental premise
of every revolutionary, a fundamental premise of every
American, a fundamental premise of every sort of British person
who thought about republics was as follows: the more power
government has the less liberty the people have, and the
more liberty the people have, the less power of government. And if you had a large
state, a large government, comprehending a huge
geographical area, including millions of people
in order to rule that area, you needed to have a
powerful government. And if your aim is to protect
the liberty of the people, then when you’re protecting
the liberty of people, you have to make sure that the
government isn’t too powerful. So you have to understand
that relationship, the more power government has, the less liberty
the people have; the more liberty
the people have, the less power of government. You have to understand that
fundamental relationship in order to understand where these revolutionaries
were coming from when they began to sort of draw together a
document that would bind them to each other in
fighting the British. You have to remember the moment, the moment is the
summer of 1776. And we look at the summer
of 1776 and we think of the highlight of that
summer is the creation of the Declaration
of Independence, which we date on July 4th, 1776. And that document, if you take
a careful look at that document, that document has
one key message. Well, several messages,
but one sort of fundamental principle
underpinning it, that is that the power of
government in the guise of the power of King George
III had usurped the liberty of the people. And because of that
usurpation, it was necessary from the revolutionaries’ point
of view to declare independence. That mindset is crucial
as we begin to take a look at what the Articles of
Confederation, you know, what was the intention behind
the Articles of Confederation, the first sort of quasigovernment
that we consider. So I’m going to spend a
few minutes now talking about why they were written — the Articles were
written the way they were. And we can talk about this
by looking at the provisions. One of the key provisions was
is that really that the Articles of Confederation looked at
the states as separate states. The name of our country today
is “United States of America.” That plural is a
very interesting — an often overlooked piece
of information related to the name of our country. It’s not called the
“United State,” it’s called “United States,”
and one of the key elements of the Articles of Provision
was asserting the sovereignty of the states; of
each individual state. Let me read to you that passage. “Each state reigns — ” or excuse me, “Each state
retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every
power, jurisdiction and right, which is not by this
Confederation expressly delegated to the United States
and Congress assembled.” In other words, each state is a
sovereign independent country. Well, then what was this thing
the Articles of Confederation? You notice — if you’ve listen to my language carefully
you would notice I called it “a quasi form of government.” I’ve said things like, “Well, we view it as the first
form of government.” But it’s really in many
ways not a government. In many ways it was an alliance. It was an alliance. Again, I will read
to you a passage from the Articles
of Confederation. Article III, “The said
states hereby severally enter into a firm league, a
friendship with each other for their common defense, the
security of their liberties, and the mutual and general
welfare, binding themselves to assist each other
against all force offered to or tax made upon them, or any
of them, on account of religion, sovereignty trade, or any
other pretense whatsoever.” A solemn league; it’s a league of states binding
themselves to each other. That’s the intent. That’s the intent. We assume they were trying to
create a form of government because eventually
a more powerful, more centralized
government does emerge from the American Revolution. But that’s our assumptions. That’s just our assumptions
built on the knowledge of what happened
in 1787 and 1788. That’s our assumptions
built upon the knowledge of what happens in the
next 200 plus years. They’re looking at it and they’re deathly
afraid of creating power. They’re deathly afraid
of usurping the liberty. And yet they have
to create a vehicle, they have to create an agency
that’s going to enable them to combat the most
powerful nation on earth. And that is what the Articles
of Confederation are about. So my question, then,
were they successful? And the answer on one
level is quite simple. And I will answer it by first
asking another question. Who won the American Revolution? [Laughter] Did the British
win the American Revolution; no, the revolutionaries. Were the revolutionaries
successful in getting foreign aid? Yes. So if we ask this question,
“Well, were the Articles of Confederation successful?” The answer is they did what
they were supposed to do. They bound these states together
without creating too much power. They bound these states
together to gain allies. They bound these states
together to win a war. And the fact that they
became somewhat invisible, that this league became somewhat
invisible after the war, well that is not
such a big deal. There 2 or 3 other points
I would like to make in this short little
lecture to get you to think about this period
somewhat differently. They were successful in
other things as well. In particular, there were
actually 3 documents created in the summer of 1776. I’ve talked about 2 documents, the ones that we know the most
about, the one we know the most about as we, the American
people, know the most about the Declaration
of Independence. We, the American people,
know the second most about the Articles
of Confederation. The third was a document
which was intended to create a model
treaty, sometimes referred to as the Model Treaty, sometimes considered
the Plan of Treaties. And this was the American effort
to reach out to other nations. And the crucial element of
this treaty was the concept of free trade, of
reducing trade barriers between different countries
and different nations. The United States gave this plan
of treaty to Benjamin Franklin, sent him off to Paris
to get this treaty, and of course he
didn’t get that treaty. Instead he got a
binding alliance, and a limited commercial treaty. But this was the way
they envisioned things, and often historians look at
this and say, “Well, you know, these visionaries, they try to
create this free trade world, and they were unsuccessful.” Not entirely; because the
Articles of Confederation — if you think of these different
states, New York, Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina as
actual separate countries, the Articles of Confederation
create a free-trade zone, enabling people to take property
from one state to another with the same rights
and privileges. Now, that’s the phrase
[inaudible] use, the same rights and privileges that every
individual in each state had. In other words, it successfully
sets up a free-trade zone. So to return to my sort of
fundamental first question, “Were the Articles — ” and
notice I force myself here to use the plural, not was the
Article, “Were the Articles of Confederation a success?” And the answer if you look
and ask yourself what was in their heads — not
what’s in our heads, not what our assumptions are,
but what was in their heads? If you ask yourselves,
“Where the Articles of Confederation successful,”
they won a war, they got allies, and they created a
huge free-trade zone, pushing a revolutionary agenda
to ensure that the power of government would not usurp
the liberty of the people. Thank you.>>Male: Freedom 101 is made
possible by generous support from The University of
Oklahoma Alumni Association. Freedom 101 is a
program of the Institute for the American
Constitutional Heritage, at the University of Oklahoma. For more videos and podcasts,
visit freedom.ou.edu. [ Music ] [Silence]


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