Rod Miller: Wistfully Remembering Our Articles of Confederation

Columnist Rod Miller writes: "The Wyoming Legislature recently called itself into special session to pass a state law more powerful than a federal action. They were about 240 years too late."

Rod Miller

November 08, 20214 min read

Rod Miller
Rod Miller (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

The Wyoming Legislature recently called itself into special session to pass a state law more powerful than a federal action. They were about 240 years too late.

Under our original founding document, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, adopted by the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War, that would have been a piece of cake.

Unfortunately for the “state sovereignty” crowd today, the Articles of Confederation proved woefully inadequate for the needs of our new country, and was replaced by our Constitution.

Under the Articles, individual states enjoyed almost total sovereignty and supremacy. The only hint of a central government was an impotent Congress composed of one delegate from each of the thirteen states, and that body needed a super-majority to act.

There was no president nor executive branch under the Articles. There was no judicial branch to resolve catfights between states. There were only states doing what they chose.

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but when put into practice, the arrangement fell flat on its ass. The noisy “states rightsers” who oppose federal overreach today likely pine for those halcyon years when states were the big dogs.

But lets take a close look at our country right after we sent the Brits home for tea and crumpets, and handed the future to thirteen states acting independently of one another.

Since each state had authority to coin its own money and determine its own tariffs, interstate trade was difficult at best because money good in one state was worthless in another. Post roads were built to haul mail within each state, but the roads often ended at the state’s boundary.

Debt was a huge problem. The individual states were hard pressed to find enough money to pay their militias that had participated in the Revolutionary War, and had no interest in shouldering the “national” debt incurred by the Continental Army.

Since there was no centralized mechanism in the Articles for any entity other than the states to collect taxes, the war debt kept the economies in the several states depressed. Shay’s Rebellion, the first populist uprising against out new government, was the direct result.

The states were on their own when it came to protecting their borders, too. With no national military and only their militia to rely on, Georgia was sweating bullets that Spain would attack from Florida. And they knew they couldn’t count on help from New York, because New York was worried that the Brits would attack from Canada.

Turns out that, no matter how sovereign or independent the new American states considered themselves, they were weaker than any country who wanted to attack them.

For ten years after our Declaration of Independence, we weren’t a nation. We were a loose confederacy of powerful and parochial states doing their own thing, bumping into each other and getting nowhere fast.

When the Founders convened the convention in Philly in 1787, the intent was to amend the Articles of Confederation to make things work better. Thank God, Madison and Hamilton convinced the convention to toss the Articles of Confederation and to draft our Constitution.

Under the Articles, we were a “friendship of states”. Under our Constitution we became, in the words of Franklin, “…a Republic, if we can keep it”.

The Articles were all about the states. The Constitution is about We the People.

We became a nation based upon principles strong enough to survive a civil war, to spread across the continent and to energize itself with the most awesome example of industrial grown the world had ever seen when our Nation was attacked at Pearl Harbor.

That progress and that common strength were only possible when we stopped thinking of ourselves as states, and invested the new federal government with powers theretofore reserved to the states. The Constitution did that for us.

Can the federal government reach beyond its grasp? Hell yeah, does it all the time. When that happens, the solution is to work within the Constitutional framework to back ‘em off. The solution has nothing to do with nostalgia for those salad days of state sovereignty.

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Rod Miller

Political Columnist