The Articles of Confederation was the first constitution of the United States and served as the basis of national government from 1781 to 1789. Under the Articles, the Confederation took the form of a “league of friendship” among the thirteen states. The central government consisted of a unicameral legislature comprised of delegates chosen annually by the states. The states retained their sovereignty and their equality, as each delegation was entitled to one vote.
Congress was given an enumerated list of powers and duties in foreign, domestic, and military affairs. It was empowered to manage all diplomatic affairs, declare war, make treaties, direct all military operations, build and equip a navy, control Indian affairs, borrow money and emit bills of credit, make requisitions on the states for men and money, establish weights and measures, establish and regulate post offices, and determine the alloy and value of coin. While lesser matters could be decided by a simple majority vote, the consent of nine states was required to pass any measure of special importance. Moreover, no constitutional amendment could be admitted to the Articles unless approved by Congress and ratified by all thirteen states.
This confederation of sovereign states, operating through a single body of representatives with neither an executive nor a judicial branch, proved within a matter of years to be inadequate to the economic, and political needs of the time. Perhaps the greatest defects of the Articles were the absence of two essential powers—to raise revenue and to regulate commerce. Without the power to tax, the government was in perpetual financial difficulty; and, lacking the authority to regulate foreign commerce, it could not establish a uniform commercial policy for the nation.
Indeed, from the very inception of the Articles, economic problems had threatened to wreck the republican experiment in America. To maintain order and dignity at home and even the semblance of credit abroad, the confederation needed to generate an independent income. As a result, in February of 1781, Congress asked the states for the power to levy a five-percent duty on the value of all goods imported into the United States. This revenue would then be directed to the payment of debts incurred from the Revolutionary war. The amendment that was submitted to the states for ratification met with initial success, as twelve states promptly consented. Rhode Island, however, refused to acquiesce, and then, shortly thereafter, Virginia repealed its previous ratification. Undaunted, the Congress prepared another impost law in 1783, only to be thwarted this time by New York’s disapproval.
Furthermore, the financial health of the Confederation was in a deplorable state. The requisition system, under which the Congress appealed to the states for revenue to finance the costs of government, proved to be a tragic failure. Between 1782 and 1783, for example, Congress asked for $10,000,000 but received less than $1,500,000. Overall, from November 1, 1781, to January 1, 1786, requisitions received by Congress amounted to only $2,500,000, a sum difficult for even the most frugal of governments to work with.
Meanwhile, the total debt of the United States, foreign and domestic, was $35,000,000—and growing due to the unpaid interest.
Clearly, something had to be done to stave off the bankruptcy of the young republic and to insure its existence. In sum, historian Andrew C. McLaughlin offered this appraisal of the Congress of the Confederation:
. . . the Congress of the Confederation . . . could not pass effective laws or enforce its orders. It could ask for money but not compel payment; it could enter into treaties but not enforce their stipulations; it could provide for the raising of armies but not fill their ranks; it could borrow money but take no proper measures for repayment; it could advise and recommend but not command. In other words . . . it was not a government.
Believing that the central government needed greater strength for the young nation to survive, men like Washington, Madison, and Hamilton assumed leadership in the movement to create a viable national government. Unsuccessful at a convention in Annapolis in 1786, the call went out from Congress for another meeting for May, 1787, in Philadelphia.
Not until the May session of 1787 did the General Assembly of Connecticut finally respond by nominating delegates to the Philadelphia meeting. There had been some confusion and fear in the minds of some Connecticut leaders as to the purposes of the upcoming convention. In the resolution of Congress passed on February 21, 1787, the nature of this meeting had been made quite explicit. The delegates from the various states were being gathered together “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”
Yet, Connecticut answered the call by naming a trio of delegates only after the fears abated that the Philadelphia Convention might be a threat to the state’s sovereignty. Connecticut merchants yearned for reforms concerning commercial issues and the national debt, but many Connecticut people feared loss of control over their own affairs if the central government was strengthened.
Initially, the Connecticut contingent was composed of William S. Johnson, Oliver Ellsworth, and Erastus Wolcott. Wolcott, leader of the agrarian faction in the state, did not accept—and was replaced by the General Assembly with the old political warhorse, Roger Sherman.
Overall, it may be said that the Connecticut delegation was a very strong one—characterized by its moderation, pragmatism, and compromising temperament.
Some Connecticut nationalists worried that Sherman was inclined merely to,
patch up the old scheme of Government . . . He is as cunning as the Devil, and if you attack him, you ought to know him well; He is not easily, but if he suspects you are trying to take him in, you may as well catch an Eel by the tail . . . .
But what did the people of Connecticut really want from their representatives in Philadelphia? Generally, they did not want major alterations of the Articles. Merchants did desire free trade through New York and Massachusetts, and shippers to the West Indies did want effective treaties. Also, public creditors yearned for the redemption of their notes. Land speculators, militia soldiers, citizens who had undergone damages during British raids, and those who had lent the state money all wanted a stronger foothold to Connecticut’s “Western Reserve.” (See map below). An exclusive national import duty which could provide a circulating currency was another point on which most state interest groups agreed. Finally, it may be stated that the citizenry of Connecticut favored an equality of representation among all states in the national government.