Lost Articles

By Richman, Sheldon | Freeman, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Lost Articles


Richman, Sheldon, Freeman


The Constitution says that to be elected to the U.S. Senate, a person has to be 30 or older, a citizen for at least nine years, and a resident of the state from which the candidate is elected.

Alas, it says nothing about knowing American history. Good thing for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C). He'd have to find honest work.

Interviewed after last January's State of the Union address, Graham was asked about the situation in Iraq. Trying to put the difficulties in perspective, he said the United States did not get its constitution until 1789.

Buzz! Wrong answer, Sen. Graham. But as a consolation prize you get to take home a copy of Merrill Jensen's book The New Nation: A History of the United States During the Confederation, 1781-1789. We'll also throw in a copy of Herbert Storing's What the Anti-Federalists Were For. And thanks for playing our game.

Seriously, I realize that children learn virtually nothing about the eight years before 1789 during which the United States existed under the Articles of Confederation. But shouldn't someone who holds himself qualified to be a U.S. senator know that what we call "the Constitution" was really America's second constitution?

The Articles were adopted by the Second Continental Congress on November 15, 1777, and took effect after ratification on March 1, 1781. That was seven months before Cornwallis surrendered atYorktown on October 19, 1781, and two and a half years before the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783.

They remained in effect until "the Constitution" displaced them in 1789. The process by which the Articles were scrapped-rather than amended-in favor of an entirely new blueprint was dubious. As the Anti-federalist "Federal Farmer" (most likely Melancton Smith of New York) wrote in October 8, 1787, had the people known that a new constitution creating a strong central government was to be written, "no state would have appointed members to the convention."

Eight years is a significant period for a nascent country to endure after breaking away from an empire. Sen. Graham's remarks were meant to suggest that what took place in the United States during that time was similar to what's taking place now in Iraq. But that is ridiculous. The 13 states did not embroil themselves in civil war or sectarian violence-neither internally nor with one another. Quite the contrary.

How was life under the Articles of Confederation? As Merrill Jensen writes, "Americans fought against and freed themselves from . . . coercive and increasingly centralized power. . . . They did not create such a government when the Articles of Confederation were written, although there were Americans who wished to do so. . . . Thus the American Revolution made possible the democratization of American society by the destruction of the coercive authority of Great Britain and the establishment of actual local self-government within the separate states under the Articles of Confederation."

Under the Articles, Congress had no power to tax or to erect trade barriers. If it needed revenue it had to petition the states. There was no separate executive branch.

People in the new states, Jensen writes, were full of optimism about the possibilities ahead. Criminal codes were made more humane, with the death penalty removed for all crimes but murder and, in some cases, treason. Property qualifications for voting were abolished over time. Charities and mutual-aid societies were formed, along with library, scientific, and medical associations. Schools were founded. The union of church and state was increasingly opposed.

Of course there was slavery, which contradicted the philosophy espoused in the Declaration of Independence. But "[wjithin a few years after 1775, either in constitutions or in legislation, the new states acted against slavery. Within a decade all the states except Georgia and South Carolina had passed some form of legislation to stop the slave trade," Jensen writes. …

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