John Dickenson and the Articles of Confederation

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To many people, the upcoming holiday of July 4th signals the birth of the country. In fact, the struggle for independence was a distinct and separate movement than the struggle to become a nation.

It is hard for people to envision just how disconnected the thirteen colonies were in 1776. The only thing that united them was England – the country they were rebelling against. When Patrick Henry stood up at Carpenter’s Hall during the First Continental Congress and said, “I am not a Virginian but an American,” he was ahead of his time by over a decade. The thirteen colonies, as they struggled to define their independence and support a Continental Army, found more things that separated them than united them. There were small colonies and large ones, southern ones and northern ones. They were separated by habits and religion. As John Adams put it, “The colonies had grown up under conditions so different, there was so great a variety of religions, their customs, manners, habits had so little resemblence, and their intercourse had been so rare, and their knowledge of each other so imperfect, that to unite them in the same principles in theory and the same system of action, was certainly a difficult enterprise.”

There was no popular outcry for the colonies to become a nation. In fact, the idea sounded to many to be exactly what they were fighting against. Why submit to an American authority?   Might we just as well submit to the British?

The problem was that there was a war to win, and that doing so would require a united effort, even if the colonies, now states, were to retain their sovereignty. George Washington certainly so the dangers of the lack of federal power – it showed in the lack of shoes for his soldiers, the lack of food, uniforms. The lack of soldiers themselves!

It was left to Pennsylvanian representative John Dickenson to try to form the thirteen colonies into a compact. Thus was born the Articles of Confederation.

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The original Articles can be found in Philadelphia, at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. While not as famous as our original drafts of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, it is every bit as historically significant. We can see, through each scratch and x mark, the discomfort with national/federal power held by the congress. Wrote Dickenson:   “The said Colonies hereby unite themselves into one Body so as never to be divided by any Act whatever of the Legislature of any Colony or Colonies, or of the Inhabitants thereof…” This would create a country that even the states would be unable to leave. That would be a fight left to a succeeding generation. In the meantime, the language would be altered to state, “The said Colonies unite themselves so as never to be dided by any Act whatever of the Legislature…” The people of the states could still choose to separate.

The Articles of Confederation ended up giving the national legislature the power to negotiate the end of the war, but little else. To many, such as George Washington, it was a situation that could never continue.   Writing to Reverend William Gordon: “It now rests with the Confederated Powers, by the line of conduct they mean to adopt, to make this Country great, happy, and respectable; or to sink it into littleness; worse perhaps, into Anarchy and Confusion; for certain I am, that unless adequate Powers are given to Congress for the general purposes of the Federal Union that we shall soon moulder into dust and become contemptable in the Eyes of Europe, if we are not made the sport of their Politicks; to suppose that the general concern of this Country can be directed by thirteen heads, or one head without competent powers, is a solecism, the bad effects of which every Man who has had the practical knowledge to judge from, that I have, is fully convinced of; tho’ none perhaps has felt them in so forcible, and distressing a degree.”

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