“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.