Study Guide

Articles of Confederation Historical Context

By The Second Continental Congress, John Dickinson

Historical Context

To paraphrase the '90s time capsule/band Reel Big Fish, we're talkin' bout a revolution. Or, to quote The Beatles, you say you want a revolution.

Even Diplo has a song about revolution.

You get the point. "Revolution" is such an oft-sung-and-oft-written-about concept in U.S. history that it's almost a cliché of the American experience. Still, let's take the Fish's advice and talk about it.

Grab your pamphlets and your muskets and take a deep breath.

The U.S. was born of revolution (mosey over here for the full Shmoop experience), and so was its first system of government, the Articles of Confederation. The Articles enshrined a few of the key political and social tenets of the breakaway from Britain.

Number one: no more monarchy, no more nobility. In colonial times, back when the British took the land of the thirteen colonies away from the Native Americans, the main political philosophy in Europe was that kings and queens were divinely ordained.

Yeah, that's "divinely" as in, favored by God.

If you were a wealthy plantation owner in Virginia in the 1760s, you might have had a few gripes with God's chosen King across the pond. Who was this King anyway? Why should he collect taxes from you, if you were born in Virginia? What kind of music did he listen to? What made him so special, exactly?

The Articles of Confederation dispensed not only with kings, but also with titles of any kind, and replaced the foreign British parliament with an American Congress.

Number two: self-government. In elementary school you might have learned that the British were as mean as the Big Bad Wolf when it came to taxes. In reality, the Crown often ignored the North American continent, and colonists enjoyed a fair amount of autonomy (remember, back then it wasn't easy to know what was going on overseas).

Still, Americans, especially powerful, politically involved Americans who owned land, wanted to have their own government with their own elected leaders, so that they could impose their own taxes, make their own trade policy with nations like France and Spain, and get wealthier by having slaves work lands taken from the Native Americans. (It wasn't all sunshine and roses, to put it mildly.)

By the way, colonies also wanted to expand their territory into Native American lands, something that made the British crown nervous. The French and Indian War started in the 1750s because the colonies went ahead and started scuffling with American Indian tribes without permission. (Source)

The war cost the British big time (turns out that killing people is expensive), so the British put out the Proclamation of 1763, which said that colonists couldn't expand farther west than Appalachia. That went over with white settlers about as well as a seven-o-clock curfew.

Add this all up, throw in some nasty taxes like the Stamp Act and the Intolerable Acts, and you eventually had a revolution.

And this revolution was started by people who were bound to be super-wary of replacing one tyrannical government with another. When it came time to create a national government of their own, the liberated states weren't exactly rushing to give their rights away. Ideas that made it into the Constitution, like Montesquieu's division of powers, took a backseat to the main agenda, namely getting out from under Britain's thumb. (Source)