America’s First Founding: The Articles of Confederation

In America, the story about the country’s birth is almost a legendary tale.  General George Washington led his men through a harsh winter and rallied troops to make surprise strikes on the Hessians employed by England, Jefferson laying down the law in terms of egality and representation, Patrick Henry slapping a table and shouting “Give me Liberty or give me Death!”.  The men who created the nation have been solidly dropped into the halls of national pride and fame as the Founding Fathers.  In media, politics, pop culture, even in songs, there is reference to these “Founding Fathers” and nearly always it is in reference to their genius, but very few people really know who they were or what they did.  There’s a deep veil of mystery around their stories for some reason and few Americans even know the history of their own country’s formation.

The Founding Father idea is actually quite vague.  Were they the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, forcing King George to understand that we held truths to be self evident?  Were they the men who signed the Constitution of the United States, the flagship document of the new nation?  Were the Founding Fathers only those who served in both conventions? (Basically just Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.  And even though he wrote it, Jefferson didn’t sign the thing)  Were the Founding Fathers simply the people who were involved in politics of America during the formation of it, or were they just the famous and eloquent ones from the day?  While it seems like a pointless thought experiment at times, the raw amount of times the Framers are cited to back up argumentation or political weedeling is astounding.  Presidential speeches are flushed with commentary about intentions of the Founding Fathers, political hopefuls break out the Fathers whenever possible, newspapers and books cite the Founding Fathers constantly.  More important than citing the elusive gathering of sophists and rebels would be simply defining who they are.

A surprisingly small number of people know that the United States’ Declaration of Independence, signed 1776 in Philidelphia, predates the Constitution, signed in 1787, by a full 11 years.  There was an entire half generation of American history where there was no Constitution, instead there was a weaker powerstructure and a decentralized state courtesy of the Articles of Confederation.  The Articles of Confederation were a set of rules and guidelines intended to hold together the young nation while not centralizing the power and removing the individual rights of the assorted states that made up the United States of America.  Given that they had just finished a costly war breaking free from the larger British Empire, the original American Founders decided that they would rather not have a central power base (kind of like a king) because that would give rise to the taxes, military and general tyranny that England had exhibited.  The result of the fears of Empire and Tyranny were the Articles of Confederation, which barely strung the states together, holding the union intact with what amounted to a wing and a prayer.

Before too long, as the Articles of Confederation limped their way along, there arose an issue that the individual states were unable to deal with: Shay’s Rebellion.  The rebellion, essentially a gathering of angry farmers and war veterans unhappy about foreclosures and the economy after the Revolutionary War.  It was put down by mercenaries purchased by the governor of Massachusetts, but served to show off to the entire nation just how weak the union was under the Articles.  The result of the rebellion and several other revolts around the nation was a Constitutional Convention where the issue of a centralizing power and a chief executive would be addressed.  Within this convention, the argument about House and Senate were resolved, plans were set forth, deals were made, and a few choice concessions to the South allowed the Constitution to be passed through. (This essentially set the stage for the Civil War, some 75 years later)

When George Washington was made president, it wasn’t as though the nation had just been founded and he was marching into the unknown of statebuilding.  He took office in 1787, 11 years after he hung up his military jacket, with the knowledge that he had to form a strong central core the the nation to prevent domestic issues from eating it from within.  What this tells us is that America was not perfect out of the gates.  America’s Constitution was the result of a failed experiment with the Articles of Confederation, built with a backup system to amend it should things go wrong.  To bring it back to the original statement, people today neglect to learn about the Founding Fathers, in fact we are somewhat uncertain of who they are.  If ever you see a comment or a quotation in the future that mentions the thoughts of the Founding Fathers, ask yourself which ones they are talking about.




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