When Congress appointed a committee to draft a written constitution for the United States in 1776, shortly before declaring independence, many issues needed to be addressed. In order for the United States to survive, some level of central government had to be created with the authority to carry out its duties. As the nation stood, the Second Continental Congress held little power. It had no constitutional authority and exercised a small amount of control over the military and foreign policy. The thirteen states, for all practical purposes, were just that – thirteen states, not one united nation. Each state was sovereign, coined its own money, raised its own armies and navies, and enacted its own tariffs. As a result, these weak sovereignties were no formidable force, practically at the mercy of any foreign power that might have wished to exert control over the states. In order to build a stronger defense against outside forces, a new plan had to be worked out. That new plan was the Articles of the Confederation. While the Articles had many shortcomings, they were actually a rather effective form of government with regard to foreign relations and Western lands, especially considering that the move to our current constitution would likely never have happened had it not been for the Articles of the Confederation.
It cannot be ignored that the Articles had several shortcomings with respect to foreign relations. For example, Congress could not control commerce or tariffs, and the states refused to adopt a standard tariff. “Easy states” consequently lowered their tariffs in order to attract a larger portion of the British trade. This demonstrated that the United States was not united, and that much needed to be done before that goal could be achieved. Partially due to this disarray, the British posed a serious threat to national security. If the United States wanted to remain independent from Britain, it needed some help. The savior of the day turned out to be France. In 1778, a treaty of alliance with France was adopted. The aid offered to the United States by this foreign nation was close to invaluable to the stand against Britain, and because of this, Congress reluctantly accepted the French offer. This step would later prove to be undesirable as the United States must choose between protecting its own interests and abiding by the treaty.
Despite the inadequacies of the Articles, one very important treaty was agreed to under them. In 1783 the Treaty of Paris was signed. This marked the British’s first formal recognition of American independence. For this reason, the Articles proved to be very effective in the goal of the United States: to survive as an independent nation. The British recognition of American independence meant that the United States could shift the focus from rebelling against British forces to uniting the people in order to promote improvement within the country. Though by no means was Britain no longer a threat, the Americans could now fight for their beliefs with a new pride and honor in being recognized as Americans, and not as second-class Englishmen.
Improvements in the area of foreign relations were aided by improvements within the country, for a nation that builds itself up on the inside is surely stronger on the outside. Under the Articles of the Confederation, western lands were relatively well-controlled. A few exceptions, however, must be noted. Land ownership in the Southwest was nowhere near orderly. South of the Ohio River, uncertainty as to who owned what land was prevalent. Fraud also posed a serious problem. Without accurate records of purchase or even detailed information about the land itself, the southern territory was, at best, questionable.
In contrast, the Northwest was much more organized, thanks mostly to the Land Ordinance of 1785. The United States received much land in 1783 as a result of the Treaty of Paris, and now that land needed to be dealt with. This was done in a sensible manner. The acreage was to be sold, and the profits used to pay for the national debt. Before the land was offered to buyers, it was to be surveyed according to the Land Ordinance. The land was divided into sections, and a portion of each section was dedicated to federal government and to public education. This important aspect of the Land Ordinance helped fuel education, and was a major achievement under the Articles. Perhaps even more important was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. This ordinance called for a systematic process for western territories to gradually be admitted to the union as a state equal to any of the others. Any area of land went through two territorial stages, in which the territory was subordinate to federal government. Once a territory could claim to have at least 60 thousand, Congress could admit it to the union as a state. Another important aspect of the Northwest Ordinance was the anti-slavery clause, which effectively banned slavery in the Northwest, and was an important step in the freedom movement.
For all of these reasons, the Articles of the Confederation served the country well. Progress was made toward complete independence and prosperity, despite the downfalls of the Articles. Foreign relations were administered in a way that was appropriate for a baby nation, and the western land was dealt with systematically in order to benefit the nation and its people. Therefore, the Articles of the Confederation provided a rather effective form of government with regard to both foreign relations and western lands. While the Articles were not quite the Constitution that we treasure still today, the very existence of our Constitution may be owed to the prior existence of the Articles of the Confederation.