Saturday, April 18, 2009

Chugging right along. Part 3

As we begin to deal with more and more detailed events, I will no longer rely on my memory to tell this story, as I mostly have up until now. I revert to my more-loved role of interpreter.

After the American Revolution, a new country called the United States of America was formed by a union of the 13 separate former colonies. Hereafter, these colonies would begin calling themselves "states."

As mentioned in the earlier posts, this union was not really an easy or natural thing, since the colonies had always been (and would continue to be) separate entities, each with its own government, and each with differing values and goals.

The revolution, however, as well as the previous common experience of the French and Indian War, had brought them closer together and, now that they were free of British rule, there was a need for some sort of central government to be established to handle the interactions between the several former colonies who suddenly found their fate and survival very much tied together - at least in terms of self defense from outside powers. They still weren't too keen on banding together for other purposes, save, perhaps, the regulation of commerce between the several new "states."

The Continental Congress was a legislature, consisting of representatives from the various colonies, which was, in effect, the central government of the colonies during the time they were in rebellion against Great Britain. They met in Philadelphia. The British would not have minded a bit hanging the members of this legislative body of the rebels. They even sailed a fleet up the Delaware to clear out the irritating nest, but the rebel legislators simply moved out of Philadelphia for a while. Frankly, they knew the lay of the land much better than the British, and were able to simply fade into the population. But the government in rebellion is a story for another day.

As early as 1776, following the declaring of independence from Great Britain, the Second Continental Congress, with the conviction, I assume, that the colonies would prevail against the mother country and gain their independence, had appointed a committee to draft up a plan for future confederation. The final draft was approved by the Second Continental Congress in 1777. However, these Articles were not ratified by the states until March of 1781. In the meantime, there was a war going on.

So, with a lot of input and debate from each colony's representation, the official document was drawn up, and eventually ratified, which outlined what powers they would delegate to the new central government. Not very much, as it turned out.

The word "confederation" simply refers to the fact that certain parties, or groups, have banded together for some common purpose. The current entity called the European Union, for example, is a "confederation" of several countries which have agreed to act in concert for a common (in this example, economic) purpose. Similarly, when the 13 former American colonies agreed to band together for economic purposes and for a common defense, the result of that agreement was called a confederation.

The ratification in 1781 resulted in the formalization of this agreement to form a confederation, and the document that stated the rules for the confederation, and told what powers the states agreed to give to the new government, was called "The Ariticles of Confederation." In effect, these Articles were the basis our first constitution, though that constitution was a separate document.

The Articles stated that our name would be "The United States of America". Our first president was Samuel Huntington of Connecticut. It should be noted that, under the Articles, the "president" (although called "The President of the United States") was not the Chief Executive authority as the office is today under our present constitution, but was the presiding officer of the congress, chair of the cabinet, and performer of various administrative functions.

This first attempt at a federal government failed pretty miserably and was later replaced by our second federal government which still exists today, empowered by a new constitution ratified by the states in 1787.

But let's stop for a moment and talk about what the Articles of Confederation were all about and why that government failed. It is important that we understand this period of our country's beginnings, because from the mistakes in the original Articles came many of the enduring strengths of our current constitution.

If one were to make one general statement to explain why our first federal government failed, it would probably be that the individual states still saw themselves as too individual and independent, and therefore were not willing to delegate enough power to the new central government for it to do its job. At least that is this blogger's opinion. Almost everything the new government did had to be approved by the several states. Without sufficient authority, nothing ever got done and the government failed.

In our next post, we will concentrate on the failings of the Ariticles of Confederation, and the subsequent struggle to produce a stronger, more viable, constitution. The struggle was pretty fierce, as the individual states fought to protect their own sovereignty and agendas.

This struggle, and the eventual compromises that produced our present constitution make for lively debate and interesting conversation so I hope you will stay tuned for tomorrow's post.

May the force be with you.


  1. I have to clarify something, Max. The Confederation was not the first federal government. A Federation and a Confederation are not the same thing; they are mutually exclusive. We had a confederation followed by a federation since the key element of the latter is a centralized power. It was that conflict from those that favored centralized power to those who preferred autonomy that flavored much of those first formative decades, but I see you get that.

    Sorry, just nitpicking that you called the first post revolutionary government "federal".

    For everything else, including your conclusions, I'm in complete agreement.

  2. So there were 13 British colonies which became the 13 states of the United States of America. Were the 13 the sum total of the British colonies at the time? Were they all neighbouring? All on the east coast or thereabouts? Was nothing happening in the rest of the future USA? Am I going off at a tangent?

  3. @Stephanie - Point well taken. I am slinging around the term "federal government" much too loosely when I use it to refer to ANY government which manages the affairs of a group.

    Of course you realize, though, we will lock horns shortly over the AMOUNT of power the states were meaning to give the new federal government in 1787. And I will contend they would be absolutely horrified to see how the dragon has grown over the years. You will have your job cut out if you intend to show me how useful and needed the current federal government is, and how the rights and personal liberties of the citizens are not (or need not be) correspondingly diminished.

    Soon. :)

  4. @A. - Thank you for still being here and wading through this with us. I promise it will get more interesting after a little background has been brought out.

    Yes, 13 colonies (listed on the picture of the "Articles of Confederation" a couple of posts ago, if the print is not too small to read), and those became the first 13 states. Yes, those were the only British colonies in what is now the USA, located contiguously up and down the eastern seaboard, stacked one on top of the other, from what is now Maine (then part of Massachusetts) down to Georgia (Florida was still Spanish then.)

    Yes, a lot was going on in the part that would later become the rest of the USA, but mostly French and Spanish at that time. Largely this vast land was still inhabited and controlled by the First Americans though, rather than any of those European countries.

    Yes, you are going off on a tangent; please try to rein yourself in. :)

  5. Very interesting we did not do much of USA history at school so this is truly interesting in this summarised way then one does not have to wade through a lot of history books.The 13 states is amazing, waiting to see how it became 52 or are there more now?

    I will continue to learn as you go on

  6. If you're looking for an argument that our founding fathers never envisioned the power of the federal government (and would be daunted or dismayed), you may be out of luck, at least where I'm concerned. I don't disagree, but I think it's more black and white. They likely never foresaw the collection of humanity we have, the population, the diversity, the change from land-ownership being the mark of the man. That black men and Indians and women were given credence at all.

    They would likely be just as aghast at automatic weapons in the hands of the citizenry, at people gunned down by the dozen in schools and places of business. They would likely be appalled at the atomic bomb, at the ungodly amounts of money spent on defense, at the power the US wields around the world since many were dead set against taking an interest anywhere we weren't intending to grab for ourselves.

    They would be struck dumb by our supermarkets and highway systems, our high-rises and air conditioning, our media abilities and the ease we travel and communicate that allows an interaction never possible in their time.

    So what? They were men of a different time, shaped by a different set of challenges. Did they have wisdom? A good deal yes. But they weren't omniscient. Many of their clever government rules were lifted directly from the country they rebelled against (England). Many of their attitudes were intolerant and shortsighted.

    In a hundred years or so, people will say the same thing about many of us. Only history will tell for sure which of us will be dismissed as useless or a blight and which of us were doing good things but didn't really see the big picture.

  7. @Stephanie - I don't think I can begin to argue with all that. Of course times are very different today and of course our main problem is a lot more people compared to back then.

    I have sometimes considered that we have gone though several "countries" since the first one set up by the founding fathers (whoever you choose to put on the list), with the first one giving way to a new order in, say 1820 or so. Certainly the Civil War ushered in another country quite different than it was before, too. Perhaps that's what they mean when they say America continues to reinvent itself in order to cope with whatever obstacles currently exist.

    And it is not just the founding fathers that wouldn't recognize what we have today. Probably those still with us who were born in the 1920s have a hard time believing how different things are compared to in their day.

    One thing has remained constant from the beginning, in my opinion, and that is the federal government has ALWAYS been too big and too unfeeling and too intrusive.

    The more I think about it, the less I am inclined to believe free people need to be forced to do all these things that are "necessary for the common good". Who says so? Who decides? I know; our representatives. Still...

    But I am again ahead of myself, aren't I?

    @Soubriquet - you have just GOT to read about this Shays' rebellion thing!



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