The Articles of Confederation

Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.

Article II, Articles of Confederation

On November 15, 1777, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation. Submitted to the states for ratification two days later, the Articles of Confederation were accompanied by a letter from Congress urging that the document…

…be candidly reviewed under a sense of the difficulty of combining in one general system the various sentiments and interests of a continent divided into so many sovereign and independent communities, under a conviction of the absolute necessity of uniting all our councils and all our strength, to maintain and defend our common liberties…

Monday, November 17, 1777, Journals of the Continental Congress. A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875. Law Library

Although Congress debated the Articles for over a year, they requested immediate action on the part of the states. However, three-and-a-half years passed before ratification on March 1, 1781.

Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union Between the States… Williamsburg [Va.]: Printed by Alexander Purdie, 1777. Printed Ephemera: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Still at war with Great Britain, the colonists were reluctant to establish another powerful national government. Jealously guarding their new independence, the Continental Congress created a loosely structured unicameral legislature that protected the liberty of the individual states at the expense of the nation. While calling on Congress to regulate military and monetary affairs, for example, the Articles of Confederation provided no mechanism to ensure that states complied with requests for troops or revenue. At times this left the military in a precarious position as George Washington wrote in a 1781 letter to the governor of Massachusetts, John Hancock.

The Treaty of Paris, which ended hostilities with England, languished in Congress for months before it was ratified because state representatives failed to attend sessions of the national legislature. Yet, Congress had no power to enforce attendance. Writing to George Clinton in September 1783, George Washington complained:

Congress have come to no determination yet respecting the Peace Establishment, nor am I able to say when they will. I have lately had a conference with a Committee on this subject, and have reiterated my former opinions, but it appears to me that there is not a sufficient representation to discuss Great National points.

Letter George Washington to George Clinton, September 11, 1783. Series 3, Varick Transcripts, 1775-1785, Subseries 3H, Personal Correspondence, 1775-1783, Letterbook 3. George Washington Papers. Manuscript Division

Leaders of the Continental Congress
Leaders of the Continental Congress–John Adams, Morris, Hamilton, Jefferson / A. Tholey. Augustus Tholey, artist, c1894. Prints & Photographs Division

In May 1786, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina proposed that Congress revise the Articles of Confederation. On August 7, 1786, a committee recommended amendments to the Articles that included granting Congress power over foreign and domestic commerce and providing means for Congress to collect money from state treasuries. Unanimous approval was necessary to make the alterations, however, and Congress failed to reach a consensus.

In September 1786, a convention was held in Annapolis, Maryland, in an effort to deal with problems of interstate commerce. Led by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the delegates at the Annapolis Convention issued a proposal for a new convention to revise the Articles of Confederation.

After debate, Congress endorsed the plan to revise the Articles of Confederation on February 21, 1787.

Although ultimately supplanted by the United States Constitution, the Articles of Confederation provided stability during the Revolutionary War years. Most importantly, the experience of drafting and living under this initial document provided valuable lessons in self-governance and somewhat tempered fears about a powerful central government. Still, reconciling the tension between state and federal authority continued to challenge Americans from the 1832 nullification crisis to the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision.

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Elizabeth Keckley

On November 15, 1855 Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley’s emancipation deed was signed. This marked the beginning of a new life in freedom that was full of accomplishments as a successful entrepreneur, a generous philanthropist, publisher, and author. Although more well-known for her relationship with President Lincoln’s wife as her primary confidante and dressmaker, she was also a generous philanthropist and assisted former enslaved people who had escaped from the south during the Civil War.

Behind the scenes. By Elizabeth Keckley… Or, Thirty years a slave, and four years in the White House. Frontispiece. New York: G. W. Carleton & Co., 1868.

Keckley’s life as an enslaved person was filled with abuse and brutality. In spite of this, when freed, her self-sufficiency flourished. In her memoir, she wrote of this day, “Free! The earth wore a brighter look, and the very stars seemed to sing with joy.”

She was born in Dinwiddie County, VA, the child of her owner, Colonel Armistead Burwell, and her enslaved mother, Agnes Hobbs. Agnes was married to an enslaved man, George Pleasant, who lived on a nearby plantation and functioned as Keckley’s father. Although not the custom of the time and certainly illegal, her mother was literate.

In Washington, D.C. Keckley used her skill as a modiste, a designer of the most intricate and proper fitting gowns, to develop a thriving business. She eventually employed some 20 seamstresses to meet the demand for her elaborate gowns. Her clientele included the Washington elite and the wives of prominent politicians: Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis; Mary Anna Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee; and Mary Todd Lincoln.

A Class in Dressmaking, Hampton Institute, Hampton, Virginia. Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer, [1899]. Johnston (Frances Benjamin) Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Her business savvy and personality enabled her to develop a very close personal relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln as her primary confidante. Keckley’s memoir, Behind the scenes; or, Thirty years a slave and four years in the White House, documents the domestic life of the Lincolns during their White House tenure. Her memoir also notes that her success as an entrepreneur served as the foundation for her philanthropy.

Her philanthropy focused on the former enslaved people – referred to as contraband – who left the South when the Union troops arrived. It is estimated that in the early 1860s, there were 10,000 former enslaved persons in Washington, D.C. They were neither technically nor legally free and were considered as seized property, or contraband, of war. The majority who arrived in D.C. struggled to acquire the basic necessities. In 1862, Keckley collaborated with her interim pastor, Rev. Benjamin Tanner Tucker and 40 members of her church, the 15th Street Presbyterian Church, to create the Ladies’ Contraband Relief Association. The initial goal of this organization was to provide food, shelter, clothing, and medical care.

Negro Churches – Presbyterian Church, Wash., D.C.. [1899?]. African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition. Prints & Photographs Division

Her organization effectively united with other independent Black churches for a variety of fundraising events. This included fairs, bazaars, lectures, concerts, dances, dramatic readings, and more. News of the relief organization spread outside Washington, D.C., and she received donations from a variety of East coast cities and beyond.

Keckley also successfully solicited local prominent black and white individuals to support the organization. This included Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, J. Sella Martin, Wendell Phillips, and Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln. Some contraband communities eventually grew into Freedmans Villages.

Mary Todd Lincoln to Abraham Lincoln, [November 3, 1862] (Money to purchase clothes for contrabands… Abraham Lincoln papers: Series 2. General Correspondence. 1858-1864. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Manuscript Division

Her memoir notes: “For the ground breaking work to establish assistance for the contraband, the Black community recognized, valued, and thanked the officers and the members of the Association for their kindness and attentive duties.” Keckley’s accomplishment in establishing a viable organization to assist the contraband is usually overshadowed by her unique relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln. Nevertheless, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was a true pioneer of African American philanthropy, who set a high standard for those who would follow her.

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