Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Articles of what, exactly?

Have you ever read the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union between the States?

I had not. Until last weekend that is, when, in residence at the Montpelier Constitutional Village, I set my alarm for 6 a.m. Saturday, so as to have time to do just that before my 9 a.m. class.

I found the Articles surprisingly readable and extremely thought-provoking. They begin with these three stipulations


The Stile of this Confederacy shall be
"The United States of America".


Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.


The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.
So thirteen colonies signed the Articles, and there we were, a country: the United States of America. Sort of. In reality, that name denoted 13 separate principalities bound together by a need to resist a common enemy.

My fellow students and I were fascinated and quite amused that anyone expected much successful governance from a "firm league of friendship" among those free and independent sovereign states. But the Articles would not have flown, we learned, if they had not recognized the supremacy of state government. It seems that the country one identified with back then was the state in which one resided. I would have called myself a Virginian, not an American.

The purpose of the Articles of Confederation was to hold the colonies together in order to defeat the British army, to raise the necessary money to do that, to begin to figure out how states could more smoothly do business together, to ease out travel between the states, and to address expansion. And, our leader Eugene Hickok pointed out, the Articles got those jobs done.

That "firm league of friendship" held together effectively enough to win the Revolutionary War -- or, at least, long to keep soldiers in the field until Britain managed to lose the war.

But, Dr. Hickok also pointed out, the Articles outlined an alliance not a government. They did not give the central government enough power to glue those thirteen fractious principalities together for anything close to perpetuity. No "firm league of friendship" was going to triumph over the vicissitudes of human nature, which were as much in play in the founding of this country as they are today. We Americans have always had a difficult time with the concept of "the greater good," when it doesn't coincide with our individual good. Plus, times change. A country at war is often easier to hold together than a country at peace. There was an attempt to amend the Articles, but in the end they were scrapped as outmoded. Times change; issues change. Documents don't change -- at least not as fast as the times.

Americans appear to have been as politically fractious then as they are now. The writing and ratification of the Constitution required verbal war. All those Federalists and anti-Federalists going at each other hammer and tongs.

Today, we Americans are as divided as ever, and all sides tend to view the Constitution, the Founding Fathers' second stab at establishing a "perpetual union," as giving us permission to do what we want to do. We range from Constitutional fundamentalists, who read a document written in recognition that times change, as though times have not changed; to Constitutional creativists, who go searching in the documents for some clause that will let them do whatever they think needs doing.

I don't have any wise words to offer about the Constitution after my weekend immersion in it, but I do feel that, by going back and looking at the document and the men who wrote it, I've gained more perspective on today's partisan and divisive times. After all, if we as a country got through the clashes of conflicting ambitions and venal self-interests that informed the writing of our Constitution, surely our current political discord is capable of  producing some wise fruit.

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