Sunday, October 4, 2020

ARP169 Articles of Confederation

We last checked in with the Continental Congress in Episode 141, as the delegates held a session in Philadelphia.  They had returned to Philadelphia from Baltimore in March 1777, having fled the prior December when they feared the British might invade Philadelphia from New Jersey.  When that fear passed, they returned.  

Then in September 1777, the British army once again threatened Philadelphia, this time marching up from Maryland.  The delegates left town as the Continentals under George Washington attempted in vain to halt the British advance.


The delegates had adjourned in Philadelphia on September 18th, with plans to meet in Lancaster.  They could not simply move straight from Philadelphia to Lancaster, as they would be passing over the same ground where the two armies under Washington and Howe were doing battle.  Instead, the members took a circuitous route, first, travelling up to Trenton, New Jersey, then over to Easton Pennsylvania.  From there, they moved west to Bethlehem.  They remained in Bethlehem for a few days, where many soldiers from Brandywine and other area battles were still recovering. There were also Hessian prisoners of war there, who needed to be moved south to prevent the enemy from liberating them.  After a few days, the delegates made their way west to Lancaster.

Lancaster Courthouse hosted Congress for one day
(from Explore Pa History)
On September 27, the day after the British Army marched into Philadelphia, the delegates met at the Lancaster courthouse to open a new session.  They read a few letters from various generals, including one from the 15th from General Horatio Gates at Bemis Heights, getting ready for the big showdown with Burgoyne’s army.  Gates had not yet fought the battle of Freeman's Farm, but was optimistic about his chances of victory.  Congress read another from General Washington from the 23rd.  At the time he wrote it, Washington still hoped to block the British army and begged for more supplies.

Lancaster was about sixty miles from Philadelphia, probably at least two day’s march for the British Army.  However, the delegates decided it was not quite far enough.  After tending to a little more business in that one-day session, Congress adjourned.  It ended the one day session in Lancaster with a resolution to meet three days later in the town of York, Pennsylvania.  The new location would be twenty miles further from Philadelphia.  It would also be across the Susquehanna River, placing another natural barrier between Congress and the British Army in Philadelphia.  

Another reason for the move was that the Pennsylvania legislature was also meeting in Lancaster.  The combination of the two legislative bodies was probably more than the small town could handle.  Thus Lancaster had its one day as the nation’s capital.


York would be the seat of Congress for nine months.  On the first day in York, President Hancock received more correspondence from General Gates with updates.  He forwarded them to General Washington, since Gates was not keeping the commander up to date directly.  Hancock added his own note, saying he hoped to receive word from Washington soon that he had totally reduced General Howe’s army.

York Courthouse (rebuilt) where Congress met.
Washington made his attempt on October 4, when he attacked Germantown (see Episode 163).  Despite the failure at Germantown, Congress nevertheless congratulated Washington on the attempt and ordered a medal struck in his honor.  Despite the congratulations, delegates were not optimistic.  John Adams wrote in his diary indicating his desire for a new military leader who could lead America to victory: 

Heaven grant us one great soul. One leading mind would extricate the best cause from the ruin that seems to await it. We have as good a cause as ever was fought for. One active, masterly capacity would bring order out of this confusion and save our country. 

Samuel Adams made a speech to the delegates where he said:

Our affairs are said to be desperate, but we are not without hope and not without courage. The eyes of the people of this country are upon us here, and the tone of their feeling is regulated by ours. If we as delegates in Congress give up in despair, and grow desperate, public confidence will be destroyed and American liberty will be no more. 

He ended his speech by seeking hope from God to save the cause: 

There have been times since the opening of this war when we were reduced almost to distress, but the great arm of Omnipotence has raised us up. Let us still rely for assistance upon Him who is mighty to save. We shall not be abandoned by the Powers above so long as we act worthy of aid and protection. The darkest hour is just before the dawn. Good news may soon reach us from the army and from across the sea. 

Laurens Replaces Hancock

About this time many members of Congress either took temporary leave or permanently left Congress to attend to other business Among them was the President of Congress, John Hancock, who stepped down in October. He wanted to return to Boston and attend to business.  He gave a simple farewell speech and a delegate moved to thank Hancock for his nearly two and a half years of service.  

You would think a motion just saying thank you to a retiring officer would be pretty non-controversial, but it wasn’t.  Members objected and the motion barely passed by a vote of six states to four.  Among those opposed was Hancock’s own Massachusetts.  Opponents argued it was improper to thank any delegate for simply discharging the duties of his office. 

Henry Laurens

Many of the delegates had grown to dislike Hancock, not the least of whom were Samuel and John Adams, who had worked with Hancock for decades.  They considered Hancock vain and disliked his efforts to help friends secure political office.  When a delegate asked Samuel Adams if he could forgive Hancock, he said, he would both forgive him and forget him.

For the new President, Congress chose Henry Laurens of South Carolina.  Laurens came from a wealthy family of rice farmers, but had made a fortune as a partner in one of the largest slave-trading companies in North America.  He had served as a lieutenant colonel in the militia during the French and Indian War where he led several campaigns against the Cherokee in the carolinas.

In the years leading up to the revolution, Laurens served in the colonial assembly, where he was considered a moderate in the political arguments with Parliament and led efforts to broker a political compromise.  However, as South Carolina got further radicalized, so did Laurens.  He served in the Provincial Congress in 1775 and became the state’s first vice president in 1776.  He had come to the Continental Congress as a delegate only a few months prior to his election as the body’s new presiding officer.  

His son, John Laurens, had been studying law in London before the war.  He returned to America over his father’s objections and took a commission in the Continental Army. To keep him out of direct combat, Henry got his son a position as an aide to General George Washington.  This direct connection between Washington’s inner circle and the President of Congress would prove crucial in the coming months.

Word of Saratoga

Just before Hancock resigned, Congress received unofficial word of a victory by Gates over Burgoyne in New York.  For several weeks though, these were just rumors.  Gates had won the Battle of Bemis Height on October 7, and then accepted Burgoyne’s formal surrender on October 17.  Both General Washington and General Putnam forwarded to Congress news of the victory which arrived on October 21. Neither Washington nor Putnam had received official word directly from anyone in the army, but had heard the news from New York Governor George Clinton.

James Wilkinson
(from Wikimedia)
General Gates sent word to Congress via his messenger Colonel James Wilkinson.  Traditionally a commander would send a messenger of a great victory with the expectation that Congress would award the messenger with a promotion, in this case to general.  Wilkinson, however, did not seem in any hurry to get to Congress.  He left Albany on October 20th.  He made his way to Easton, Pennsylvania four days later, where he dined with local officials.  He managed to get to Reading by the 27th, where he dined with Lord Stirling, still recovering from wounds received at Brandywine.  Also present was a young Major James Monroe, still recovering from his wounds at Trenton.  At that dinner, Wilkinson drank a little too much and began discussing possibilities of replacing Washington with Gates as commander of the Continental Army.  It took him another four days to make the fifty mile trip to York where he finally arrived on October 31.  

Although he had stopped to meet with a number of other officers, he did not bother to stop and provide General Washington with the news, nor did Gates make any effort to transmit the information to his commander at any time.  Washington finally received definitive notice from Congress, not from Gates.

While Congress was happy to receive confirmation of the great victory, they were not happy with how long it took Wilkinson to arrive.  By the time of his arrival, Hancock had resigned, but Laurens had not yet been elected.  Wilkinson gave his message to Secretary Charles Thompson, who was presiding in the interim.  A few days later, after Laurens’ election, Congress voted to give Wilkinson a ceremonial sword.  Several delegates remarked that perhaps ceremonial spurs or a whip might be better to assist the young man in traveling a little faster.  It also voted to give Wilkinson a brevet promotion to brigadier general.

Congress also was not happy with the terms of surrender that Gates had given to Burgoyne’s army.  The decision to allow them to return to England seemed to undercut the value of capturing the army in the first place.  Whatever, their concerns, publicly Congress voted on November 4 to thank General Gates for his great victory.  It also voted to set December 18 as a national day of thanksgiving to God for allowing such a great victory.

Duché Letter

Much of Congress’ daily work involved correspondence.  Congress regularly received letters from all sorts of people.  Many came from generals, state politicians and other notable men.  Typically, such letters would be read aloud and acted upon by the entire body, or sent to a committee for further consideration.

Jacob Duché (from Wikimedia)
In mid-October, General Washington forwarded a letter from the Reverend Jacob Duché in Philadelphia.  Duché had served as a minister to the First Continental Congress and was considered a patriot.  He had remained in Philadelphia when the British army occupied the city.  There, he was arrested on charges of treason against the King.

A few days later, Duché sent a letter to General Washington, essentially saying that he never really supported independence and that the rebellion was pretty much lost at this point. He called on Washington to renounce independence, seek a negotiated peace, accept pardons from General Howe, and return royal authority to America.

Washington often forwarded letters to Congress without comment.  In this case, however, made clear that he thought the author’s comments were "curious," "extraordinary," and "ridiculous."  Even so, it was Congress’ place to respond to any political proposal, not the place of a military commander.  Congress read the letter, but did not act.  The letter eventually reached state officials who charged Duché with treason against the state of Pennsylvania and confiscated all of his lands.  Duché would be forced to leave Philadelphia with the British, and would be exiled from his home state.  Such defeatism would not be tolerated.

Articles of Confederation 

Within a few days of opening the York session, even with all the other things happening, the Congress resumed its debate on the Articles of Confederation.  Since just after passage of the Declaration of Independence, more than a year earlier, Congress had debated the Articles two or three days each week.  After getting started in York, the delegates made a final push, spending some time each day to finalize an agreement on the articles.

Debate remained contentious.  One of the biggest issues was over representation.  Should each state be represented equally? should it be based on population? or should it be based on the wealth of each state and how much money each contributed to Congress?

Other contentious issues over the next few weeks included the power to tax, the authority to settle state boundaries, and the length of terms for delegates.

Finally, on November 15, Congress agreed to the final wording of the Articles of Confederation.  They sent the document to the printers so that they could send them to the states for ratification.

Articles of Confederation (from Const. Amer.)
The articles were the product of considerable debate and disagreement.  The delegates, however, reached a compromise in the interest of having some sort of governing document.  The loss of Philadelphia seemed to focus the debate.  Some were doubting whether Congress could remain a body at all.  Many of its most prominent delegates had left for positions within their states or abroad.  Without some agreed document establishing Congress’ legitimacy, it could possibly just fade away.

The final document recognized the independence and sovereignty of each individual state.  It recognized that each state retained all of its general sovereign authority except for a few explicitly defined powers that were granted to Congress.

Many of the provisions simply defined the mechanics of how Congress would operate, or was already operating.  Delegates would be selected by states for one-year terms beginning each November.  Delegations could be between two and seven members, whatever the state wanted, and within those limits could change the delegation at any time. States also had the authority to recall a delegate at any time.  Regardless of how many delegates a state sent, each state got one vote in Congress. Delegations would hold their own votes to decide how the state would vote on any issue.  Each Congress would select a president for a one-year term.  No person could hold that office for more than one out of every three years.

States would work together for mutual defense.  Congress retained for itself the power to declare war or peace.  No state could go to war against another country unless actually invaded.  During war, states could commission officers below the rank of colonel.  Congress would commission colonels and generals.  States could not keep their own navies in time of peace, unless authorized by Congress.  Congress would retain sole authority to run prize courts for ships or other property captured by privateers.

Costs of prosecuting the war would be incurred by Congress, who would collect shares of the costs from each state based on the total value of property in that state.  State governments would be responsible for actually collecting the taxes however they liked and sending the money to Congress.

The document further stated that Congress held the authority to maintain diplomatic relations with other countries.  States could not send their own ambassadors or open embassies in other countries.  Congress retained the exclusive right to enter into treaties, including commercial treaties with other countries.

States could not form treaties with each other.  All relations between states would be through the Congress.  States could not impose taxes on foreigners that differed from those of their own citizens, nor could they create import or export restrictions on goods.  

States agreed to give full faith and credit to each other’s laws and court decisions.  If a criminal fled from one state to another, a state would have to return the fugitive for trial or punishment in the state that retained jurisdiction for the crime.  Free citizens would have all the privileges and immunities of citizenship in each state, and may travel freely between states, except of course for slaves, paupers, vagabonds, and fugitives.

Congress retained the power to set standards for coins and currency.  It would be the final arbiter of any state boundary disputes.

Any decisions by Congress to enter a treaty, borrow money, authorize expenditures, increase the size of the military, engage in an act of war, or even appoint a commander of the army or navy, would require a vote of nine states.  In other words it would require a two-thirds majority if all thirteen states voted.  The Articles authorized Canada to join the union if it desired.  Any other state wishing to join the Union would also require the approval of at least nine states.

Approval of the articles would require the ratification by all thirteen states before it could go into effect.  Any future amendments to the Articles would also require unanimous approval by all the states, as well as the approval of Congress itself.


Congress submitted the Articles to the states for ratification.  Just as debate had been contentious within Congress, so it was in the state legislatures.  One of the biggest sticking points for many state leaders was the authority given to Congress to set state boundaries.

Articles, printed (from Northwestern)

Many states had claims on land stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean.  Some also had boundary disputes with neighboring states.  State leaders had great concerns about letting Congress make decisions about how to resolve them.  Congress would likely make new western states out of most of their land, and use land sales to pay off promises to veterans or raise other funds.  The value of those western lands were seen as future income for many states.  They did not simply want to give that wealth away.

At the same time, many States without western land claims absolutely wanted those lands turned over to Congress. They did not want to be next to huge states that dominated the continent and dwarfed their own limited land claims.  These states would not ratify the Articles until the larger states showed a willingness to give up their claims to western lands.

It had taken Congress well over a year to work out the proposed Articles of Confederation.  The states would debate ratification for another nearly four years.  The last hold out, Maryland, would ratify the Articles in 1781, finally allowing them to take effect.

Until then, Congress would continue to operate under its own ad hoc rules, making up rules as they went along, and hoping the States would comply.  Meanwhile, the Congress continued to publish the Articles, even producing a French version to send to Benjamin Franklin in Paris.  Delegates hoped it would help convince France to recognize the United States as an independent nation.

In the meantime, the war continued to rage. 

Next week, the British under General Howe attack Washington’s Army at Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania.

- - -

Next  Episode 170 Whitemarsh 

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Further Reading


Hancock’s Farewell Address:

“To George Washington from Jacob Duché, 8 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, 

Dellape, Kevin J. “Jacob Duché: Whig-Loyalist?” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 62, no. 3, 1995, pp. 293–305. JSTOR,

Garrett, Clarke. “The Spiritual Odyssey of Jacob Duché.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 119, no. 2, 1975, pp. 143–155. JSTOR,

Neill, Edward Duffield, and John Hancock. “Rev. Jacob Duché, the First Chaplain of Congress.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 2, no. 1, 1878, pp. 58–73. JSTOR,

Articles of Confederation, as adopted Nov. 15, 1777, transcript:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Journals of Congress Vol. 3 January 1, 1777 - January 1, 1778. 

Proclamations for Thanksgiving, Albany: Munsell & Rowland, 1858.

Duché, Jacob Washington at Valley Forge, Together with the Duché Correspondence, Philadelphia: J.M. Butler, 1858.

Moore, Frank (ed) Correspondence of Henry Laurens, of South Carolina, New York: Zenger Club, 1861.

Prowell, George R. Continental Congress at York, Pennsylvania and York County in the Revolution, The York Printing Co., 1914.

Wallace, David Duncan The Life of Henry Laurens; With a Sketch of the Life of Lieutenant-Colonel John Laurens, New York: Putnam, 1915. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Burnett, Edmund Cody, The Continental Congress, Macmillan Co. 1941 (book recommendation of the week).

Dellape, Kevin J. America's First Chaplain: The Life and Times of the Reverend Jacob Duché,  Lehigh Univ. Press, 2013.

Montross, Lynn The Reluctant Rebels, Harper & Brothers, 1950.

Stoll, Ira Samuel Adams: A Life, Free Press 2008.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


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