Fruitful and Under-studied: Introducing a Roundtable on the Confederation Era

Liz Covart

Engrossed and corrected copy of the Articles of Confederation, showing amendments adopted, November 15, 1777, Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774‒1789; Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, 1774‒1789, Record Group 360; National Archives.

The Confederation Era stands as one of the most under-studied areas in early American history, overshadowed by the events of the Revolutionary War and the creation of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution of 1787. Scholars and students of history seem to miss how the Articles of Confederation and Americans’ early approaches to society and government serve as the critical link between the Revolution and the new republic.

The story of the Confederation begins with the Declaration of Independence. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia offered his famous resolution to the Second Continental Congress. In his resolution, Lee asked Congress to declare “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” However, Lee’s resolution did not end with his request for Congress to declare the colonies independent of Great Britain. His resolution called for Congress to take up three actions: declare the colonies independent from Great Britain, take “the most effectual measures for forming alliances,” and “that a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.”[1] Lee knew that declaring independence had to go hand-in-hand with forming a new government. Independence would help Americans undo the ties that bound their colonies to Great Britain; to remain independent they would have to form a government of their own.

Although Benjamin Franklin and others had toyed with the idea of forming a confederacy in the years before 1776, the issue of an American confederation and what it might really look like began to take shape in June 1776. On June 12, Congress appointed a committee “to prepare and digest the form of a confederation to be entered into” by the thirteen states.[2] John Dickinson of Pennsylvania emerged as the leader of this committee. According to Merrill Jensen, Dickinson’s renown as a writer prompted his fellow committee members to give him charge of authoring the first draft of Articles of Confederation.[3]

Dickinson’s draft of the Articles of Confederation offered a more centralized form of government than the final draft approved by Congress in November 1777. Dickinson delineated the apportionment of powers between the states and central government. His version of central government proved strong, so the committee reworked Dickinson’s draft. The final structure of government Congress submitted to the states for ratification included a weak central government. The Articles allowed the Confederation Congress the power to conduct the Revolutionary War, enter into and maintain foreign alliances, oversee Indian affairs, and resolve disputes between member states. The states retained all other powers, including a powerful check that Dickinson had originally offered against his stronger government, the power to tax.[4]

During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson noted that the chief problem with the Articles of Confederation was that it constituted a single state government, a government where the interests of individual states had been unrecognized. Without recognition, the national government had little authority to deal with individual state interests, leaving them to fester unchecked.[5] Despite growing divisions between the states, the Articles of Confederation allowed the Confederation Congress to accomplish a lot. Between the Articles’ ratification in 1781 and their retirement in 1789, the Confederation Congress oversaw the War for Independence; negotiated articles of peace with Great Britain, France, and Spain; organized the new nation’s economy; laid the foundation for how the states would interact with one another; and mapped out how western and northern territories would be admitted to the confederacy.

Given the important work accomplished by the Confederation government, many scholars have dubbed the era the “critical period”: a period when Americans established a new nation and experimented with governance. But how exactly did Americans experiment? How did they attempt to figure out what the relationship between the states should be and how the relationship between the states and the national government should function? How did these experiments with governance impact the diplomacy, politics, economy, society, and culture of the new nation? Describing the era as the “critical period” raises more questions than it answers.

Recognizing the importance of the Confederation Era and the paucity of modern work and resources about it, Sara Georgini, Robb Haberman, Jane Calvert, Terrance Rucker, Rosemarrie Zaggari, Barbara Oberg, and I came together to form a panel for SHEAR 2019 to explore new ways to understand the period. The goal of our panel was to bring to light new sources and interpretive approaches that we could use to make suggestions and attempt to see the Confederation not just as an interlude between more important events, but as an important and critical period in its own right.

Among the new sources and interpretative approaches that emerged from the panel was a call to take a longer look at John Dickinson’s original draft of the Articles of Confederation. By doing so we can see that Dickinson asked his fellow congressmen to think about the nation with a wide lens. Congress reworked and removed several forward-thinking articles in Dickinson’s draft including a clause for religious liberty that extended and protected women’s rights to free public speech and expression, a provision to end the practice of slavery, and an article that wrote protections for Native Americans and their land into this first constitution.

Panelists also suggested that scholars researching the Confederation Era take a look at the period through foreign diplomacy. For many years documentary editors have been thinking about how they can best help scholars navigate the plethora of government institutions and practices during the 1780s. One of the clear ways they have found is through foreign diplomacy. Through the papers of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, and other diplomats, researchers will find insight on how contemporary Americans navigated the period and how they explained the new confederation to foreign officials. The lens of foreign diplomacy has proven so fruitful to documentary editors, panelists wondered if it would be possible to start a new documentary editorial project that would not only give the Articles of Confederation a full editorial treatment but also would undertake to show how early Americans implemented and worked with the Articles of Confederation as a constitution.

Lastly, panelists urged scholars to explore the Confederation period through the lens of institutional histories. Institutional historians like those who work for the United States House or Representatives and the Senate spend much of their time thinking about the institutional development and continuities between the first and Second Continental Congresses, the Confederation Congress, and the bicameral Congress established by the Constitution of 1787. One of the continuities we can see through such institutional histories is how the experiments conducted under the Articles of Confederation continued to surface over time. For example, the Articles served as the United States’ first experiment with federalism. In this experiment, most governmental power resided in the states. During the early 1830s, proponents of the states’ ability to nullify federal laws they felt were incompatible with their state constitutions turned to the Articles of Confederation to make the case for the legality of this state power during the Nullification Crisis.

The Confederation period stands as a fruitful and under-studied area in early American history. It’s an area to which scholars need to pay a LOT more attention. A better understanding of the Confederation period will show us how the period links the Revolution with the new republic. It will also show us a new dimension of the American Revolution. Although many works of early American history treat the Confederation period as a stepping stone to the Constitution of 1787, the Confederation really stands as a revolutionary period of experimentation with self-government and with what the new United States would stand for as a people and as a nation.


Endnotes

[1] Library of Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774‒1789 5, June 5‒Oct, 8,1776 (Washington, DC., 1906), 425, 428‒29.

[2]  Ibid., 433.

[3] Merrill Jensen, The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social‒Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774‒1781 (Madison, WI, 1940), 126.

[4] Ibid., 126‒138.

[5] Ibid., 129.

12 October 2020

About the Author

Liz Covart is Digital Projects Editor at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, and the creator, host, and producer of Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast about Early American History.

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