Thursday, October 21, 2021

Articles of Confederation -> The Constitution : Part 1 Why Didn’t It Work?

The story we were all taught in 5th Grade Civics and History classes was pretty straight forward. After the American Revolution, the 13 colonies created a document that defined the relationships between the states called The Articles of Confederation. The Articles proved to be unworkable, and our forefathers got together and created the Constitution in order to protect the country. 


Today I heard a podcast that called that theory into question. Just as an aside, I think many podcasts are the liberal response to right wing radio, but that isn’t here or there.

The historian in question, Woody Holton, has been challenging the consensus of historical interpretations of the founding of the country. One less interesting aspect, to me, is he’s feelings about the founding fathers like Jefferson, Washington, and Adams. He questions the need to think of them as flawless individuals, and rather as people who did some HEROIC things. 

His example is Thomas Jefferson, who had slaves during his life and, in fact, freed only those who were blood related to him. And not until after his death. Definitely flawed. But Jefferson also wrote the Declaration of Independence which says, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Which are some of the most quoted and honored words in human history. Dr. Holton's feeling is that you can hold this great man in reverence, but still admit he had flaws.

We can do this with Ronald Reagan - acknowledging he screwed up the AIDS challenge while still a hero to some Republicans. As well as Bill Clinton – acknowledging he was an adulterer and smarmy while still being a hero to many. So Dr. Holton sees no reasons we shouldn’t be able to do that with the founding fathers.

The more interesting aspect of the PodCast was the WHY the Articles of Confederation were rewritten, and who benefitted. 

First let’s start with the problems (the Constitutional changes I’ll do in part 2)

The Articles of Confederation (let’s say AoC from here on) were first written in 1777. They came into effect in 1781 when the last colony (Maryland) signed on. Oddly, the Continental Congress, which kind of ran things - until we had this AoC - stayed on after the ratification as our new Congress.

The traditional causes we were taught are correct, but not complete. It is true that almost all power was devolved to the states. The states issued their own money, had their own taxes. And regularly had conflicts over competing rights.

The AoC also defined the Federated President and Congress based on the UK Monarch and House of Lords system This means that very little actual power was actually held at the national level. The government that the founding fathers fought for had almost no power over the country as a whole.

The states and state legislatures were the equivalent of the British House of Commons. Nearly all legislative power lay in the state legislatures, not the national Congress. The 13 states also had very weak or non-existent Governors, for example none were allowed to veto state legislation. So the states ran freely by their legislatures. The AoC bound the states into a federation of “friends”, responsible for their own debt and laws.

Dr. Holton posits an additional explanation for the failure. One that quotes both Thomas Jefferson and Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry (of Gerrymander fame). They both said the Articles of Confederation were victims of “too much democracy”.

The state legislatures were built with very small districts and were therefore super responsive to their voters. This led to a condition the founding fathers called “mob rule of the majority”. 

That is the states didn’t work together but at odds with each other and passed laws that were good for some states, but antithetical to the Federation*. And the Federal Government, as weak as it was, couldn’t do anything about it.

To fix the AoC, there was a Constitutional Convention in 1787. The men changed with amending the AoC quickly decided to throw it out as unfixable and centralize power in the Federal Government.

And, in doing so, our Forefathers solved the problem of “too much democracy”. See Part II for more.


*Oddly I spelled antithetical correctly on the first try. As opposed to particularly - which I rarely spell correctly.


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