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THE LEGAL FOUNDATION OF A NATION

To get a fresh start, the Continental Congress in 1776 asked the states to rewrite their state constitutions as republican documents. Written constitutions serve as the fundamental rules — laws that don't change with the day-to-day ideas of ordinary legislation. Most of the state constitutions were similar, being contracts that defined the powers of government and the rights of citizens.

Massachusetts came up with the new idea of having the people of the state ratify any amendments to the state constitution. The amendment process for the U.S. Constitution still works that way: The legislatures of three-quarters of all the states must approve any changes. After the states began to think in a new citizen-friendly way, almost half of the 13 original colonies decided to move their capitals to be closer to the people in the center of each state.

The Articles of Confederation

To set some permanent rules for the new nation, Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation (1777). The major issue at first wasn't so much how to govern the new country as how to handle the land it was sitting on. Most colonial governments liked to think of themselves as extending all the way over the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi, if not to the Pacific. They each had claims on Western land. The new central U.S. government got the states to give up these claims so that new states could be formed and land sold to settlers to support the national government. The individual states pooled their Western land resources for the common good.

This was an important start, because the Articles of Confederation gave no power to Congress to collect taxes. Congress established a tax quota for each state and then used the time-honored negotiating strategy of begging and pleading to get the states to pay up. How well this system worked is reflected in the number of Continental soldiers who were never even supplied with shoes by the government. And tax collecting wasn't the end of the Confederation government's weakness. Congress wasn't allowed to regulate commerce and set tariffs; each state did that individually. Apples could be taxed at 10 cents in New York and $10 in Pennsylvania — possibly both ways if a cargo moved across state lines.

Example

Question: What was the major government revenue weakness of the Articles of Confederation?

Answer: Under the Articles of Confederation, the United States couldn't levy taxes or control commerce.

The Articles of Confederation was an anti-King George agreement; whatever the colonies didn't like about the British government, they left out of the Articles of Confederation. Dictatorial administration? The articles allowed for no president, king, or executive at all. Crooked judges? The articles established no national judicial system; each state did its own thing. The central government got to negotiate treaties and run a postal system, though it was a little unclear where it would get the money to print the stamps.

The Articles of Confederation contained good things as well. First, the articles existed, giving the states a unified platform to work with. Second, weak as they were, the articles clearly spelled out the powers of the government. Unlike the unwritten, hard-to-define British Constitution, the articles were right there in black and white. They held the union together through a tough war and gave the states a stepping stone to something stronger and more permanent.

 
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