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.
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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 13 states together, while leaving most of the authority under each individual State's jurisdiction.
The Articles of Confederation:
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- 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:
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- 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 4,000 in Shay's Rebellion, 1786-1787 – which almost toppled the government of Massachusetts – it became apparent that the federal government was limited in its ability to reduce interstate conflict.
A nationalist movement spread, calling for a revision of the Articles of Confederation, though it was opposed by anti-federalists.
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On May 25, 1787, Congress met in Philadelphia to simply revise the Articles of Confederation, but instead, ended up replacing them with the United States Constitution.
Abraham Lincoln considered the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union as expressing the will of the founders, so he cited them in his first inaugural address, March 4, 1861, to 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."
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Virginia was the first State to ratify the Articles of Confederation on Dec. 16, 1777. At that time, Virginia's Constitution, adopted 1776, stated in its Bill of Rights: "That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other." (current)
South Carolina was the second state to ratify the Articles of Confederation, Feb. 5, 1778. At that time, South Carolina's Constitution, adopted 1778, stated: "We, the people of the State of South Carolina ... grateful to God for our liberties. ... No person shall be eligible to sit in the House of Representatives unless he be of the Protestant religion. ... (changed in 1870 to current "the existence of the Supreme Being") All persons and religious societies who acknowledge that there is one God, and a future state of rewards and punishments, and that God is publicly to be worshiped, shall be freely tolerated. The Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed ... the established religion of this state. That all denominations of Christian Protestants in this state ... shall enjoy equal religious and civil privileges. ... That every society of Christians ... shall have agreed to ... the following five articles ... (See Locke's Constitution, Article 97-100): 1. That there is one eternal God, and a future state of rewards and punishments. 2. That God is publicly to be worshiped. 3. That the Christian religion is the true religion. 4. That the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are of Divine inspiration, and are the rule of faith and practice. 5. That it is lawful and the duty of every man being thereunto called by those that govern, to bear witness to the truth. ... No person shall officiate as minister ... until the minister ... shall have ... subscribed to the following declaration. ... That he is determined by God's grace out of the Holy Scriptures, to instruct the people committed to his charge, and to teach nothing as required of necessity to eternal salvation but that which he shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved from the Scripture; That he will use both public and private admonitions, as well to the sick as to the whole within his cure, as need shall require and occasion shall be given, and that he will be diligent in prayers, and in reading of the same; That he will be diligent to frame and fashion his own self and his family according to the doctrine of Christ, and to make both himself and them, as much as in him lieth, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ."
New York was the third state to ratify the Articles of Confederation. At that time, New York's Constitution, adopted 1777, stated: "Whereas the Delegates of the United American States ... solemnly ... declare, in the words following; viz: '... Laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them. ... All men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. ... Appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions. ... with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence. ...' This convention doth further ... declare, that the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever hereafter be allowed, within this state, to all mankind: Provided, That the liberty of conscience, hereby granted, shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness." (till 1846)
Rhode Island was the fourth state to ratify the Articles of Confederation, Feb. 9, 1778. At that time, Rhode Island was continuing to use its 1663 Charter, which stated: "That they, pursuing ... religious intentions, of Godly edifying themselves, and one another, in the Holy Christian faith and worship. ... Together with the gaining over and conversion of the poor ignorant Indian natives, in those parts of America, to the sincere profession and obedience of the same faith and worship ... by the good Providence of God ... there may, in due time, by the blessing of God upon their endeavors, be laid a sure foundation of happiness to all America ... that among our English subjects, with a full liberty in religious concernements; and that true piety rightly grounded upon Gospel principles, will give the best and greatest security ... to secure them in the free exercise and enjoyment of all their civil and religious rights, appertaining to them, as our loving subjects; and to preserve unto them that liberty, in the true Christian faith and worship of God ... and because some of the people and inhabitants of the same colony cannot, in their private opinions, conform to the ... ceremonies of the Church of England ... our royal will and pleasure is, that no person within the said colony ... shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion ... not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness ... that they may be in the better capacity to defend themselves, in their just rights and liberties against all the enemies of the Christian faith ... and ... by their good life and orderly conversations, they may win and invite the native Indians of the country to the knowledge and obedience of the only true God, and Savior of mankind." (changed in 1842 to "So help me God.")
Connecticut was the fifth state to ratify the Articles of Confederation, Feb. 12, 1778. At that time, Connecticut was continuing to use its 1662 Charter, which stated: "Our said people inhabitants there, may be so religiously, peaceably and civilly governed, as their good life and orderly conversation may win and invite the natives of the country to the knowledge and obedience of the only true GOD, and the Savior of Mankind, and the Christian Faith, which ... is the only and principal End of this Plantation." (changed in 1818 to "Every society or denomination of Christians in this state, shall have and enjoy the same and equal powers, rights and privileges.")
Georgia was the sisth state to ratify the Articles of Confederation, Feb. 26, 1778. At that time, Georgia's Constitution, adopted 1777, stated: "Representatives shall be chosen out of the residents in each county ... and they shall be of the Protestant religion. ... Every person entitled to vote shall take the following oath ... 'I, A B. do voluntarily and solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that I do owe true allegiance to this State, and will support the constitution thereof; So Help Me God.'" (changed in 1877 to "All men have the natural and inalienable right to worship God, each according to the dictates of his own conscience.")
New Hampshire was the seventh state to ratify the Articles of Confederation, March 4, 1778. At that time, New Hampshire's Constitution, adopted 1784, stated: "As morality and piety, rightly grounded on evangelical principles (changed in 1968 to "high principles") will give the best and greatest security to government ... the people of this state ... empower the legislature to...make adequate provision ... for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality. ... Every denomination of Christians demeaning themselves quietly, and as good subjects of the state, shall be equally under the protection of the law. ... No person shall be capable of being elected a Senator who is not of the Protestant religion. ... (till 1877) Every member of the House of representatives ... shall be of the Protestant religion. ... (till 1877) The president (governor) shall be chosen annually; and no person shall be eligible to this office, unless ... he shall be of the Protestant religion." (till 1877)
Pennsylvania was the eighth state to ratify the Articles of Confederation, March 5, 1778. At that time, Pennsylvania's Constitution, adopted 1776, stated: "Government ought to ... enable the individuals ... to enjoy their natural rights, and the other blessings which the Author of Existence has bestowed upon man. ... That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences. ... Nor can any man, who acknowledges the being of a God, be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right. ... Each member, before he takes his seat, shall make ... the following declaration, viz: 'I do believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the Universe, the Rewarder of the good and the Punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine Inspiration. And no further or other religious test shall ever hereafter be required. ... (changed in 1790 to "No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments, shall ... be disqualified to hold any office.") Laws for the encouragement of virtue, and prevention of vice and immorality, shall be made and constantly kept in force ... All religious societies ... shall be encouraged."
Massachusetts was the ninth state to ratify the Articles of Confederation, March 10, 1778. At that time, Massachusetts' Constitution, adopted 1780, stated: "We, therefore, the people of Massachusetts, acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the Great Legislator of the Universe, in affording us, in the course of His Providence, an opportunity ... of forming a new constitution of civil government. ... It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the Universe. ... Civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community, but by the institution of the Public worship of God. ... The people of this commonwealth ... authorize ... the public worship of God, and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality. ... And every denomination of Christians, demeaning themselves peaceably, and as good subjects of the commonwealth, shall be equally under the protection of the law. ... The Governor shall be chosen annually; and no person shall be eligible to this office, unless ... he shall declare himself to be of the Christian religion. ... 'Any person chosen governor, lieutenant governor, counselor, senator or representative, and accepting the trust, shall ... make ... the following declaration, viz.- 'I, A. B., do declare, that I believe the Christian religion, and have a firm persuasion of its truth.'" (changed in 1917 to "The public worship of God and instructions in piety, religion and morality, promote ... the security of a republican government.")
North Carolina was the 10th state to ratify the Articles of Confederation, April 5, 1778. At that time, North Carolina's Constitution, adopted 1776, stated: "That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences. ... That no person, who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the Divine authority either of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office ... (changed in 1835 to "That no person, who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Christian religion ... shall be capable of holding any office.") That there shall be no establishment of any one religious Church or denomination in this State, in preference to any other."
New Jersey was the 11th state to ratify the Articles of Confederation, Nov. 19, 1778. At that time, New Jersey's Constitution, adopted 1776, stated: "That no person shall ever ... be deprived of the inestimable privilege of worshiping Almighty God in a manner agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience. ... No Protestant inhabitant of this Colony shall be denied the enjoyment of any civil right. ... All persons, professing a belief in the faith of any Protestant sect, who shall demean themselves peaceably under the government ... shall be capable of being elected into any office." (changed in 1844 to "No person shall be deprived of the inestimable privilege of worshipping Almighty God in a manner agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience.")
Delaware was the 12th state to ratify the Articles of Confederation, Feb. 1, 1779. At that time, Delaware's Constitution, adopted 1776, stated: "Every ... member of either house ... before taking his seat ... shall ... make ... the following declaration, to wit: 'I ... do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed for evermore; and I do acknowledge the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.' There shall be no establishment of any religious sect in this State in preference to another. ... That all Men have a natural and unalienable Right to worship Almighty God according to the Dictates of their own Consciences. ... That all Persons professing the Christian Religion ought forever to enjoy equal Rights and Privileges in this State." (changed in 1792 to "All men have, by nature, the rights of worshipping and serving their Creator according to the dictates of their consciences.")
Maryland was the 13th state to ratify the Articles of Confederation, Feb. 22, 1781. At that time, Maryland's Constitution, adopted 1776, stated: "It is the duty of every man to worship God in such manner as he thinks most acceptable to him; all persons, professing the Christian religion, are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty. ... The Legislature may, in their discretion, lay a general and equal tax for the support of the Christian religion; leaving to each individual the power of appointing the payment ... to the support of ... his own denomination. ... That no other test or qualification ought to be required, on admission to any office ... than such oath of ... fidelity to this State ... and a declaration of a belief in the Christian religion. That every person, appointed to any office ... shall ... take the following oath; to wit: 'I, A. B., do swear, that I do not hold myself bound in allegiance to the King of Great Britain, and that I will be faithful, and bear true allegiance to the State of Maryland;' and shall also subscribe a declaration of his belief in the Christian religion." (changed in 1851 to "in the Christian religion; and if the party shall profess to be a Jew, the declaration shall be of his belief in a future state of rewards and punishments.")
Vermont was its own republic in 1777. Even though it did not participate in the Articles of Confederation, Vermont's Constitution in 1777, as well as its 1786 Constitution, in effect at the time President George Washington approved Vermont as the 14th state, stated: "Whereas, all government ought ... to enable the individuals ... to enjoy their natural rights, and the other blessings which the Author of Existence has bestowed upon man. ... That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God, according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding, regulated by the Word of God. ... Nevertheless, every sect or denomination of people ought to observe the Sabbath, or the Lord's Day, and keep up, and support, some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed Will of God. ... And each member, before he takes his seat, shall make ... the following declaration, viz. 'I ____ do believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the Universe, the Rewarder of the good and Punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration, and own and profess the Protestant religion.'" (changed in 1793 to "So help me God.")
Rep. James Meacham stated in a House Judiciary Report, March 27, 1854: "Down to the Revolution, every colony did sustain religion in some form. It was deemed peculiarly proper that the religion of liberty should be upheld by a free people. ... Had the people, during the Revolution, had a suspicion of any attempt to war against Christianity, that Revolution would have been strangled in its cradle."
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