From the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution

The Articles of  Confederation (1781-1788) functioned as the first national constitution of the United States.  As such, it reflected the prevailing American political theory and practice that emerged during the American Revolution. While there are important differences with the Constitution drafted in 1787 and that replaced it upon ratification in 1789, most of the Articles were actually incorporated into the U.S. Constitution.

We shall look at the effective changes and differences between the Articles and the U.S. Constitution

How did the Articles of Confederation (1781-1788) and the US Constitution (drafted in 1787, ratified in 1789) provide for the following?

Legitimacy or power for the Continental Congress over 
  • Foreign affairs, 
  • Territorial issues 
  • Indian relations.  
What other social, political and economic transformations were embodied in the transition from  the Articles to a constitutional government?

What were the ramifications of the impact on those specific components as the government transitioned from a confederation to a constitutional entity?

To answer these questions and explore these issues, let's examine
  1. the reasons for the creation and the unique form of the Articles of Confederation 
  2. some structural differences and similarities between the two documents:
Main Features of the Articles of Confederation
Articles of Confederation , 1777 (Ratified 1781)
United States Constitution, 1787
(Ratified 1788 and effective 1789
Each state, large or small, with one vote in the Continental Congress
States represented according to population in the U.S. House of Representatives and equally by state in the U.S. Senate

Art. I, Sec. 2
Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states ... according to their respective numbers, ... the whole number of free persons, ...excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons.  The number of representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand...

Based on the 1790 Census, we may see that Virginia was able to claim 
Congress not empowered to levy or collect taxes
Congress given the power to levy and collect taxes
Congress could not regulate foreign or interstate commerce. It could “mediate” between states, declare war, and make treaties
US Congress give the power to regulate foreign and interstate commerce
No provision for an executive to enforce the acts of Congress
Presidential system
No provision for a federal judiciary (court system) other than a limited maritime judiciary
A national system of federal courts and a Supreme Court
The Articles could be amended only by unanimous consent
The US Constitution could be amended by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the states
A two-thirds majority in the Congress needed to pass laws
A simple majority in both houses needed to pass laws, and a two-thirds majority if the act was vetoed by the President
Adapted from Eric Nellis, The Long Road to Change:  America’s Revolution, 1750-1820, (Broadview Press, 2007)

What functions of power and legitimacy were accorded to Congress under the Articles of Confederation?
1)  In the Treaty of Paris (1783) Britain directly granted the Western lands to the US
2)  The Treaty also recognized each of the 13 colonies as independent states.

Article 1st:
His Brittanic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be free sovereign and Independent States; that he treats with them as such, and for himself his Heirs & Successors, relinquishes all claims to the Government, Propriety, and Territorial Rights of the same and every Part thereof.
A map of lands granted by Great Britain to the United States through the Treaty of Paris is represented below:

Soon, however various states asserted claims over these western lands.  Over the next decade these remained a contentious source of dispute about the sovereign claims and control of these territories between individual states and the Congress.  The map from Foner below illustrates the problem of the Western Lands Claims.

The Western Land Claims also intersected and imposed claims over lands owned and held by independent Native American tribes as may be seen in the map below from Foner. 

The First Census of the United States (1790) is useful to compare demographics of white and black populations for apportionment and the motive behind the constitution's passage from the interests of the Virginians.

Scholarship on the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution
Merrill Jensen, The Articles of Confederation:  An Interpretation of the Social Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774-1781 (1940)
Jack Rakove, The Beginnings of National Politics:  An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress (1979)
Jack Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (Knopf, 1996)
Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787 (1998)

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