Early Challenges of the Confederation
- The 13 colonies established the first government through a Constitution called the Articles of Confederation
- The Land Ordinance and the Old Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and ’87 respectively formed the basis of American Land Policy whose effect is visible in present-day
- The economic hardships caused a lot of unrest among the Americans throughout the 1780s, until the summer of 1786, when an uprising called Shay’s rebellion happened.
The Articles of Confederation
Upon Independence from Britain, the 13 colonies established the first government through a Constitution called the Articles of Confederation. The Articles created a governing structure consisting of a weak central government, strong state governments and a Confederation Congress. The Articles were in place until 4 March 1798.
The central administration under the Articles of Confederation had restricted powers with all powers being levied on the states, in reflection to the colonial experience the states had about the Crown. However, the limitations imposed on the central government undermined the unity of the states and the ability of the central government to carry out its functions for the benefit of the states.
To avoid violating the ‘no taxation without representation’ the national government could impose taxes. The state governments had the power to levy taxes, and the central government was required to request funding from the states who neglected their duty.
Without resources, the national government could not meet national obligations such as the payment of foreign debt which was incurred during the revolution. Consequently, the foreign governments became reluctant to lend money to the United States because the national government could not guarantee or demonstrate the ability to pay. The federal government currency called the Continental was also worthless.
The national government could also not be able to regulate trade between the states and other countries or among the states, impose tariffs in bids to regulate. Therefore, there was no mechanism of protecting the states from foreign competitions and states imposed taxes on goods coming from other states, causing strife among the states.
Young Nation at odds with its Neighbours
The British Parliament, angered by the American Rebellion, decided they would continue to trade with America, without making concessions that would undermine the benefit of the Crown. Therefore, the Navigation laws that prohibited trade with the British West Indies were left in place against America. Further, Parliament in their infamous imperial fashion resolved to increase exports to, but reduce imports from America.
Britain also by design or default, did not engage America as a nation but began trading with individual states, increasing specifically low priced goods that were banned during the revolution. The inflow of cheap products was a big blow to American merchants, and growing industries and the Confederate Congress lacked the Constitutional power to protect the states.
Spain on the other hand, won back Florida and the Gulf Coast region, east New Orleans, and the entry of the Mississippi River as part of the Second Treaty of Paris that put an end to the American Revolution.
Spain also partnered with the Native Indians to dissuade American settlements in the areas west of the Appalachians. The French, on the other hand, demanded repayments of the war debts incurred by America and restricted American trade in their main ports to force compliance.
Land Ordinances in the Old Northwest
Among the points of contention, Britain had against the colonies was minting of currencies that caused inflation and a reduction of the value of the Crown currency. During and after the revolutionary war, this problem was transferred to the Continental Congress. Some states in hopes to restore the value of their credit resulted in minting less currency and imposing high taxes, which resorted to a shortage of money without solving the problem and further depreciation of the value.
Inflation was so bad, such that states like Rhode Island were forced to pass a law that prohibited people from not taking money at face value. This was later declared unconstitutional a year later in 1789. The economic depression was severe, and George Washington’s administration attempted to introduce the national taxes but didn’t manage to secure the approval of Congress.
The Continental Congress made plans from 1785, to sell part of the land known as the Old Northwest, situated north of the Ohio River, east of the Mississippi River and south of the Great Lakes through the Land Ordinance of 1785. The delegates detailed a survey plan for the western territories into 36 square mile townships along east-west and north-south lines. Each of the townships was to be further subdivided into 36 lots of one-mile square lots or 640 acres. The one-mile square lots were to be sold at an auction for not less than $640 per lot.
Further, the sixteenth section of each township was set aside to be sold for the maintenance of public schools. In earlier times within Puritan territories, every 50 families were required to have a teacher, and every 100 families were expected to have a teacher and a school. Borrowing the Puritan concept the Continental Congress required the establishment of public schools for disseminating knowledge without the Puritan religious element.
In 1787, Congress passed another Northwest Ordinance, which provided for the governance of the region. The ordinance provided that an adult male of 5,000 in a territory could select a legislature, send a nonvoting representative to Congress and be subject to a governor and three judges to be chosen by Congress. The vision at the time was that the northwest territory could be subdivided into not less than three and no more than five regions. Further, the ordinance provided that once the population of a region reaches 60,000 settlers, they could apply for statehood which would accord them with the rights and privileges of the 13 original states. Slavery was permanently excluded from the Northwest region. The ordinances established the America’s public land policies and resulted in present-day states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
In Massachusetts, the state government did not give in to the pressure of minting money to pay off the debt. Instead, it resulted in levying of taxes on the citizens, adversely affecting smallholder farmers and lower class citizens. Several Massachusetts farmers, most of whom were war veterans were losing their farms through foreclosures and court judgements for tax avoidance.
In 1786, the Massachusetts legislature adjourned without providing a solution for relief from the high tax burden. A mob, began preventing foreclosures by disrupting court sessions on tax matters, led by Daniel Shays, a farmer and veteran. He led 1,200 displeased farmers in a protest federal office and demanded a more flexible fiduciary policy, suspension of the foreclosures and the right to postpone tax payment until the end of the depression.
Troops were marshalled to deal with Daniels militia, but when the legislature resumed sessions, they attempted to consider some of Daniel’s requests for tax relief. However, it was becoming apparent that America needs a stronger central government to streamline its financial policy and protect the states from external trade.
Disputes over the Potomac River
In 1785, there emerged disputes between Maryland and Virginia over the Potomac River. The disagreement led to a conference of representatives in Annapolis Maryland in 1786 represented by five of the thirteen states. The meeting resolved to organise a conference to discuss other pertinent governance issues facing the nation in the Philadephia in the spring of the following year.
On May 25 1787, the Constitutional Convention opened its proceedings in Philadelphia and elected George Washington as its president.