Victor Nuovo: The first American Confederacy

Editor’s note: This is the 15th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Before the United States of America achieved “a more perfect union” through the ratification of the Constitution of 1787, it was a Confederacy. This word itself, which became notorious because of the secession by seven southern states in 1860 and the horrendous war that followed between north and south, has an uncontroversial meaning.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a confederacy as “a union by league or contract between persons, bodies of men, or states, for mutual support or joint action; a league, alliance, compact.” The word is a compound consisting of a prefix (con, from the Latin word, cum, i.e., with) and a stem (federate, whose Latin root is foedus, that is, covenant, contract, or agreement; federate means to join by agreement, contract, or covenant; uniting in a common purpose). Politically, a Confederacy is a union of autonomous societies or states; the purpose of confederation is public welfare.
The Articles of Confederation were adopted in 1781 by representatives of the 13 American states, formerly colonies of Great Britain. They had declared their independence from Great Britain five years before, and following a long war in defense of it, had achieved victory over British forces at Yorktown. The Articles were supposed to achieve a “perpetual union” of all the states: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
It should be recalled that the Declaration of Independence declared that the 13 colonies were thereafter 13 free and independent states. Sovereignty resided in each state and not in the Continental Congress, nor did it reside in a new nation, the United States of America. The Articles of Confederation did not propose to change this, but only to establish a union between the states; to be sure, a perpetual one. But, as the historian Gordon Wood has observed, in 1776, there was little if any thought of this union becoming “a single republic, one community with one pervasive public interest” (Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, p. 356).
The independence of the colonies was decided by war, and The Treaty of Paris, which formally ended hostilities between Great Britain and the United States, also acknowledged the sometime colonies to be, individually, free, independent, sovereign states.
Yet the founders fervently believed that something new, and monumentally historic was being brought into the world: a permanent union of states dedicated to the principles of liberty and equality.
The Articles of Confederation and, later, The Constitution of the United States adopted in 1787, and the Civil War, which happened almost a century later, were decisive moments in the long achievement of this goal. The goal still beckons; it is an almost mystical goal. The Union forever! Which is why the Articles and Constitution must still be read, and their histories recalled, for they are records in the making and remaking of the United States, which remains a task for us, today and hereafter.
The Articles of Confederation aimed at a compromise between independence and union. The first article establishes that henceforth the states comprise a Confederacy called The United States of America. The second article asserts that, nevertheless, “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence.” Yet their sovereignty is limited by the agreements spelled out in the articles that follow.
In the third article, the states agree to join together in a common and mutual defense. Any threat to the liberty or welfare of one will be regarded as a threat to all and will be met with a united response.
The fourth article declares that the right of citizenship in one state entails the same right in them all. This right applies, however, only to the free inhabitants of a state, not to “paupers, vagabonds, and fugitives from justice,” and, although not named, it does not apply to slaves. The self-evident truth of equality asserted in the Declaration was ignored.
The principle of “full faith and credit” also applied between the states. According to this principle, each state must recognize all “records, acts, and judicial procedures” of every other state. This applies to all public documents, statutes, and judicial actions in each state. This provision was retained in the Constitution, and it was applied to slave laws (see Article II, section 2, paragraph 3), which became the cause of ongoing controversy that was finally decided by civil war and by the adoption of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.
Article five of the Articles created the Congress of the United States. It was to be a unicameral assembly of delegates, each state represented by at least two and by no more than seven delegates, the number and manner of their selection to be determined by each state legislature. Whatever the size of its delegation, each state would have only one vote. The right of free speech was to be observed in all congressional debates.
Articles six through nine gave Congress the sole authority to engage in diplomacy, to enact international treaties, to wage war, and to make peace. No state or group of them had the right to enter into a treaty with other states or a foreign government, or to restrict trade, or establish tariffs. Every state had the responsibility to maintain an armed militia and, in some instances, naval forces, but without the authority to declare or wage war, which belonged only to Congress. The states were to maintain armed forces only for the common defense. Officers of Colonel and above were appointed by Congress; lower ranks by state legislatures. The Congress only had power to regulate money. It also served as the ultimate court of appeals in disputes between the states.
Article nine also established “A Committee of the States,” made up of one delegate from each state with the authority to acquire a managerial staff, subject to congressional approval. This committee and its staff became the executive department of government. It was to be headed up by a president appointed annually by the committee. The president was not a chief executive, but rather a chair of the board, and was permitted to serve in that office for only one in three successive years.
Succeeding articles dealt with the appropriation of funds to the states (“in proportion to the number of white inhabitants”), the congressional calendar, the duration of its recesses (no more than six months), and the conduct of business when Congress is not in session, and the recourse to secrecy in matters concerning treaties, foreign alliances, and military operations. The Articles extend an open invitation to Canada to joint the confederation of states. The final article, number 13, required that every state observe the articles of confederation, unless exempted by congress and the unanimous agreement of all of the state legislatures.
The Articles were not long adopted when they were judged to be inadequate. They left too much sovereignty in the states, and failed to provide enough union. This led to the desire to create “a more perfect union,” which will be discussed in the next essay. Stay tuned.

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