During the Revolutionary War and in the first years following independence, the new American states were joined in a loose confederation with a weak central government, spelled out in the Articles of Confederation. The weaknesses of this original plan for government are revealed in letters circulated between many of those who would later attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Below are a collection of these letters, found in our online library.
Some are short enough to use entire; others could be usefully excerpted. For a practical way of using these documents in class, consult this lesson plan written by Ashland University Professor Christopher Burkett and veteran high school teacher Patricia Dillon, “The Road to the Constitutional Convention—Activity One: The Problem of Congress’ Lack of Authority.”
- Robert Morris, Letter to the President of Congress, March 17, 1783: Morris, the National Superintendent of Finance, writes to the presiding officer of the Continental Congress to explain that there is no more money in the public treasury to cover obligations, and no likelihood of obtaining further loans from such foreign allies as France.
- Gouverneur Morris to John Jay, 1 Jan. 1783: Gouverneur Morris, Assistant Superintendent of Finance, writes to John Jay—who was then in Paris helping to negotiate the treaty that would end our war of independence—to advise him that the Continental Army have not been paid and that if the situation persists it will lead to a crisis.
- Rufus King, Letter to Elbridge Gerry, April 30, 1786: King, a representative to the Continental Congress from Massachusetts, writes to former Massachusetts representative, Gerry. He bemoans the inability of the Continental Congress to compel the states to contribute to the shared treasury.
- George Washington to John Jay, 15 August 1786: Washington replies to a letter from the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, John Jay, who has pointed out that several of the states have violated parts of the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
- John Jay to Thomas Jefferson, 27 October 1786: Following the outbreak of Shays’ Rebellion, Jay writes to Jefferson, then serving as US Minister to France, to update him on difficulties in Congress that reflect “an impatience of government” observable in the states.
For a good overall presentation of the problems that the 1787 Constitution sought to overcome, see Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist, No. 15 — especially the third paragraph.