Are We Returning to the Articles of Confederation?

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Did you know that until 1865, people in America used the verb “are” after “the United States” rather than “is?” For instance, in 1819—thirty years after the Constitution was ratified—folks might have referred to the purchase of Florida by saying, “The United States are making a treaty with Spain.” That sounds odd to us today, since we would automatically say, “The United States is making a treaty with Spain.” Ironically, it took a civil war, a war between the states, to bring them together into a single entity that called for a single verb.

When the Framers drafted our Constitution in 1787, they hoped the separate states would realize they were joining forces to become one country. Before that, the states operated under a set of agreements called the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. The problem with the Articles was that they did not form a genuine union. There was no overarching government, no president who had the authority to do anything (even though there were eight of them before George Washington!), and no ability to collect taxes. States even charged each other tariffs on imported goods as if they were foreign countries. Alexander Hamilton went so far as to call the Articles an “imbecility.” Residents thought of themselves as citizens of the state they lived in, not of the country. It was because the government under the Articles was so weak and because citizens refused to think of themselves as Americans that the Framers created a new kind of government.

ConArtofConf1The issue of whether the states or the national government would have more power pervaded almost all of the Framers’ debates. And more than 230 years later, these issues remain. Since at least the 1930s, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt developed New Deal programs to lift the country out of the Great Depression, the national government has taken the lead in resolving problems that affect the entire country. Under President Donald J. Trump, this arrangement is teetering—or, maybe, teeter-tottering.

ConCoronavirus2The biggest problems we’re all facing these days relate to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some presidents might encourage Congress to pass laws that would be consistent across America. Examples would be uniform requirements for closing schools or sheltering in place. President Trump, however, has left such decisions up to governors. As a result, there are as many approaches to trying to save lives, protect hospital staff, and restart businesses as there are states and territories.

Rhode Island, Florida, and Texas have gone so far as to set up checkpoints and roadblocks at their borders to halt nonresidents who might be infected, as if they were foreigners. Troopers in Florida and Texas make drivers sign a form promising that they will quarantine themselves for fourteen days before going outside and breathing on the locals. The state police warn that they might track them down to be sure they do so.

ConArtofConf2Furthermore, only people who can prove that they live in the Outer Banks of North Carolina are allowed to enter. Residents of Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina who own houses and live on those islands part-time have sued. It’s unconstitutional, they say, to close the border because that discriminates against out-of-state citizens. “Just because you have a state of emergency does not mean that the government can suspend all your constitutional rights,” one lawyer complained. Nevertheless, state police in Delaware and Florida are keeping outsiders from getting to beaches there, too.

ConArtofConf3On top of these varied measures, states are also competing against one another to buy protective gear for hospital workers and medical devices, such as ventilators, for patients. As a result of the competition, prices for these badly needed goods rise higher and higher. People who agreed with Hamilton about the Articles of Confederation might feel right at home today! A national-level strategy organized by the White House or Congress to buy these items could help keep the costs consistent and manageable from state to state.

Thanks to the Framers, we have a federal government with the balance of power tipping back and forth between the states and Washington, DC. The Great Seal of the United States declares that we are e pluribus unum: from many, one. Are we? Should we be?

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11 comments

  1. Leaving aside the immediate humanitarian costs, my 60,000 ft overview of the breakdown of federal capacity during the pandemic is that this is the tip of an iceberg that has been lurking in American politics since reconstruction and has increasingly emerged since the mid 1990s. There is a very large swath of the American polity, primary but certainly not exclusively concentrated in the South, that worships the abstract concept of America but does not regard federal institutions as legitimate, particularly when federal power is used to benefit people rather than punish marginalized groups.

    Much of America’s dysfunction is a result of an attempt to force people (primarily concentrated in the heavily urbanized states) who want to live a largely normal developed country to coexist with people who would rather live under the Confederate constitution. Tensions between these factions have been rising for decades, and now the world is facing a crisis while the federal government is under the control of would-be Confederates, the emergence of these tensions in ways that put the constitutional order at risk is unsurprising.

    Again, leaving aside the immediate humanitarian costs, I think the fracturing of the American civic order will ultimately be a good thing for the people who live in the territory currently know as the United States. It’s not tenable to force factions with diametrically opposed views on the legitimate role of government to perpetually compromise in ways that satisfy no one. Any solution which gives more freedom for the would-be Confederates to do their thing while the urbanites pursue their idea of governance will produce better outcomes for both sides.

    In short, the erosion of US federal power should be regarded as a positive step towards dissolution because running a society where half the population wants a dictatorship that persecute non-whites and half the population wants some kind of social democracy isn’t tenable.

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  2. This is a really interesting comment. I do note, though, that Dixie has an ever-increasing number of minority voters, and it’s unlikely that they’d support secession. But the point that the contemporary culture war is in some important ways between urbanites (including Atlantans) and those who agree with Jefferson that cities are basically evil (as in much of Pennsylvania between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). This only makes it more difficult to predict any genuinely stable American future when things return to “normal.”

    Sandy Levinson

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    1. Certainly, when one looks closer than the 60,000 ft overview, while the general outlines stay the same, the details get much more complicated.

      As you say, there are a lot of normal developed country supporters (a large part of the Democratic coalition) in urban areas in the South and a lot of hierarchical authoritarians (Republicans) in rural areas in every state, including in deep-blue states like CA and NY. The division is ultimately rural vs. urban but it manifests on a state-by-state level as the South and Midwest vs. the North East and the West Coast because rural, hierarchical authoritarian, values have a political majority in the South and Midwest. The degree of geographic mixing is such that any dissolution of the United States would be incredibly ugly, and would quite likely involve the ethnic cleansing of non-white and GBLTQ people from hierarchical authoritarian areas. As horrific as repeating something akin to the partition of India, or the breakup of Yugoslavia, would be, the depth of ideological divisions in America are such that it might be the best of a very bad set of options.

      The American polity is at the point where partisan disputes are not over negotiable issues, such as whether 1% or 3% of GDP should be spent on defense or even healthcare policy. Instead, current big-picture political disputes (behind the day-to-day headlines) are over fundamental questions of human and political rights, such as whether democratic votes should be counted, whether duly elected Democrats have a right to hold office, and even whether it is acceptable to kill urbanites by denying them disaster aid during a pandemic. No one can, or should, attempt to compromise with people who want to deny their political rights and/or kill them, and unless the hierarchical authoritarians change course and are willing to accept co-existance or partial autonomy for regions that reject hierarchical authoritarian values, even large-scale constitutional reform will only paper over the cracks.

      (Yes, I have been tempted to write at much greater length and depth about this, but I’m not up to writing a book, don’t have the connections to write an article, and with the demise of the blogosphere, there’s no platform for what I have to say.)

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  3. I’ve read various articles on why the Articles of Confederation was bad and not good for our Republic! I call no sense! Granted, it could have adjusted somewhat for maximum effect, meaning a strong balance of everything A-Z. What we have had since the Constitution has been nothing but a train wreck! The govt holds power and control over we the people whom have lost their freedoms and sovereignty because of Lincoln and The Act of 1871! It is preposterous that people think a centralized strong govt is better than the power remaining with the people! Had we kept the Articles of Confederation, America would have been a much better, but more importantly a free nation of Sovereign people, that keeps most of the power out of the hands of govt creatures! What we have had since is proof we should kept the Confederation!

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