A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States


Chapter V: History of the Confederation

§28. One of the first objects, therefore, beyond that of the immediate public safety, which engaged the attention of the Continental Congress, was to provide the means of a permanent union of all the Colonies under a General Government. The deliberations on this subject were coeval with the Declaration of Independence, and, after various debates and discussions, at different sessions, the Continental Congress finally agreed, in November, 1777, upon a frame of government, contained in certain Articles of Confederation, which were immediately sent to all the States for their approval and adoption. Various delays and objections, however, on the part of some of the States, took place; and as the government was not to go into effect, until the consent of all the States should be obtained, the Confederation was not finally adopted until March, 1781, when Maryland (the last State) acceded to it. The principal objections taken to the Confederation were to the mode prescribed by it for apportioning taxes among the States, and raising the quota or proportions of the public forces; to the power given to keep up a standing army in time of peace; and, above all, to the omission of the reservation of all the public lands, owned by the Crown, within the boundaries of theUnited States, to the National Government, for national purposes. This latter subject was one of a perpetually recurring and increasing irritation; and the Confederation would never have been acceded to, if Virginia and New York had not at last consented to make liberal cessions of the territory within their respective boundaries for national purposes.

§29. The Articles of Confederation had scarcely been adopted, before the defects of the plan, as a frame of national government, began to manifest themselves. The instrument, indeed, was framed under circumstances very little favorable to a just survey of the subject in all its proper bearings. The States, while colonies, had been under the controlling authority of a foreign sovereignty, whose restrictive legislation had been severely felt, and whose prerogatives, real or assumed, had been a source of incessant jealousy and alarm. Of course, they had nourished a spirit of resistance to all external authority, and having had no experience of the inconveniences of the want of some general government to superintend their common affairs and interests, they reluctantly yielded anything, and deemed the least practicable delegation of power quite sufficient for national purposes. Notwithstanding the Confederation purported on its face to contain articles of perpetual union, it was easy to see, that its principal powers respected the operations of war, and were dormant in times of peace; and that even these were shadowy and unsubstantial, since they were stripped of all coercive authority. It was remarked, by an eminent statesman, that by this political compact the Continental Congress has exclusive power for the following purposes, without being able to execute one of them:—It may make and conclude treaties; but can only recommend the observance of them. It may appoint ambassadors; but it cannot defray even the expense of their tables. It may borrow money in its own name, or the faith of the Union; but it cannot pay a dollar. It may coin money; but it cannot import an ounce of bullion. It may make war, and determine what number of troops are necessary; but it cannot raise a single soldier. In short, it may declare everything, but it can do nothing. And,strong as this description may seem, it was literally true; for Congress had little more than the power of recommending its measures to the good will of the States.

§30. The leading defects of the Confederation were the following: In the first place, there was an utter want of all coercive authority in the Continental Congress, to carry into effect any of its constitutional measures. It could not legislate directly upon persons; and, therefore, its measures were to be carried into effect by the States; and of course, whether they were executed or not, depended upon the sole pleasure of the legislatures of the latter. And, in point of fact, many of the measures of the Continental Congress were silently disregarded; many were slowly and reluctantly obeyed; and some of them were openly and boldly refused to be executed.

§31. In the next place, there was no power in the Continental Congress to punish individuals for any breaches of its enactments. Its laws, if laws they might be called, were without any penal sanction; the Continental Congress could not impose a fine, or imprisonment, or any other punishment, upon refractory officers, or even suspend them from office. Under such circumstances, it might naturally be supposed, that men followed their own interests, rather than their duties. They obeyed, when it was convenient, and cared little for persuasions, and less for conscientious obligations. The wonder is, not that such a scheme of government should fail; but, that it should have been capable even of a momentary existence.

§32. In the next place, the Continental Congress had no power to lay taxes, or to collect revenue, for the public service. All that it could do was, to ascertain the sums necessary to be raised for the public service, and to apportion its quota or proportion upon each State. The power to lay and collect the taxes was expressly and exclusively reserved to the States. The consequence was, that great delays took place in collecting the taxes; and the evils from this source were of incalculable extent, even during the Revolutionary War. The Continental Congress was often wholly without funds to meet the exigencies of the public service; and if it had not been for its goodfortune, in obtaining money by some loans in foreign countries, it is far from being certain, that this dilatory scheme of taxation would not have been fatal to the cause of the Revolution. After the peace of 1783, the States relapsed into utter indifference on this subject. The requisitions of the Continental Congress for funds, even for the purpose of enabling it to pay the interest of the public debt, were openly disregarded; and, notwithstanding the most affecting appeals, made from time to time by the Congress, to the patriotism, the sense of duty, and the justice of the States, the latter refused to raise the necessary supplies. The consequence was, that the national treasury was empty; the credit of the Confederacy was sunk to a low ebb; the public burdens were increasing; and the public faith was prostrated and openly violated.

§33. In the next place, the Continental Congress had no power to regulate commerce, either with foreign nations, or among the several States composing the Union. Commerce, both foreign and domestic, was left exclusively to the management of each particular State, according to its view of its own interests, or its local prejudices. The consequence was, that the most opposite regulations existed in the different States; and, in many cases, and especially between neighboring States, there was a perpetual course of retaliatory legislation, from their jealousies and rivalries in commerce, in agriculture, or in manufactures. Foreign nations did not fail to avail themselves of all the advantages accruing to themselves from this suicidal policy, tending to the common ruin. And as the evils grew more pressing, the resentments of the States against each other, and the consciousness, that their local interests were placed in opposition to each other, were daily increasing the mass of disaffection, until it became obvious, that the dangers of immediate warfare between some of the States were imminent; and thus, the peace and safety of the Union were made dependent upon measures of the States, over which the General Government had not the slightest control.

§34. But the evil did not rest here. Our foreign commerce was not only crippled, but almost destroyed, by this want ofuniform laws to regulate it. Foreign nations imposed upon our navigation and trade just such restrictions, as they deemed best to their own interest and policy. All of them had a common interest to stint our trade, and enlarge their own; and all of them were well satisfied, that they might, in the distracted state of our legislation, pass whatever acts they pleased on this subject, with impunity. They did not fail to avail themselves, to the utmost, of their advantages. They pursued a system of the most rigorous exclusion of our shipping from all the benefits of their own commerce; and endeavored to secure, with a bold and unhesitating confidence, a monopoly of ours. The effects of this system of operations, combined with our political weakness, were soon visible. Our navigation was ruined; our mechanics were in a state of inextricable poverty; our agriculture was withered; and the little money still found in the country was gradually finding its way abroad, to supply our immediate wants. In the rear of all this, there was a heavy public debt, which there was no means to pay; and a state of alarming embarrassment, in that most difficult and delicate of all relations, the relation of private debtors and creditors, threatened daily an overthrow even of the ordinary administration of justice. Severe, as were the calamities of the war, the pressure of them was far less mischievous, than this slow but progressive destruction of all our resources, all our industry, and all our credit.

§35. There were many other defects in the Confederation, of a subordinate character and importance. But these were sufficient to establish its utter unfitness, as a frame of government, for a free, enterprising, and industrious people. Great, however, and manifold as the evils were, and, indeed, so glaring and so universal it was yet extremely difficult to induce the States to concur in adopting any adequate remedies to redress them. For several years, efforts were made by some of our wisest and best patriots to procure an enlargement of the powers of the Continental Congress; but, from the predominance of State jealousies, and the supposed incompatibility of State interests with each other, they all failed. At length, however, itbecame apparent, that the Confederation, being left without resources and without powers, must soon expire of its own debility. It had not only lost all vigor, but it had ceased even to be respected. It had approached the last stages of its decline; and the only question, which remained, was, whether it should be left to a silent dissolution, or an attempt should be made to form a more efficient government, before the great interests of the Union were buried beneath its ruins.


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Chicago: "Chapter V: History of the Confederation," A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States in Joseph Story, a Familiar Exposition of the Constitution (1859; Washington D.C.: Regnery Gateway, Inc., 1986), Pp.47-51 48–53. Original Sources, accessed December 5, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3UZ3CIP3TRVRWU9.

MLA: . "Chapter V: History of the Confederation." A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States, in Joseph Story, a Familiar Exposition of the Constitution (1859; Washington D.C.: Regnery Gateway, Inc., 1986), Pp.47-51, pp. 48–53. Original Sources. 5 Dec. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3UZ3CIP3TRVRWU9.

Harvard: , 'Chapter V: History of the Confederation' in A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States. cited in , Joseph Story, a Familiar Exposition of the Constitution (1859; Washington D.C.: Regnery Gateway, Inc., 1986), Pp.47-51, pp.48–53. Original Sources, retrieved 5 December 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3UZ3CIP3TRVRWU9.