Constitution42

What was the government in the United States before the U.S. Constitution was written?

It was the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, which were introduced in the Continental Congress July 12, 1776, a little over a week after Congress approved the Declaration of Independence.

After a long debate, the Articles of Confederation were approved on Nov. 15, 1777 and sent to the states for ratification.

The Articles of Confederation were an attempt to loosely knit the thirteen states together, though leaving most of the authority under each individual state’s jurisdiction.

The Articles of Confederation:

  • Granted to Congress the power to raise armies, declare war and sign treaties;
  • Withheld from Congress the power to raise revenue through taxes, regulate trade or collect tariffs.

The Articles of Confederation were signed by such statesmen as:

  • John Hancock
  • Samuel Adams
  • Roger Sherman
  • John Witherspoon
  • Richard Henry Lee
  • Robert Morris
  • John Dickinson
  • Daniel Carroll
  • Gouverneur Morris

The original states finally ratified the Articles of Confederation on March 1, 1781. The Articles of Confederation were fully in effect as the government in the United States for over six years.

After Daniel Shay led a rebellion which almost toppled the government of Massachusetts in 1786, it became apparent that the federal government was limited in its ability to reduce interstate conflict. A nationalist movement began to revise the Articles of Confederation, though it was opposed by anti-Federalists.

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On May 25, 1787, Congress met in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation, but instead ended up replacing them with the United States Constitution.

Abraham Lincoln still considered the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union as the will of the founders, as he cited them in his first inaugural address, March 4, 1861, in support his view not let states leave the Union: “The union is much older than the Constitution. … The faith of all the then thirteen states expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778.”

The Articles of Confederation declared:

Whereas the delegates of the United States of America in Congress assembled did on the fifteenth day of November in the Year of Our Lord 1777, and in the second year of the independence of America agree on certain Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union between the States. …

The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force … or attacks made upon them … on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense.

The Articles of Confederation ended with the line: “It has pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the Legislatures we respectively represent in Congress, to approve of and to authorize us to ratify the said Articles of Confederation.”

To read the rest of Bill Federer’s breakdown on the original states’ constitutions, click here.

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