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Sunday, February 05, 2006

S. Carolina Ratifies Articles of Confederation, Feb. 5 1778


On February 5th of 1778, South Carolina became the first state to ratify the Articles of Confederation, which would eventually become the first governing document of the United States. But I'm getting ahead of myself... To have even the most basic understanding of the significance of this date, and Articles in general, I guess I need to take you back November 15, 1777.

That's the date that the Second Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, after 16 months of debate. However, even with the approval of the Second Continental Congress, the Articles still had to be ratified by the delegates of each of the thirteen states before the Articles could become law, effectively joining the thirteen colonies of the Revolutionary War into a loose confederation of states. It's important to keep in mind that the early citizens of this new country did not think of themselves as Americans in the way that we, today, think of ourselves as Americans. They were citizens of their state first, and citizens of a new confederation second. A college professor of mine once explained that the first citizens of this new country thought of themselves as Americans much in the same way that citizens of modern-day France or Germany might think of themselves as Europeans, so when I say that the Articles bound the states into a loose confederation, the emphasis is certainly on the looseness of the confederation at this point in the development of a still very new country.

So, two days after the Second Continental Congress adopted them, the Articles were submitted to the states with a letter from Congress requesting that the document "be candidly reviewed under a sense of the difficulty of combining in one general system the various sentiments and interests of a continent divided into so many sovereign and independent communities, under a conviction of the absolute necessity of uniting all our councils and all our strength, to maintain and defend our common liberties...."

Many Americans today, if they're familiar with a governing document at all, are at least vaguely familiar with the United States Constitution. To give some idea of how the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union might compare, let's go over the key provisions of the 13 articles.

The Articles of Confederation named the new country "The United States of America," and provided for each state to retain "its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction and right" which was not specifically delegated to the Congress. It provided for the states to enter into the confederation for the common defense, with states agreeing to assist each other in defending against attacks made under any pretense, including religion, sovereignty, and trade.

The Articles provided a framework through which all free inhabitants of each state, "paupers, vagabonds and fugitives from justice excepted" would be entitled, while traveling freely throughout the states, to the same rights and freedoms that each state offered its' own free inhabitants. The document also provided for delegations to be appointed to Congress, and that "[f]reedom of speech and debate in Congress" should never be "impeached or questioned in any court, or place out of Congress"

The Articles prevented individual states from entering into alliances with other nations, and prohibited Congress from granting nobility rights; and allowances for a basic military presence and rules for engaging in war were described in detail, including financing of wars. In fact, 4 of the Articles, and some of the longest and most detailed articles, at that, deal with specifics of how, when, and under what circumstances the United States would engage in war.

The Articles allowed for Canada to enter into the confederation upon acceptance of these articles, but no other colonies were to be admitted without the consent of at least nine of the states. The final two articles regard finances for the new country, and the importance of all states acceding to the authority of the Articles and the Congress that would represent them.

On February 5, 1778-- two months and 19 days after the Articles were submitted to the states, the South Carolina delegation ratified the document. Unfortunately, an interstate dispute over claims to uncolonized land in the west slowed the document's ratification by many of the other states. It would be March 1, 1781 before Maryland, the last state to ratify the Articles would sign on.

The importance of the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union cannot be underestimated, as they officially joined the former colonies into one nation, providing a unified legal front when negotiating with European countries. That said, their eventual failure as a governing document can't be ignored. Earlier, I mentioned the looseness of this confederation. Clearly, coming out from under the tyranny of British rule, the new Americans were skittish about entering into the jurisdiction of yet another centralized government, evidenced (at least in part) by the fact that it took sixteen months of debate followed by another 40 months of wrangling to prepare and have ratified the central governing document. The ineffectiveness of this kind of loose confederation was exposed over the next few years, leading to the kinds of issues raised in the Federalist Papers and during the ratification period of the Constitution. Still, it does my southern heart proud to know that one of the first steps taken towards establishing a central governing document was taken by my home state, South Carolina, on February 5, 1778.

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