Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789


Browse Collection by:

View more collections from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division

Collection Connection
Classroom resources for teachers from the Learning Page

To Form a More Perfect Union

Identifying Defects in the Confederation

With the passage of time, weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation became apparent; Congress commanded little respect and no support from state governments anxious to maintain their power. Congress could not raise funds, regulate trade, or conduct foreign policy without the voluntary agreement of the states. Recognizing the need to improve the government, Congress tried to strengthen the Articles, but problems persisted.

Congress Can Not Improve Poor Attendance by Delegates

In November 1783, American diplomats sent Congress the final version of the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended America's war with Great Britain. A quorum of nine states had to be present for Congress to ratify the treaty, yet throughout December, scarcely that number was present. Weeks passed, the treaty sat, and Congress remained unable to act upon it. Some desperate congressmen went so far as to contemplate holding Congress in the sickroom of an ailing delegate, to add him to their numbers.

After years of experiencing frustrating delays due to lackadaisical attendance, delegate James Wilson of Pennsylvania expected this predicament. In anticipation of the crisis, he voiced the need to "devise means for procuring a full representation in Congress." The displayed report, produced by a committee appointed to address the problem, does little more than agree with Wilson; Congress lacked the authority to do much more. Although some statesmen, like Secretary Charles Thomson, took their congressional responsibilities seriously, the weakness of Congress under the Articles of Confederation encouraged many delegates to pay far more attention to politics in their home states and to their personal affairs than to the nation's legislative body.

Congress Pleads with the States to Contribute Money to the National Treasury

By the end of the war, the new nation had a large debt. Although Congress proposed a number of ways for the states to raise revenue towards the national debt, the states almost never complied with Congress's suggestions. By June of 1786, the situation was desperate. The Board of Treasury submitted a report, warning that unless the states immediately adopted the measures recommended by Congress in 1783, "...nothing...can rescue us from Bankruptcy, or preserve the Union of the several States from Dissolution." Congress agreed with the board's findings, and prepared to address the states on the subject. William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, whose copy of the document is included in the collection, chaired the committee in charge of drafting the address; friends warned him, however, that "Your Address to the States will (I fear) prove like Water spilled upon the Ground and have no Influence to awake us from our Stupor." Eventually, after much revision and argument, Congress decided not to send any address at all.

Congress is Unable to Control Commerce Between America and Foreign Nations

Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress lacked the authority to regulate commerce, making it unable to protect or standardize trade between foreign nations and the various states. In 1784, Congress requested that the states grant it limited power over commerce for a period of fifteen years, but many of the states did not comply. In 1785, twenty-seven-year-old delegate James Monroe again stressed the need for increased congressional power over commerce. Congress appointed a committee, chaired by Monroe, to investigate the problem. On February 16, 1785, the committee recommended amending the Articles of Confederation so that Congress would have power over commerce. Although Congress sent the proposed amendment to the state legislatures, along with a letter urging immediate action, few states responded. Monroe later concluded that the issue was so crucial, and potentially granted so much power to Congress, that the states were afraid to act.


Detail view of a broadside.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon By the United States in Congress Assembled. November 1,1783.
Annapolis: Printed by John Dunlap, 1784. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.