HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
WelcomeHistoryLiteratureArtMusicPhilosophyResourcesHelp
Sort By Author Sort By Title
pixel

Resources
Sort By Author
Sort By Title

Search

Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc
FEEDBACK

(C)1998-2012
All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics
A Constitutional History of the United States
Chapter XII - The Articles of Confederation
by McLaughlin, Andrew C.


When Lee introduced into Congress the resolution for independence (June 7, 1776), it was accompanied by a resolution that steps be taken for the formation of a confederation of the states. The need of organization had long been in the minds of certain leaders, and Franklin the year before had brought in a plan based in some degree on the Albany Plan of 1754.[1] With his plan nothing of importance was done, though it evidently had influence on later proceedings; but after independence was declared, Congress began debating at length articles brought in by a committee [2] and commonly called the Dickinson draft. Pressure upon Congress, as well as some inherent difficulties in the problem, delayed the completion of the task, and consequently not until November, 1777, were the Articles finally adopted by Congress and submitted to the states.

With the announcement of independence, the problem of imperial organization crossed the ocean; it was no longer the problem of organizing the British empire or of ascertaining its constitutional structure, but of organizing America. Nevertheless, in many respects the problem was the old one; reduced to the lowest terms, it was at least the problem of arranging some practicable scheme in which the states would work together for common ends. For there was need of coherence in the war; and as time was soon to show, coherence in peace was quite as necessary and possibly more difficult to maintain. What were the elements in the task, if we take for granted that complete unification, complete absorption of the states into a unitary system, was impossible? The most troublesome problems were again the familiar ones; and central among them was the pivotal question of supply, of finding means of assurance that the states would furnish properly the men and the money for the general needs of the union. If they were to retain a large share of self-government, and of course that was inevitable, what authority should be allowed to the body representing them all? Everybody cried, as he had done twenty years before, that union was absolutely necessary; but when it came to plans of union, there was still distraction.[3]

It is possible that, if a system of union could have been decided upon immediately after independence was announced, the Articles of union would have contained no announcement of state sovereignty. In neither the Dickinson draft (July 12, 1776) nor the draft presented to Congress by the committee of the whole (August 20) was the sovereignty of the states specified; the articles submitted on the latter day declared: "Each State reserves to itself the sole and exclusive regulation and government of its internal police, in all matters that shall not interfere with the articles of this Confederation." [4] The opening paragraphs, it is true, might be construed to signify that nothing was contemplated but a working union of sovereign states. Such glimpses as we can get of the work of construction in the succeeding months, especially in 1777, appear to indicate that, when the Articles were made distinctly to conform to the idea of a co÷perative system of sovereignties, the change was the product of a developing sense of separate independence or of growing suspicion. The finished Articles, as submitted to the state legislatures for adoption, announced in plain language the retention of sovereignty by the states.[5]

There were three points on which differences of opinion especially centered: (1) whether the states should have equal voting power in the Congress of the Confederation or should vote in proportion to their population or wealth or some such indication of importance and strength; (2) what should be the basis for determining how much each state should pay into the common coffers; (3) whether the states claiming vast stretches of western lands should continue to hold them in their possession; and this included the subordinate question — whether or not Congress should be given authority to limit the dimensions of the states.[6]

The debates on the first two questions are of interest to us because they brought out a number of the crucial problems that vexed the men who labored to form a union a decade later; [7] the larger states wished proportional representation; the smaller states wished equal representation. Were the states to be unequally taxed but to have equal voting power in Congress? The debate appears to have been earnest and searching. The outcome of the discussion was the provision that each state should have one vote in Congress, thus securing the complete equality of the states in voting power; but charges of war and all other expenses were to be supplied by the states in proportion to the value of land within each state granted to or surveyed for any person, and the improvements on such land. In other words, equality of the states was accepted as the basis of voting power in Congress, inequality was accepted as the basis for contributions to the treasury. This arrangement was sure to be distasteful to many, and in the long run it proved unsatisfactory. Franklin said in the course of the debates, as John Adams noted them: "Let the smaller Colonies give equal money and men, and then have an equal vote. But if they have an equal vote without bearing equal burthens, a confederation upon such iniquitous principles will never last long." [8]

The western land question presented special difficulty. A suitable solution of the problem was of immense importance. The Congress was engaged in a peculiarly difficult task; under any circumstances, the establishment of a union of states, each cherishing its own interests, must present serious obstacles. And if a union could be formed, what were the prospects that it would endure? In the days when the Confederation was under debate, the critical question was whether a union could be formed at all; and the difficulty of finding an affirmative answer seemed to turn in considerable measure on the dread of the landless states that the landed states would become wealthy and powerful and would overawe and mayhap impoverish their lesser neighbors. But if land were surrendered, it must be governed by somebody; so here again the states, seeking to form a union, were confronted by an essential part of the problem of imperial organization — the problem of imperial expansion. Some of the states claimed that their sea-to-sea charters gave them territory in the west; and New York made assertions of ownership of a considerable region. Other states were within definite limits; Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland were comparatively small in area. It is not strange that they should look with jealousy upon their neighbors claiming vast territory, the source of both wealth and power.

It seems remarkable now that the ownership of the transmontane region should have been so hotly contested during those perilous days when the real question was whether the British army would not beat down resistance and the rebellion against the mother country totally fail. But discussed it was; for this western question was a perplexing one, involving much more than merely fixing the western limits of the states. With the question of boundaries went the control of land purchases and the fixing of a land policy as well as direction and control of settlements that might be made beyond the mountains. From the beginning of colonial history, the frontier policy had been for each colony a matter of difficulty, and it was not so easy as it might now seem to cast aside traditions and at once transfer the whole — policy, hopes, plans, government, and lands — into the hands of a central authority as yet untried and indeed unformed. It was characteristic of American optimism, probably, to begin the counting of chickens before they had emerged from the shells.

The problem of the west was an old one, and, like so many others, was associated with the experiences of the old empire. The Albany Plan of Union had proposed a solution. The plan which Franklin presented to Congress in 1775 declared that purchases from the Indians should be made for the general advantage and benefit of the united colonies. The Dickinson draft of a confederation, presented in July, 1776, included even more definite proposals, but they were not included in the draft of the Articles submitted by the committee of the whole the next month. Among the states without large landed possessions, Maryland was the most critical of a system of union which would leave some of the states in possession of western territory. When the Congress was discussing the Articles in the autumn of 1777 — for little had been done during many months preceding — a proposal was offered for which Maryland alone voted (New Jersey's vote was divided): "That the United States, in Congress assembled, shall have the sole and exclusive right and power to ascertain and fix the western boundary of such states as claim to the Mississippi or South Sea, and lay out the land beyond the boundary, so ascertained, into separate and independent states, from time to time, as the numbers and circumstances of the people thereof may require".

The principle of the resolution is significant: the western settlements were not to be held in permanent subordination, but were to become in the course of time independent states, presumably members of the union with equal rights. The proposal, however, was unacceptable, at least as far as it contemplated giving at once to Congress the power to fix boundaries for the large landholding states. Instead of adopting the resolution, Congress added to that paragraph of the Articles which provided for the adjudication of controversies between states the following brief but peremptory statement: "provided, also, that no State shall be deprived of territory for the benefit of the United States." [9]

The Articles were adopted by the Congress, November 15, 1777, and two days later they went forth to the states. Some of the states accepted them fairly promptly, and their delegates signed the Articles Under authorization of their respective states. Various amendments were proposed, but the most important dealt with the necessity of settling the western question and especially securing for the use of the United States the crown lands from which revenue could be obtained for paying the debts incurred for the common cause.[10] Maryland renewed her request for power in Congress to ascertain and restrict the boundaries of the large landholding states, and this was supported by Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware — none of them having claims to territory in the west. By midsummer of 1778 most of the states had given their assent to the Articles. New Jersey took the step later in the year and was followed by Delaware in May, 1779. Maryland was still obdurate.

The months went by. A union of all the states was highly desirable, not to say imperative; delay was dangerous. Some concession or compromise was necessary. New York, whose claims seemed rather more nebulous than those of the states which asserted rights under sea-to-sea charters, passed a legislative act (February 19, 1780) empowering her delegates "to limit and restrict" her western boundaries. Congress now (September 6, 1780) declared this act was calculated to "accelerate the federal alliance"; the states with western land claims were asked to remove the only obstacle to a final ratification of the Articles. October 10, 1780, Congress passed a momentous resolution: all unappropriated lands ceded to the United States should be disposed of for the common benefit of the United States, "and be settled and formed into distinct republican states, which shall become members of the federal union, and have the same rights of sovereignty, freedom and independence, as the other states". Early in the following year Virginia consented to cede her territory northwest of the Ohio River. She laid down certain conditions and these raised some difficulties which do not need consideration here. Maryland could now feel fairly certain that her chief purpose was attained, and her delegates were authorized to sign the Articles. When this was done (March 1, 1781), the Confederation was complete.

Of great consequence was the final organization of the union, defective though it proved to be; and important also was the spirit of conciliation and national sentiment on which the union rested. Of some consequence, too, was the fact that the thirteen commonwealths, bound in "perpetual" union, jointly possessed a large, unsettled region; such possession probably helped in the development of a sense of common interest and common responsibilities. But of supreme importance was the discovery of the principle of expansion, of nation-building. The principle announced by Congress in 1780 was carried into effect by the famous Ordinance of 1787. Passed in the last months of the dying Confederation, the Ordinance is to-day a lasting memorial, a proof that the Americans had learned a great lesson from their own history. In the building of an empire — though for the time the empire was a confederation of sovereignties — the new settlements should not be permanently treated as dependents unfit to associate on terms of equality with the older members of the union.

It is unnecessary to recount the steps by which the various cessions of western lands were made by the states. In the course of time, those steps were taken. It is significant, however, that the Articles did not contain a provision authorizing the Congress of the Confederation to hold and manage the common territory thus granted or to lay down laws and ordinances for the government of the western settlements. Such powers may, perhaps, be inferred from the general acquiescence in the fact of possession and the circumstances under which the Articles were adopted.

A further view of the Articles is necessary. In Congress and in the states, there appears to have been less discussion concerning the powers delegated to Congress than one might have supposed. Taught by experience in the old empire, by the necessity of carrying on the war, and by earlier plans or discussions of union, the delegates in Congress were enabled to work out the distribution of powers between the central authority and the states with some approach to precision. The powers granted to Congress bear a general resemblance to those exercised by the Crown and Parliament in the old colonial system in which the colonies had grown to maturity; and if one compares the Articles with the Constitution adopted at Philadelphia in 1787, he will find a considerable similarity in the scheme of distribution.[11] Time was to show the defects of the system; but the actual merits of the system agreed upon are noteworthy. No power to lay taxes was bestowed on Congress, and no power to regulate commerce, the two things about which there had been so much dispute in the preceding decade. These omissions were largely instrumental in bringing into existence the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Without the consent of Congress, the states were expressly forbidden to send an embassy to a foreign state, receive an embassy, enter into any agreement with a foreign power, form any treaty of combination among themselves, maintain ships of war or troops in time of peace — though a militia must be provided and sufficiently armed — , or engage in war unless actually invaded or in immediate danger of Indian attack. All charges of war and other expenses incurred for the common defense and general welfare were to be defrayed out of a common treasury supplied by the several states. To Congress was given, among other powers, the general powers of determining on war and peace, carrying on foreign affairs, though with some restrictions, regulating the alloy and value of coin, fixing the standard of weights and measures, regulating the trade and managing all the affairs with the Indians "not members of any of the States", establishing and regulating post offices from one state to another, appointing important army officers and all naval officers, borrowing money, building and equipping a navy, and making requisitions upon the states for troops. For doing the most important things, the vote of nine states in Congress was required, practically a three-fourths vote of the thirteen, a restriction certain to make effective action difficult. No alteration of the Articles could be made unless it be agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the legislatures of all the states. A "committee of the states" could, in the recess of Congress, exercise powers intrusted to it by Congress with the consent of nine states, provided that no power for which the voice of nine states was necessary should be delegated to the committee. One of the delegates could be appointed "to preside" — the predecessor, in fact, of the president of the United States, who does not preside at all.

While the Articles granted to Congress considerable authority, its powers were qualified, in some respects carefully, for the protection of the states' rights. Although Congress was given power to enter into treaties, the states were not totally forbidden to lay imposts, but they were forbidden to levy such duties as might interfere with "stipulations in treaties entered into by the United States ... in pursuance of any treaties already proposed by Congress to the courts of France and Spain." Congress could make no treaty of commerce whereby the states should be restrained from imposing such imposts on foreigners as their own people were subjected to; and apparently the states could freely prohibit the exportation or importation of any kind of goods. The failure to grant Congress complete power to regulate commerce rendered it difficult or impossible to make a commercial treaty with a foreign nation and to have assurance that the states would comply with its provisions. The years that followed disclosed the fact that the want of authority to make treaties which would bind the states was one of the cardinal defects of the system.

This "firm league of friendship", which was declared to be "perpetual", contained significant provisions for mutual friendship and co÷peration among the states. While, it appears, the states were separate sovereignties, or possibly it is more correct to say, because they were separate sovereignties, the Articles contained explicit provisions concerning the rights of the "free inhabitants" of one state within the limits of another state. Such persons were declared to be "entitled to all privileges and immunities of free citizens in the several states", to have free ingress and egress to and from the respective states, and to enjoy privileges of trade and commerce. Extradition was provided for, and full faith and credit were to be given in each state to the records, acts, and judicial proceedings of every other.

The importance of these provisions for interstate relationships is this: (1) they proposed a substantial basis for a league of friendship that might in reality be perpetual; without such conditions of reciprocal consideration and recognition of common rights and interests, no league could endure. (2) They appear in similar though not identical words in the Constitution of the United States. This latter fact makes it especially important to notice that the provisions in the Articles, later transferred to the Constitution and made law, are based on the supposition that the states stand in relation of one to the other as distinct sovereignties. Extradition, for example, is in general an international matter and based on treaty provisions; no nation is bound, by any principle of "good neighborhood", to turn over to another nation, on demand or request, a fugitive from justice. The Articles embrace this international provision; it is included in the Constitution as a legal obligation.[12] The quasi-international relationship of the states of the union is most plainly illustrated by the fact that the writs issued in one state do not run in another.

More important than all else is the provision, already referred to (which became constitutional law with the adoption of the Constitution), concerning the rights and privileges of the free citizens of each state in the several states. This provision rests on the supposition of state sovereignty — in the Constitution on partial or quasi-sovereignty. The rights of the "nationals" of one state when sojourning in another state are similar to those generally recognized by the principles of international comity. Thus, again, because the states of the American union passed through a period in which they were, or thought they were, separate sovereignties, interstate relations, as far as rights of individuals are concerned, are, under the Constitution as it stands to-day, in some important respects not unlike the relations between separate national states of the world. Certain fundamental civil rights and privileges which are commonly recognized by the civilized nations of the world at large and are accorded to their own citizens are also accorded to foreigners sojourning within their limits. A citizen of America going to Britain or France expects to find, and he does find, the same degree of protection to his person and property as that enjoyed by citizens of those nations; he may, for example, make use of the courts of a foreign nation for the assertion and maintenance of his rights. And in these respects the Constitution of the United States makes such protection and such privileges legally obligatory upon the states of the union in their treatment of citizens of the several states. No nation, no national state, enforces the penal laws of another. The same principle is true of the members of the American union. In civil matters, however, every civilized nation does recognize in its courts the rights of an individual which are based upon the law or spring from the law of a foreign state. The same general principles obtain in interstate law of the American union. Some of these principles of international comity are made legally obligatory by our constitutional system. Full faith and credit are by constitutional provision accorded in each state to the public acts, records, and proceedings of every other state.[13] But in the world at large the same recognition is commonly given (and given on the same principles) by one nation to the acts and judicial proceedings of another nation. Furthermore, the general principles of jurisprudence — within the field of what is called private international law or the "conflict of laws" — are recognized and applied when questions arise concerning the rights of a citizen of one state suing or sued in the courts of another, or concerning the rights which are based on the law of a state not the state of the forum. A right established under the law of Ohio, for example, will be recognized as a right when a suit is instituted for its protection in Great Britain.[14] The principles applied in a foreign state are similar to those which will be applied in a court of an American state in passing upon the rights of litigants, when the rights so claimed spring from the law of a member of the American union. "The judiciary power of every government", said Hamilton, "looks beyond its own local or municipal laws, and in civil cases, lays hold of all subjects of litigation between parties within its jurisdiction, though the causes of dispute are relative to the laws of the most distant part of the globe." [15] In making this statement, Hamilton was explaining the relationship between the federal and state courts, but he was also stating a general principle of jurisprudence. The thing to be emphasized here is the application of these principles to the interstate law of the American union in which the members stand in a quasi-international relationship.[16]

Among the duties assigned to Congress by the Articles of Confederation was that of acting as the last resort on appeal in disputes between two or more states. Under any conditions such disputes might arise, and in fact they did arise. If, as the Articles stated, the states were sovereign, and if there were no method for peaceful settlement, disputes might have to be settled by war, the time-worn method of trial by battle. The supervising authority of the Privy Council of the old empire, familiar to the men of America, may have had direct influence on the framers of the Articles; if so, it is one more evidence of the effects of the old colonial system. For carrying out this duty, Congress was authorized to act when any state should apply for a hearing. The states in disagreement might under the supervision of Congress appoint, by joint consent, commissioners or judges for hearing and deciding the controversy; but if such a method failed, because the states could not agree upon the tribunal, Congress was authorized to appoint, by a formal and cumbersome method, commissioners or judges with power to reach a "final and conclusive" decision. This provision for peaceful settlement of controversies between sovereign states was one of the most important provisions in the Articles; it at least proposed some method other than war. It foreshadowed one of the signally significant provisions of the third article of the Constitution of the United States.[17]

This fortunate and wise provision in the Articles was not allowed to lie idle. Pennsylvania and Connecticut had long indulged in acrimonious controversy over Connecticut's claim to territory in what is now northern Pennsylvania. On the petition of Pennsylvania, a court was set up at Trenton which in 1782 unanimously decided that the state of Connecticut had no right to the lands in controversy.

During the larger portion of the war and before the Articles went into effect, appeals of prize cases were passed upon by committees of Congress. The Articles gave Congress express authority to appoint courts for the trial of piracies and felonies committed on the high seas and to establish courts for determining appeals in all cases of captures. The states were making admiralty decisions in their own courts; and an appellate tribunal, if established under the authority granted by the Articles, was to have jurisdiction of cases appealed from the states. In 1780 Congress resolved to establish a court "for the trial of all appeals from the Courts of Admiralty in these United States". Judges were appointed. This Court in its day was the highest Court in the country, and the only appellate tribunal with jurisdiction over the whole United States.[18] Between the middle of September, 1776, and May, 1787, there were, it would appear, 109 cases which were referred to the Congress committee or brought directly to the Court of Appeals. Of this number fifty-six were lodged with the Court.[19] As a basis or a precedent for the Supreme Court of the United States and for the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal judiciary, the old Court of Appeals was doubtless of influence.

"Each State", said the Articles of Confederation, "retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence...." Were, then, the states sovereign? Did they have any sovereignty to be retained? Few questions in the world's history have been so thoroughly debated; debated chiefly by public men in practical political discussion, but discussed also by historians. The reason for the emphasis upon this question is not attributable to historical curiosity, but rather to the fact that it appeared to be of supreme consequence in any endeavor to decide whether the states, after the Constitution was established, were or were not sovereign. If the states were not sovereign in the years before the adoption of the federal Constitution, no one could reasonably assert their possession of sovereignty after adoption; but if they were sovereign before such adoption, then one may find the starting-point for an argument in behalf of state sovereignty afterwards.

A treatise on constitutional history may be expected to examine this problem and reach conclusions, but in any presentation of the subject there are difficulties to be met. Even if we should decide upon a definition of "sovereignty", we might be still faced with the difficulty of deciding where sovereignty actually resides at a given time; and this difficulty is especially evident in the period of the Confederation. In the course of American history men have differed, and still differ, in their opinions concerning the nature of sovereignty; they have not always known wherein their differences lay. They have often engaged in disputes concerning the question whether at a given time the states were or were not sovereign; this fact is for the historian of more real significance than is any rigid verdict which he may reach for his own edification or for the doubtful gratification of his readers.

In any attempt to decide where at a given moment sovereignty resides in any nation, the investigator is engaged in an historical task; he is using historical data; but his conclusion is within the field of law. Though he be a mere historian, he is under no obligation to withhold from his readers his own conclusion which is a necessary product of his historical study. To give a very simple, concrete example, he may assert or assume the obvious, viz.: that the United States has been a sovereign state since 1865, one of the sovereign national states of the world; the fundamental principle of its legal structure is that it is a single, legally-competent and self-contained body politic; as an historian, he is profoundly interested in discovering how this legal structure came to be and in showing the difficulties encountered in creating or maintaining it. In studying the course of American history, the historian will find his chief task not to establish a conclusion concerning which theory of the nature of the United States was right (legally speaking) and which was wrong, but to present actual differences of opinion as they arose and to mark out the presence of conflicting forces and tendencies.

The word "sovereignty" is still often used with little respect for any rigid definition. If we should, in obedience to the definition now commonly found in books on political theory, declare sovereignty to be the supreme and absolute power by which a state is governed or to be the authority to do anything and everything of a political nature, we should still be constrained to inquire whether the men of the Revolution thus used the term and accepted all its implications. And, indeed, as we shall see more fully later on, the historian will find that very many, if not all of the men of those days, did not have this conception of sovereignty. Thus, the history of the very idea of sovereignty enters into any proper discussion. If sovereignty implies the possibility of limited authority, if sovereignty, in other words, can be divided and still remain sovereignty, then a definition connoting completeness is inappropriate and inapplicable, if applied to the words of men of a century and a half ago.

Sovereignty, whatever it may be, is often, if not always, in conflict with actual conditions in the world. The word, certainly when used in the domain of international relations, implies that each member of the family of nations has complete freedom in determining its course of action; and yet, of course, no nation is in reality completely free, but only theoretically free or free legally speaking. One sovereign nation is supposed to be the equal of every other; but again this is a convenient (or inconvenient) supposition or an accepted fiction; one state can be equal with another only in legal competence, and often the facts go far toward invalidating even this presumption of equality. But, whether the above assertions concerning the difference between realities and legal suppositions be accepted or not, sovereignty can most properly be looked upon as authority, the possession of legal right, and not as actual power; one cannot say that a sovereign acts illegally or beyond its legal capacity, if sovereignty connotes unrestrained authority. This is true not only of a sovereign nation but also of the possessor of sovereignty within a given nation. In other words, actual power to do all political acts may be beyond the capacity of the sovereign, though he has the authority.

Though sovereignty is authority and the legal right to act, it is, nevertheless, sometimes necessary to consider actual capacity. It is sometimes necessary to find out from events, from real conditions, where sovereignty rests; in the course of a revolt within a nation, for example, one may wish to discover whether a revolution has taken place and sovereignty has changed its dwelling; or, if a separation of a people into two states is attempted by rebels, it is necessary to discover whether in the course of time they have ceased to be rebels and must be held to have established a new national state. Thus the legal theory as to where sovereignty resides may be damaged or overthrown by consideration of what really is.

Adhering to our belief that sovereignty belongs within the field of law, we may study the years between 1776 and 1788 with the intent to discover where, as America was then organized, sovereignty resided. Accepting for the moment the definition of sovereignty as complete authority, full legal right, can we decide where it rested? The evidence is confusing: at least able and honest men have differed in their conclusions. Even in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, there was a difference of opinion, some men holding that the states did not become sovereign when independence was declared, others seemingly (and one member plainly) asserting that the states did become separate sovereigns.[20]

Now the truth appears to the writer to be just this: it was a time of revolution and of reconstruction; and in consequence there was and is some uncertainty about the nature of the governmental system. The states frequently acted as if they had real authority and not merely nominal sovereignty. In the Articles of Confederation they announced their separate sovereignty, but their actual incapacity to act as independent sovereignties was often at variance with their presumption. The necessities of the situation indicated plainly that safety was in union, in co÷peration; and so one may believe, if one chooses to do so, that the reality of interdependence was sufficient to overthrow any legal fiction of independence and separate existence.[21] There were, furthermore, strong ties that bound the states together, forces working through the social and economic order, forces that were powerful and likely to become dominant; certain realities were ignored by declarations concerning separate sovereign existence; and the real problem of the time, a compelling problem, was to bring political forms into accommodation with actual needs and with the dominating fact of interdependence and identity of interests. Again, whatever may be said on this harrowing question, another unavoidable fact is this: there had been union, a greater or less degree of co÷peration, even though all the communities had, in contemplation of law, not been absorbed into one body politic. If anyone wishes to assert that the years between 1775 and 1789 were a period of transition, and that the difficulty of deciding upon the residence of sovereignty in the period in question is insurmountable — if anyone wishes to make such an assertion, the writer lays no indictment against him.

But someone may say that all this is avoidance or an apology for not answering the question whether the states were separately sovereign. To this it may be answered, the historian is under no obligation to answer the question. Could he fully present his evidence, his facts, he would be entitled, should it so please him, to leave the verdict to his readers. If, however, one must state an opinion, the writer of these lines is compelled to say that, if one adheres strictly to the conception of sovereignty as implying legal authority, then the only bodies whose doings must be held to be law, because those bodies did them, were the states; they possessed the technical legal authority. If such a conclusion is of value to anyone, he is welcome to it.[22] One cannot very well ignore the word "sovereignty" in the Articles; but one cannot be absolutely sure of the meaning of the word in the minds of men that used it; and one cannot, on the other hand, blind one's eyes to the fact that the states announcing their sovereignty were incompetent to act individually as completely self-reliant members of the family of nations.

In the days of the Revolution and the Confederation, the reigning philosophy was in conflict with the idea that complete unlimited authority could exist anywhere or be possessed by anybody. The conception of the organic or vital character of a body politic was not in accord with "social compact" thinking. Only when in later years men began to think of the state — meaning by the word "state" a body politic, or as we often now say, a nation — as a being possessed of life and will, only when they began to think of the vital source of authority behind all mandates, all agreements, all governments, did they begin to conceive with any clarity and definiteness of a complete and indivisible power. Some things were said in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 which appear consistent with the idea of indivisible sovereignty; but on the whole, it appears just to say, the idea in the minds of the men of that body was that compelling legal authority was to be exercised within given fields; one field was to belong to the national government, one to the states.


[1] Presented to Congress July 21, 1775. For Franklin's use of the New England Confederation and the Albany Plan of Union, see L. K. Mathews, "Benjamin Franklin's Plans for a Colonial Union, 1750-1775," Am. Pol. Sci. Rev., VIII, pp. 393-412.

[2] The committee was appointed June 12, 1776. It reported July 12, and the reported articles were discussed for some time thereafter. The committee of the whole, after discussing the report, submitted the amended scheme to Congress on August 20.

[3] Edward Rutledge wrote to John Jay as early as June 29, 1776: "I have been much engaged lately upon a plan of a Confederation which Dickenson has drawn; it has the Vice of all his Productions to a considerable Degree; I mean the Vice of Refining too much. Unless it's greatly curtailed it never can pass, as it is to be submitted to Men in the respective Provinces who will not be led or rather driven into Measures which may lay the Foundation of their Ruin.... The Idea of destroying all Provincial Distinctions and making every thing of the most minute kind bend to what they call the good of the whole, is in other Terms to say that these Colonies must be subject to the Government of the Eastern Provinces.... I am resolved to vest the Congress with no more Power than that is absolutely necessary...." Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (E. C. Burnett, ed.), I, pp. 517-518 (hereafter referred to as Burnett, Letters).

August 19 (?), 1776, Rutledge wrote to Robert Livingston: "We have done nothing with the Confederation for some Days, and it is of little Consequence if we never see it again; for we have made such a Devil of it already that the Colonies can never agree to it. If my opinion was likely to be taken I would propose that the States should appoint a special Congress to be composed of new Members for this purpose — and that no Person should disclose any part of the present plan. If that was done we might then stand some Chance of a Confederation, at present we stand none at all." Ibid., II, p. 56. This latter statement is interesting in light of what came eleven years later.

[4] The article in the Dickinson draft was slightly longer, but to the same effect.

[5] "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."

Of the article regarding sovereignty of the states, Thomas Burke of North Carolina wrote, "It stood originally the third article; and expressed only a reservation of the power of regulating the internal police, and consequently resigned every other power. It appeared to me that this was not what the States expected, and, I thought, it left it in the power of the future Congress or General Council to explain away every right belonging to the States and to make their own power as unlimited as they please. I proposed, therefore, an amendment, which held up the principle, that all sovereign power was in the States separately, and that particular acts of it, which should be expressly enumerated, would be exercised in conjunction, and not otherwise; but that in all things else each State would exercise all the rights and power of sovereignty, uncontrolled. This was at first so little understood that it was some time before it was seconded, and South Carolina first took it up. The opposition was made by Mr. Wilson of Pennsylvania, and Mr. R. H. Lee of Virginia; in the end however the question was carried for my proposition, eleven ayes, one no, and one divided. The no was Virginia; the divided New Hampshire.... In a word, Sir, I am of opinion, the Congress should have power enough to call out and apply the common strength for the common defence: but not for the partial purposes of ambition.... The inequality of the States, and yet the necessity of maintaining their separate independence, will occasion dilemmas almost inextricable." Thomas Burke to the Governor of North Carolina, April 29, 1777, in Burnett, Letters, II, pp. 345-346. Thus Burke clearly stated the gist of the problem of imperial organization.

"Since my last we have made no progress in the business of Confederation. A difficulty occurs, which, I fear, will be insuperable: that is how to secure to each State its separate independence, and give each its proper weight in the public Councils. So unequaled as the States are, it will be nearly impossible to effect this; and after all it is far from improbable that the only Confederation will be a defensive Alliance." Thomas Burke to the Governor of North Carolina, May 23, 1777, in Ibid., II, pp. 370-371.

[6] Burnett, Letters, II, p. xvi.

[7] As showing the interstate and intersectional jealousies, a letter of Richard Henry Lee (May 26, 1777) is especially illustrative: "Our enemies, and our friends too, know that America can only be conquered by disunion. The former, by unremitting art had endeavored to create jealousy and discord between the Southern and Eastern Colonies, and in truth Sir, they had so far prevailed, that it required Constant attention, and a firmness not to be shaken, to prevent the malicious act [art?] of our enemies from succeeding." Richard Henry Lee to the Governor of Virginia, in Ibid., II, p. 374. See also Burke's letter of February 10 (or 16), 1777, to the Governor of North Carolina, in Ibid., II, p. 257; Benjamin Harrison to Robert Morris, January 8, 1777, in Ibid., II, p. 208; Carter Braxton to Landon Carter, April 14, 1776, in Ibid., I, p. 421, a letter of an earlier date but not without significance for later times. From the notes of discussion in Congress taken by Jefferson, and from reports of certain speeches, we find Samuel Chase of Maryland distinctly asserting the cleavage between the larger and the smaller states on the subject of representation. See especially, Journals, VI, p. 1102. John Witherspoon of New Jersey said, "if an equal vote be refused, the smaller states will become vassals to the larger...." Ibid., VI, p. 1103. The problem of taxation and representation was rendered more difficult by the fact that the southern states had large numbers of slaves. One article in the earlier drafts of the Articles (July 12, 1776 and August 20, 1776) provided that all charges of war and other expenses should be defrayed out of a common treasury supplied by the several colonies in proportion to the number of inhabitants, except Indians not paying taxes.

[8] July 30, 1776. Journals, VI, p. 1079.

[9] For Maryland's position, see H. B. Adams, Maryland's Influence Upon Land Cessions to the United States (Johns Hopkins University Studies in Hist. and Pol. Science, third series, III, no. 1). The whole western question and the land cessions are ably discussed by B. A. Hinsdale, The Old Northwest. Burnett, Letters, II, contains valuable material.

[10] Rhode Island asked that all lands which before the war were the property of the Crown should be considered as the property of the United States, reserving to the states, however, within whose limits such crown lands might be, the jurisdiction thereof. New Jersey's wish was similar to that of Rhode Island. Journals, XI, pp. 639, 650.

[11] Reference has already been made to the Albany Plan of 1754, to Franklin's evident study of the New England Confederation of 1643, which did not expire until 1684, as well as to the actual practice of the old empire.

[12] The courts have not held that the federal authorities are under obligation to compel or to seek to compel rendition of a fugitive by one state to another at the latter's request.

[13] See Constitution, Art. IV, sec. I.

[14] A somewhat unique relationship in such matters exists between France and America, but it serves as an exception to prove the rule.

[15] The Federalist (1818 ed.), no. LXXXII, p. 446. See also John Marshall's speech in the Virginia convention, June 20, 1788. The Debates in the Several State Conventions, on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution (Jonathan Elliot, ed.), 1866 ed., III, p. 556. Hereafter referred to as Elliot, Debates.

[16] An illustration of the quasi-international relationship follows. In 1829, Justice Washington, giving the opinion and decision of the federal Supreme Court, said: "For all national purposes embraced by the Federal Constitution, the States and the citizens thereof are one, united under the same sovereign authority, and governed by the same laws. In all other respects the States are necessarily foreign to and independent of each other. Their constitutions and forms of government being, although republican, altogether different, as are their laws and institutions. This sentiment was expressed with great force by the President of the Court of Appeals of Virginia, in the case of Warder v. Arrell (2 Wash., 298); where he states that in cases of contracts, the laws of a foreign country where the contract was made must govern; and then adds as follows: 'The same principle applies, though with no greater force, to the different States of America; for though they form a confederated government, yet the several States retain their individual sovereignties, and, with respect to their municipal regulations, are to each other foreign.'" Buckner v. Finley, 2 Peters 586, 590-591. In this case the question was whether a bill of exchange drawn in Maryland upon a drawee in Louisiana was a "foreign bill". The Supreme Court decided that it was.

[17] For an interesting discussion of this subject, see R. G. Caldwell, "The Settlement of Inter-state Disputes," Am. Jour, of Int. Law, XIV, p. 38 ff.; A. H. Snow, The Development of the American Doctrine of Jurisdiction of Courts Over States, Publications of the American Society for Judicial Settlement of International Disputes no. 4 (May, 1911); also other pamphlets issued by the same society. Concerning the authority of the Privy Council, Caldwell has this to say: "It is safe to say that from the authority of this administrative body is derived the quasi-international authority of every federal court in the world, except the German Bundesrath whose power to settle the disputes of the members of the German Empire has a wholly distinct origin in the Diets of the Confederation and of the Holy Roman Empire." Op. cit., p. 39. He also mentions nine chief cases coming somewhat formally before the Privy Council in colonial days. Ibid. Only one of these, Penn v. Lord Baltimore, "came before an ordinary court in a fashion at all comparable to a modern case between two States in the Supreme Court of the United States." Ibid., p. 41. "These early settlements were evidently not in any sense international arbitrations, but had all the paternal character of administrative determinations both in their nature and results." But this "habit of looking to this common administrative court ... became a real though reluctant habit until almost the moment of war." Ibid., p. 41. Six disputes came before Congress before the Constitution was adopted. See Ibid., pp. 53-54 and J. C. B. Davis, "Federal Courts Prior to the Adoption of the Constitution," in an appendix to 131 U. S. Supreme Court Reports. In two of these controversies a court was agreed upon but it did not sit and render a decision in either case. But in the Pennsylvania-Connecticut case the court did sit and it rendered a decision. Since the adoption of the Constitution forty-five interstate controversies have come before the federal Supreme Court (to 1932). This statement is based upon data afforded by Professor Caldwell, in a personal letter, March 18, 1932.

[18] Davis, op. cit., pp. XXV-XXVI. The difficulty arising from the fact that the duty or the power to carry out the Court's decisions rested with state authorities is commented on by Davis. Ibid., p. XXIX. Cf. also, J. F. Jameson, "The Predecessor of the Supreme Court," Essays in the Constitutional History of the United States (J. F. Jameson, ed.), p. 1 ff.

[19] Davis, op. cit., p. XXXIV.

[20] See the statements of Luther Martin, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, and Rufus King, June 19; of Martin, June 20. Charles C. Pinckney, who had been a member of the Federal Convention, speaking to the South Carolina legislature, January 18, 1788, declared that the "separate independence and individual sovereignty of the several states were never thought of by the enlightened band of patriots who framed this Declaration [of Independence].... Let us, then, consider all attempts to weaken this Union, by maintaining that each state is separately and individually independent, as a species of political heresy...." Elliot, Debates (1863 ed.), IV, p. 301.

Among the many discussions of this subject the following may be especially useful: A. W. Small, The Beginnings of American Nationality (Johns Hopkins University Studies in Hist, and Pol. Science, eighth series, VIII, nos. 1-2); C. H. Van Tyne, "Sovereignty in the American Revolution," Am. Hist. Rev., XII, p. 529 ff.; A. H. Stephens, A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, I (the classic argument for continued state sovereignty, written by the Vice-President of the southern Confederacy); J. C. Calhoun, Works (R. K. CrallÚ, ed.), I; J. I. C. Hare, American Constitutional Law, I (opening discussion); Alexander Johnston, "Declaration of Independence," Cyclopaedia of Political Science (J. J. Lalor, ed.), I, p. 743 ff.; Alexander Johnston, "State Sovereignty," in Ibid., III, p. 788 ff.; and E. S. Corwin, National Supremacy.

[21] This is what Alexander Johnston means when he says, "... calling themselves sovereign did not make them so." "State Sovereignty," loc. cit., p. 791. If this sentence is at all reconcilable with the idea that sovereignty is legal authority, not full power to exercise it, we shall have to construe it as meaning that the states were so far incapable of acting as separate full-governing bodies that the assumption that they possessed sovereignty was invalidated.

[22] What will one do with a statement like this, which plainly declares that by the Confederation the people became one people? "AGAIN, the formation and completion of that social compact among these States, which is usually stiled the Confederation, is another instance of the great things our God has done for us. This is that which gives us a national existance and character.... By this event, the Thirteen United States ... became ONE PEOPLE." More than once the states together are spoken of by this author as constituting a "nation". John Rodgers, The Divine Goodness displayed, in the American Revolution (New York, 1784), p. 28 ff.

Personae

Terms Defined

Referenced Works