The United States in Congress Assembled . . .

“The United States are going to form a new government.”

How many of you just “corrected” that in your mind? Today, we talk about “the United States is.” But between 1777-1789, the United States were bound and determined not to have a strong central government ever again. So they formed a confederation of autonomous states under the Articles of Confederation. Looking back, it is easy to see the glaring flaws in the plan. Looking back. At the time, it was a pretty decent attempt to make sure that each state had its rights protected while still all working together for defense and trade and diplomacy.

Some of the document sounds familiar, some is a leeeeeeetle different.

Article II.  Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.

Article III.  The said states hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defence, the security of their Liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretence whatever.

Article IV.  The better to secure and perpetuate mutual friendship and intercourse among the people of the different states in this union, the free inhabitants of each of these states, paupers, vagabonds and fugitives from Justice excepted, shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of free citizens in the several states; and the people of each state shall have free ingress and regress to and from any other state, and shall enjoy therein all the privileges of trade and commerce, subject to the same duties, impositions and restrictions as the inhabitants thereof respectively, provided that such restrictions shall not extend so far as to prevent the removal of property imported into any state, to any other State of which the Owner is an inhabitant; provided also that no imposition, duties or restriction shall be laid by any state, on the property of the united states, or either of them.

Those familiar with the later Constitution can see where chunks got lifted and pasted into Article IV. Below we see the biggest problem with the Articles, at least according to most popular histories of the subject.

Article VIII. All charges of war, and all other expenses that shall be incurred for the common defence or general welfare, and allowed by the united states in congress assembled, shall be defrayed out of a common treasury, which shall be supplied by the several states, in proportion to the value of all land within each state, granted to or surveyed for any Person, as such land and the buildings and improvements thereon shall be estimated, according to such mode as the united states, in congress assembled, shall, from time to time, direct and appoint. The taxes for paying that proportion shall be laid and levied by the authority and direction of the legislatures of the several states within the time agreed upon by the united states in congress assembled.

Each state gets levied a fee based on its size and property value. Delaware loved this. New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia? No (and keep in mind, Virginia was even larger then than today.) If you read farther in the Articles, you will note that there is no enforcement mechanism. The united states in congress assembled did not have an army to use to force a reluctant member to pay up. Nor was there a good source of national revenue to use to pay off war debt or to cover the cost of diplomats and other government employees, such as they were.

The language of the Articles of Confederation makes the Constitution seem simple, mostly because today we don’t see “the united states in congress assembled” as a single thing. Some historians say that the Civil War/War Between the States/Late Unpleasantness ended the question of “is” or “are” once and for all. Whether you agree or not, very few residents of the US or other English speakers say “the United States are” anymore, so reading the Articles feels awkward and jarring.

Today we know how the story ended. The Articles’ flaws became glaring by 1785, and so a convention was called to amend and repair the flaws. Instead, a very different document emerged, one that balanced the states’ governments with the self-government of the population as a whole. Remember, the Senate was for the states, not the people, until almost WWI. And the Bill of Rights only bound the national government, not the states, because each state had its own bill of rights. Even so, the arguments over ratifying the Constitution were heated, and many of the concerns of the opponents of the Constitution proved to be correct. Other concerns . . . not so much. But it is worth reading the Articles of Confederation to see what people originally envisioned the national government looking like, and why certain parts of the Constitution are the way they are.


7 thoughts on “The United States in Congress Assembled . . .

  1. By 1785, those bills and notes (Continrmtal ot state sovereign dollars) were coming due and payable in specie. This included the vast sum in notes forged by the British, of the same or higher quality. With little money in the Confederation treasury, you’re looking at disaster.

    Doesn’t stretch the imagination much for a foreign power to buy up the sovereign debt cheap, and demand payment in land and improvements. Britain would have been bad. Imagine the consternation of Georgia, or worse, New England to discover they had been purchased outright for centavos on the piece of eight by [long title], the new Grandee of Northern Galicia, who announces that they are now Spanish subjects.

  2. “Some historians say that the Civil War/War Between the States/Late Unpleasantness ended the question of “is” or “are” once and for all.”
    Some historians also say the Revolutionary War ended at Yorktown.* 🙂
    The construction is a bit passive, focusing on the mechanism, rather than the agent. Give Lincoln his due. For woe or weal, this one’s his.
    Seriously, Lincoln is one of the best arguments for the Great Man theory of history. Or possibly, outright divine intervention.
    (I say that as someone who has “issues” with Lincoln. A wise and benevolent tyrant possessed of uncommon vision is a hard circle for me to square.)

    * Oversimplified, lacking nuance, but more true than not.

    • *Wags paw* I grew up with St. Abraham Lincoln who could do no wrong. Now . . . He’s one I can respect but I don’t admire him all that much.

      • The Yankee Republic* series by Fenton Wood refers to Lincoln as The Tyrant, with Route 66 known as “the Tyrant’s Road”. (I also grew up with St. Lincoln. AFAIK, the license plates still have the “Land of Lincoln” motto on them.)

        (*) A cross of alternative history, SF and fantasy.

    • For all that I am souring on the Republican Party, I still identify as Lincolnist-Shermanist.

      IE, taking ‘Lincoln could do no wrong’ as a policy prescription and philosophy.

      There are good and sound reasons for sane men of good judgement to disagree with my school. Fundamentally, the Tyrant Lincoln/Monster Sherman school had some truth in their critiques of the two.

      The people using ‘Lincoln’ as an excuse for destroying the artifacts and records of the CSA and the Segregationists are incorrect. Those people in that day had some legitimate reasons to be angry about Lincoln. They may not have done good things with that feeling, but blotting them out, and writing what is currently convenient to say about them in place of their records is not a good deed either.

      Look at that one Lincoln speech I have been quoting.

      From a Lincolnist-Shermanist perspective, Trump appears to have been wrong in not starting the boog.

      If it was correct not to start the boog, it implies that Lincoln may have been wrong to wage the ACW.

      If Sherman was correct to say that reporters might be hanged as spies, it implies that it is now correct to hang the Democrat/PRC information warriors disguising themselves as journalists.

      Likewise Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus during the ACW.

      If you disagree with these suggestions, or disagree with the theory that in certain circumstances the Executive Power has few limits, then you would be correct in choosing to critique Lincoln.

      If Trump had recruited a group to capture Congress and the courts, and if that group had chosen to bring Congress and the courts to justice, it would have been in line with both the theory of democracy, and the theory of Lincolnism-Shermanism. The courts are corrupt, and have the appearance of a profession wide criminal conspiracy.

      If it is not licit to bring them to rough justice in order to restore peace and order, it is worth considering whether the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments are licit.

      On the other hand, Lincoln seems to have violated the wise principle of “don’t stick it in crazy”.

  3. Meh, as we ‘age’ we tend to ‘learn’ that our idealistic views of things when we were taught them aren’t necessarily correct… I’m to the point I’m an independent, voting for individuals rather than straight tickets… sigh

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