Substantive Education

October 1, 2009

American Government Part 1

For anyone new to the blog I frequently post information for my students in classes that I’m teaching.  The following is for my American Government students and reviews some of what we have covered in class on the Declaration of Independence and begins our exploration of the Articles of Confederation.  I prefer to have students read the original documents so we have spent several weeks reading the Declaration and doing some simulations of discussions that might have occurred at the time.

declaration_of_independence_385x261In class we have been studying the Declaration of Independence and the events that led up to it. The Declaration is an extraordinary document. In class we have read and discussed it in sections and you should be familiar with the arguments that Thomas Jefferson lays out. To people living in the United States today the ideas contained in the Declaration may seem unremarkable, even obvious, but to men living at the time the document was written these were revolutionary ideas. In order to fight a war and create a new nation, the first step was changing the way the colonist thought…at a very basic level.

In A History of Us, From Colonies to Country, Joy Hakim explains that John Adams understood the difficulty and the necessity of Americans making a paradigm shift. For their to be success, first, the colonist had to embrace the ideas presented in the Declaration of Independence.

“Long after the American Revolution, someone asked John Adams what the war had been about. There were two revolutions, he explained. One was the war itself. But the important revolution, he said had occurred even before the war began. It had to do with ideas and attitudes. ‘The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.‘ said John Adams.”

The idea of inalienable rights, all men being equal, and a government by the people were ideals people had to embrace with such conviction that they would be willing to fight and die for those ideals.

Living in the United States today it is hard to appreciate the risk that these men were taking. There really was very little hope for success. They were not a united group, but 13 independent states with different governments, different currencies, and different goals. They had no central government to direct, control, and pay for an army. They had no way to tax, no authority to make treaties, and no consistent laws regarding money and commerce. America was taking on one of the most powerful nations in the world at the time, while they did not have a standing army.

These were the big problems, but there were many other concerns to deal with. The south had to contend with England

painting by John Trunbull

painting by John Trunbull

promising slaves freedom if they fought on their side. Settlers on the frontiers had to deal with Indian attacks incited by the English to weaken the colonies resolve. Every town had colonist who were against the idea of revolution considering it treason and remained loyal to the crown. There were spies, distrust, and families split over loyalties.

Yet, in the midst of this there was a group of extraordinary men who envisioned a government that would serve the needs of the people. This group of men took on the impossible task of going to war with England. Each acknowledged as he signed the Declaration of independence that he was probably signing his own death warrant. It is said that there was complete silence within the hall as each man came forward to affix his signature to the document. It was a solemn and serious occasion and was only the beginning of the challenges the new government would face.

As you all know, the impossible happened and America won her independence. You might think that after that things got easier, but they got worse, much worse. From 1781-1789 the United States was governed by The Articles of Confederation. During most of the war the states couldn’t even agree on The Articles of Confederation and the war was basically fought under a gentlemen’s agreement of co-operation. This was very inefficient and created many obstacles to winning the war.

The rulers of all the powerful nations in Europe called the government that was developing in America The Great Experiment and they expected it to fail quickly, and when it did, they would be there to divide up the spoils. These rulers were contemptuous of the idea that a government could be based on God-given, inalienable rights and that common people could rule themselves. Believing it to be an unworkable and ridiculous system they sat back and waited for failure.

At first it seemed that would be what happened. During the war, and after the establishment of the The Articles each state had their own Constitution. Each state had their own executive, judicial, and legislative branches and their own bill of rights. In reality there wasn’t one country in America, but thirteen separate countries that were trying, some of the time, to cooperate.

After winning the war, States were unwilling to give a unified, federal government much power. They were afraid that after fighting for independence  they would once again find themselves with their liberties being denied, so they fought to limit the power of the centralized governments and to keep the power in the hands of each individual State.

The constitutions of the individual states were set up much like our government today. The power of the States were divided among executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Each State also had a bill of rights. However, The Articles of Confederation were not organized in this way, instead there was a Congress that performed the work of all of the branches. This led to chaos. In an effort to keep the central government from gaining power it was decided that in order for anything to be passed,  9 states would have to vote yes. This made decision making nearly  impossible, and as time passed it became harder and harder to get a quorum of men together to discuss and vote on issues.

The Articles of Confederation had many weaknesses. It quickly became apparent that the lack of power given to the Central government was keeping the United States from moving forward. Among the powers denied to the central government were;  the ability to enforce treaties, to impose taxes, to regulate trade between the states, to call out troops, or to establish courts. Without these rights the country quickly fell into an economic depression.

Added to all these problems was Article Two…it sated that ‘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 essence the United States wasn’t really a united country but,  at best, a ‘league of friendship’.

See Part 2 (coming shortly) to continue on with the The Articles of Confederation.


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