Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Articles of Confederation: America's first, failed government & pre-Washington presidency

A while back I made a promise to some friends that I would explore everybody's favorite era of American history: the post-Declaration, pre-Constitution, completely ineffective governing period of 1777-1787! Yes, my friends, it's time to talk about The Articles of Confederation. No, not the Confederate States Constitution, silly, THE ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION. Why don't more people know about them? Because they were shitty. Because they failed. And because, let's be honest, we were all just waiting for James Madison to step in and do this shit right.

So let's set the stage, shall we? Sor far, we've declared our independence, and we're engaged in some seriously sweet guerrilla warfare that totally pisses off the Lobsterbacks what with their fancy European "rules of engagement" and totally-not-camouflage outfits. The Second Continental Congress is hanging out in Philadelphia, and they're like, "Hey, maybe we should, like, organize an official government or some shit, since we're running this whole war thing or whatevs." I mean, that's how I would have said it, but I never would've been invited to Congress anyway due to my extreme dual-lack of penis and real estate. But most of the people there didn't really know how to write a constitution or how to set up an effective national government. They were all from these disparate colonies and were fighting off authoritarian rule, so it's not a huge surprise that what they came up with was essentially a legislative body that kinda sorta holds the states together and runs the army and shit, but doesn't really have that much power, and the states kinda just do whatever they want. Here, look! A chart from Wikipedia:

I know, right? Anyway, the Congress of the Confederation could do the war, diplomacy, arbitration of territorial rights, and money minting thing. That's pretty much it. Some people, or "Federalists," as I hear they liked to be called, thought that not enough central power was given to the government. These people were right. I will summarize the thirteen Articles (numbering may be slightly off due to hyperbolic oversimplification):

1-9: States are awesome! The states can do what they want! Stay out of our way, Congress! Can we have an army, though?
10: The Confederation should take on all the war debts so far.
11: One vote per state in the Congress. Suck on that, bigger states!
12: If you need money to, like, run the war or one of the other things the states are letting you do, you have to ask us for money first.
13: Canada gets pre-approved for membership as a state,* if like, they thought they wanted to hang out with us sometime or whatever.

Here, a better graphic with CLIP ART(!):

Also, there was some stuff about a "Perpetual Union" that the secessionists were TOTALLY VIOLATING in the Civil War. Although it's unclear whether or not the Articles of Confederation can really be considered an enforceable document after the adoption of the the real Constitution. But whatevs. Anyway, things turned out kind of poorly for the Confederation, not to mention the fact that it took four years to be ratified because Maryland was holding out, whining about other states' western territorial claims. Here's what eventually went down:

-No one ever showed up to Congress, not even to ratify the Treaty of Paris, which was supposed to officially end the war in 1783.
-The Continental Army was incredibly poorly managed, but luckily that whole "disorganized and hiding behind trees and shooting at shit" method worked out for us.** But then the veterans got screwed over. An American tradition, my friends.
-Congress never had any money, because they'd ask the states and the states would be like, "What have you been smoking?"
-There was no regulation of interstate trade and conflicts inevitably arose.
-War debts (both national and state) continued to pile up, and no one could decide who should be responsible for them. Not that anybody was going to actually part with any cash to pay them off.
-Technically they had a President of Congress, though he wasn't a chief executive really. The first one (so the first President of the United States, technically) was Samuel Huntington, who heroically served his country for three months in 1781. Then a bunch of other guys, including John Hancock, cycled through the worthless job for the next several years.

So, the Federalists were like, "Fuck this fucking shit. We're making a new government/document that Antonin Scalia can pretend to be loyal to in, like, 230 years or so." So they did. Now we use the Constitution, blah blah blah Living Document blah blah blah Framers blah blah blah. But I don't think we should forget that on our first stab at a national government, we totally fucked up. Go, America! Maybe the third time will be a charm after George Bush dissolves the rest of the Constitution on January 19, 2009, sets himself up as "SeƱor King President Dubya for Life," and the nation falls into an apathetic television-induced stupor until James Madison 2.0 or somebody really awesome, like Rachel Maddow swoops in, rewrites the Constitution, and banishes the Bushes down to Argentina or wherever it is they have their not-so-secret tax shelter/diplomatic immunity compound, and saves America. Or whatever.

*Also, for an American Express card.

**Plus we had that George Washington guy on our team, who pushed us through to victory despite his tragic lack of a set of real teeth.


  1. this week's featurette will have to become next Monday's featurette. or this weekend's featurette depending on when i get internet at home. for now, i'm leaving work with no time for limerick writing.

  2. I think "I know, right?" is the best response I've ever read to an organizational chart. Meanwhile, I meant to e-mail this to you awhile back, but I couldn't find an e-mail on the site. But if you're moving to Ohio and indeed afraid of not knowing anyone, one of the coolest people I know just moved back to Columbus for a campaign, and since she talks basically like you write, I think you guys would get along. Plus, she's an Ohio native, and knows where to find the best rust, or whatever it is people look for out there. Any way, if you're interested in a playdate, e-mail me.