University of Wisconsin–Madison

Confederation Period

Americans had a myriad of concerns in the years following the end of the War for Independence. Many of those issues centered on the Articles of Confederation and the powers delegated to Congress. Previous attempts to amend the Articles of Confederation inside and outside of Congress proved unsuccessful. All proposals to give Congress powers to tax and regulate commerce failed to get the approval of all thirteen state legislatures which was required by Article XIII of the Articles of Confederation. Among the many considerations that Americans faced during the “critical period,” the items below certainly paint a somber backdrop to the decade following the Revolutionary War. Many of these selections are from our Commentaries on the Constitution (CC), Volume XIII and Constitutional Documents and Records, 1776-1787 (CDR), Volume I. The Introduction from Constitutional Documents and Records, 1776-1787 (pdf) will give you a broad perspective of the issues extant during the Confederation Period.

Formal Attempts to Revise the Articles of Confederation

Soon after the Treaty of Paris (1783), the dismal reality of national governance under the Articles was obvious to those with a continental outlook. There were several failed attempts by Congress to amend the country’s first constitution.

Monarchial Tendencies in America

Late in the Revolutionary War through the 1780s there were some who felt that the only solution to the crises facing America was to return to the British Empire or to establish a temporary monarchy or dictatorship to stabilize the nation.

The Idea of Separate Confederacies

The circumstances facing Americans led some to advocate dividing the United States into three or four separate confederacies or perhaps even into thirteen separate republics.

The Shadow of Shays’s Rebellion

This rebellion in western Massachusetts alarmed many Americans and revealed the need for a stronger government capable of suppressing internal insurrection. Fears of democratic state radicalism, as epitomized by Rhode Island, were also prevalent. Others, however, were satisfied that the states themselves were capable of suppressing internal violence–even in the case of Shays’s Rebellion.

The Navigation of the Mississippi River

Spain’s prohibition of American navigation on the Mississippi River angered Southerners. Efforts to resolve the issue illustrated the weakness of the United States and the sharp sectional divisions in the country.