Constitution Day is a holy day in the American civic religion. We are proselytized on how the Constitution of 1787 saved the union from ruin and how this Living Constitution thrives today. To the extent our first document of union, the Articles of Confederation, is mentioned, it is to set up a straw man to be knocked down by the gospel according to “The Federalist Papers.”
The Articles, however, should have their own holy day, perhaps Nov. 15, the date when the Continental Congress adopted them in 1777. Despite what we are told, the Articles were an American success story. The two main goals of the Confederation were the defeat of Great Britain and preservation of self-government in the 13 states. Both were achieved in a confederative structure. In 1783 the Treaty of Paris officially ended the American Revolutionary War. King George III acknowledged that the 13 former colonies were “free sovereign and independent states.” After much expense and bloodshed, independence was earned.
Under the Articles, each state retained “its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right [not] expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” After the experience with British meddling in colonial affairs, the people preferred to be governed by their own local and state leaders rather than a distant centralized body. The Articles magnificently secured this right of self-government.
Writing in 1786, Thomas Jefferson described the Articles as a “wonderfully perfect instrument, considering the circumstances under which it was formed.” Upon his initial reading of the Constitution of 1787, which ultimately replaced the Articles, Jefferson observed that “all the good of this new constitution might have been couched in three or four new articles to be added to the good, old, and venerable fabrick, which should have been preserved even as a religious relique.”
So why did Jefferson have such a high opinion of the Articles? Undoubtedly because of the many liberty-promoting provisions found in the “venerable fabrick.” For example, the Articles restricted congressional power with term limits. Under Article V, “no person shall be capable of being a delegate for more than three years in any term of six years.” The Articles thus prevented the establishment of an American ruling aristocracy and championed the idea that public service should be open to men as talented as those already holding power (or perhaps more so). In light of the careerism found in our Congress, term limits would be welcome. Since 1998 the incumbency rate for the House of Representatives has dipped below 94 percent just once (85 percent in 2010). This has been a steady pattern going back several decades, and it needs remedying.
Before the Confederation Congress could borrow money, a supermajority of delegates had to approve. Although the national government struggled with fiscal issues because of the cost of the War of Independence, the supermajority requirement was meant to protect the fiscal soundness of the government and to prevent the rulers from incurring unnecessary debt. Right now our national debt exceeds $19 trillion. Congress’ ability to raise or suspend the debt ceiling with a simple majority vote makes the Articles’ supermajority requirement very attractive. Such a provision would help the fiscally responsible minority beat back wasteful spending.
Finally, the Articles established a “firm league of friendship” among sovereign and independent states. Unlike today, states were not mere administrative subdivisions of the national government depending on Washington, D.C., to send money – with strings attached – to fund state budgets. Control did not rest at the center, but at the peripheries. Considering the servile position of the states today and the one-size-fits-all decrees issued by bureaucrats administering the national government, a confederal structure based on state sovereignty would be a welcomed change from the top-down governance that has made such a policy mess of everything from education to banking.
The American people have surely had their fill of “the vigour of government” Alexander Hamilton falsely claimed in Federalist No. 1 was “essential to the security of liberty.” Over 200 years of experience has taught that government must be shackled – not invigorated – to safeguard the rights of the people.
Jefferson had good reasons to respect the Articles of Confederation. Individual liberty and state sovereignty were placed beyond the reach of the national government. If we desire to reform our modern omnipotent national government, we should declare a “Confederation Day” and spend some time studying the wisdom of our first charter of union.