Critical Thinking Articles Of Confederation President

The James Madison Papers

Overview | History | Critical Thinking | Arts & Humanities

The Revolutionary Era | Government Under the Articles of Confederation | The Constitutional Convention and Ratification | Development of Political Parties in the New Nation | The New Nation and Foreign Relations | Madison in Retirement: The Judiciary | Madison in Retirement: Slavery | Madison in Retirement: Nullification Crisis

The Constitutional Convention and Ratification

In April 1787, Madison wrote a short pamphlet entitled "Vices of the Political System of the United States" explaining the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.

In a letter to George Washington, written before the opening of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, Madison proposed a plan that would increase the power of the central government and allow it to act as "a negative in all cases whatsoever on the legislative acts of the States."

Anticipating opposition, he recommended a mode of ratification that would bypass state legislatures, empowered by the Confederation, and go directly to the people. Madison's letter provided the essentials of the Virginia Plan proposed before the Convention in May 1787 by Edmund Randolph.

  • What problems in the government under the Articles of Confederation had Madison identified prior to the Constitutional Convention?
  • Based on those problems, why did Madison believe it was important for the central government to have a "negative in all cases whatsoever on the legislative acts of the States"?
  • List the important ideas for the new constitution that Madison explained in his letter to Washington. For each, list a problem with the government under the Articles of Confederation that it addressed. How well did Madison address those problems in his new plan? Explain your answer.


The collection includes Madison's "Original Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention" in two parts, the first presenting an introduction and notes through July 25, the second beginning July 26, 1787.

On September 30, 1787, shortly after the close of the Federal Convention, Madison wrote a letter to Washington, explaining that some in Congress claimed that the convention had violated its charge and that the "new Constitution was more than an Alteration of the Articles of Confederation under which Congress acted, and even subverted the articles altogether." The letter further explained how defenders of the Constitution countered this argument and discussed efforts by states to offer amendments.

  • On what grounds did some argue that the convention "subverted" the charge of Congress to amend the Articles?
  • What arguments did supporters of the Constitution use to defend the document before Congress?

In a letter to Washington written during the debate over ratification of the Constitution, Madison included the first seven essays of The Federalist. Madison requested that Washington, if he agreed with the essays, circulate them in Richmond to encourage ratification in Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson, serving as envoy to France, had written to Madison from Paris in December 1787, expressing his general support for the Constitution but criticizing the omission of a bill of rights. In a letter to Jefferson written on October 17, 1788, Madison writes that his "opinion has always been in favor of a bill of right,."and also explains his related concerns

  • What were Madison's reservations about including a Bill of Rights in the Federal Constitution?
  • In the letter, Madison says, "the President will be from a Southern State." On what assumption did he base this statement? Was Madison correct in this assumption?
  • Madison continues on to describe, in cipher, two possible candidates for vice-president, John Hancock and John Adams. The transcription of the letter decodes these descriptions. How did Madison assess the qualifications of these two men? Why do you think he put these descriptions in code?

After the bitter ratification debate, some prominent individuals still wished to call a new convention. According to Anti-Federalists, the failure to secure a declaration of rights was one of the basic flaws in the Constitution. To combat further opposition to the Constitution and to fulfill a pledge made during several state ratification conventions, Madison proposed a bill of rights in a speech in the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789. Read Madison's notes for his speech introducing the bill of rights, in which he listed his recommended additions to the Constitution and reasons why they should be adopted.


The president of the Continental Congress was the presiding officer of the Continental Congress, the convention of delegates that emerged as the first (transitional) national government of the United States during the American Revolution. The president was a member of Congress elected by the other delegates to serve as a neutral discussion moderator during meetings of Congress. Designed to be a largely ceremonial position without much influence, the office was unrelated to the later office of President of the United States.[1] Upon the ratification of the Articles of Confederation (the new nation's first constitution) in March 1781, the Continental Congress became the Congress of the Confederation. The membership of the Second Continental Congress carried over without interruption to the First Congress of the Confederation, as did the office of president.

Fourteen men served as president of Congress between September 1774 and November 1788. They came from 9 of the original 13 states: Virginia (3), Massachusetts (2), Pennsylvania (2), South Carolina (2), Connecticut (1), Delaware (1), Maryland (1), New Jersey (1), and New York (1). The median age at the time of election was 47.[2]


The president of Congress was, by design, a position with little authority.[3] The Continental Congress, fearful of concentrating political power in an individual, gave their presiding officer even less responsibility than the speakers in the lower houses of the colonial assemblies.[4] Unlike some colonial speakers, the president of Congress could not, for example, set the legislative agenda or make committee appointments.[5] The president could not meet privately with foreign leaders; such meetings were held with committees or the entire Congress.[6]

The presidency was a largely ceremonial position.[7][8] There was no salary.[9] The primary role of the office was to preside over meetings of Congress, which entailed serving as an impartial moderator during debates.[10] When Congress would resolve itself into a Committee of the Whole to discuss important matters, the president would relinquish his chair to the chairman of the Committee of the Whole.[11] Even so, the fact that President Thomas McKean was at the same time serving as Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, provoked some criticism that he had become too powerful. According to historian Jennings Sanders, McKean's critics were ignorant of the powerlessness of the office of president of Congress.[12]

The president was also responsible for dealing with a large amount of official correspondence,[13] but he could not answer any letter without being instructed to do so by Congress.[14] Presidents also signed, but did not write, Congress's official documents.[15] These limitations could be frustrating, because a delegate essentially declined in influence when he was elected president.[16]

Historian Richard B. Morris argued that, despite the ceremonial role, some presidents were able to wield some influence:

Lacking specific authorization or clear guidelines, the presidents of Congress could with some discretion influence events, formulate the agenda of Congress, and proded Congress to move in directions they considered proper. Much depended on the incumbents themselves and their readiness to exploit the peculiar opportunities their office provided.[17]

Congress, and its presidency, declined in importance after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation and the ending of the Revolutionary War. Increasingly, delegates elected to the Congress declined to serve, the leading men in each state preferred to serve in state government, and the Congress had difficulty establishing a quorum.[18] President Hanson wanted to resign after only a week in office, but Congress lacked a quorum to select a successor, and so he stayed on.[7] President Mifflin found it difficult to convince the states to send enough delegates to Congress to ratify the 1783 Treaty of Paris.[19] For six weeks in 1784, President Lee did not come to Congress, but instead instructed secretary Charles Thomson to forward any papers that needed his signature.[20]

John Hancock was elected to a second term in November 1785, even though he was not then in Congress, and Congress was aware that he was unlikely to attend.[21] He never took his seat, citing poor health, though he may have been uninterested in the position.[21] Two delegates, David Ramsay and Nathaniel Gorham, performed his duties with the title of "chairman".[21][22] When Hancock finally resigned the office in June 1786, Gorham was elected. After he resigned in November 1786, it was months before enough members were present in Congress to elect a new president.[21] In February 1787, General Arthur St. Clair was elected. Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance during St. Clair's presidency and elected him as the governor of the Northwest Territory.[23]

As the people of the various states began debating the proposed United States Constitution in later months of 1787, the Confederation Congress found itself reduced to the status of a caretaker government.[21] There were not enough delegates present to choose St. Clair's successor until January 22, 1788, when the final president of Congress, Cyrus Griffin, was elected.[21] Griffin resigned his office on November 15, 1788, after only two delegates showed up for the new session of Congress.[21]

Term of office[edit]

Prior to ratification of the Articles, presidents of Congress served terms of no specific duration; their tenure ended when they resigned, or, lacking an official resignation, when Congress selected a successor. When Peyton Randolph, who was elected in September 1774 to preside over the First Continental Congress, was unable to attend the last few days of the session due to poor health, Henry Middleton was elected to replace him.[24] When the Second Continental Congress convened the following May, Randolph was again chosen as president, but he returned to Virginia two weeks later to preside over the House of Burgesses.[25]John Hancock was elected to fill the vacancy, but his position was somewhat ambiguous, because it was not clear if Randolph had resigned or was on a leave of absence.[26] The situation became uncomfortable when Randolph returned to Congress in September 1775. Some delegates thought Hancock should have stepped down, but he did not; the matter was resolved only by Randolph's sudden death that October.[27]

Ambiguity also clouded the end of Hancock's term. He left in October 1777 for what he believed was an extended leave of absence, only to find upon his return that Congress had elected Henry Laurens to replace him.[28] Hancock, whose term ran from May 24, 1775 to October 29, 1777 (a period of 2 years, 5 months), was the longest serving president of Congress.

The length of a presidential term was ultimately codified by Article Nine of the Articles of Confederation, which authorized Congress "to appoint one of their number to preside; provided that no person be allowed to serve in the office of president more than one year in any term of three years".[29] When the Articles went into effect in March 1781, however, the Continental Congress did not hold an election for a new president under the new constitution.[30] Instead, Samuel Huntington continued serving a term that had already exceeded the new Term limit.[30] The first president to serve the specified one-year term was Thomas McKean (November 5, 1781 to November 4, 1782).[7][31]


Terms and backgrounds of the 14 persons who served as president of the Continental Congress:[32]

PresidentState/colonyTermLengthPrevious position
Peyton RandolphVirginia
001 !September 5, 1774

October 22, 1774
7001480000000000000♠48 daysSpeaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses
Henry MiddletonSouth Carolina
02 !October 22, 1774

October 26, 1774
7000500000000000000♠5 daysSpeaker, S.C. Commons House of Assembly
Peyton RandolphVirginia
03 !May 10, 1775

May 24, 1775
7001150000000000000♠15 daysSpeaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses
John HancockMassachusetts
04 !May 24, 1775

October 29, 1777
7002890000000000000♠890 daysPresident, Massachusetts Provincial Congress
Henry LaurensSouth Carolina
05 !November 1, 1777

December 9, 1778
7002404000000000000♠404 daysPresident, S.C. Provincial Congress, Vice President, S.C.
John JayNew York
06 !December 10, 1778

September 28, 1779
7002293000000000000♠293 daysChief Justice New York Supreme Court
Samuel HuntingtonConnecticut
07 !September 28, 1779

July 10, 1781
7002652000000000000♠652 daysAssociate Judge, Connecticut Superior Court
Thomas McKeanDelaware
08 !July 10, 1781

November 5, 1781
7002119000000000000♠119 daysChief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court
John HansonMaryland
09 !November 5, 1781

November 4, 1782
7002365000000000000♠365 daysMaryland House of Delegates
Elias BoudinotNew Jersey
10 !November 4, 1782

November 3, 1783
7002365000000000000♠365 daysCommissary of Prisoners for the Continental Army
Thomas MifflinPennsylvania
11 !November 3, 1783

June 3, 1784
7002214000000000000♠214 daysQuartermaster General of Continental Army, Board of War
Richard Henry LeeVirginia
12 !November 30, 1784

November 4, 1785
7002340000000000000♠340 daysVirginia House of Burgesses
John HancockMassachusetts
13 !November 23, 1785

June 5, 1786
7002195000000000000♠195 daysGovernor of Massachusetts
Nathaniel GorhamMassachusetts
14 !June 6, 1786

November 3, 1786
7002151000000000000♠151 daysBoard of War
Arthur St. ClairPennsylvania
15 !February 2, 1787

November 4, 1787
7002276000000000000♠276 daysMajor General, Continental Army
Cyrus GriffinVirginia
16 !January 22, 1788

November 15, 1788
7002299000000000000♠299 daysJudge, Virginia Court of Appeals


Because Hanson was the first president to serve under the Articles of Confederation, his grandson later promoted him as the "first President of the United States" and waged a successful campaign to have Hanson's statue placed in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol, even though, according to historian Gregory Stiverson, Hanson was not one of Maryland's foremost leaders of the Revolutionary era.[7] In reality, beyond a similarity of title, the office of president of Congress "bore no relationship"[1] to the later office of President of the United States. As historian Edmund Burnett wrote:

[T]he President of the United States is scarcely in any sense the successor of the presidents of the old Congress. The presidents of Congress were almost solely presiding officers, possessing scarcely a shred of executive or administrative functions; whereas the President of the United States is almost solely an executive officer, with no presiding duties at all. Barring a likeness in social and diplomatic precedence, the two offices are identical only in the possession of the same title.[33]

See also[edit]


Works cited[edit]

  • Burnett, Edward Cody (1941). The Continental Congress. New York City, New York: Norton. 
  • Ellis, Richard J. (1999). Founding the American Presidency. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-8476-9499-2. 
  • Fowler, William M., Jr. (1980). The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-27619-5. .
  • Jillson, Calvin C.; Wilson, Rick K. (1994). Congressional Dynamics: Structure, Coordination, and Choice in the First American Congress, 1774–1789. Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-2293-5. .
  • Morris, Richard B. (1987). The Forging of the Union, 1781–1789. New York City, New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0060157333. 
  • Sanders, Jennings Bryans (1930). The Presidency of the Continental Congress, 1774-89: A Study in American Institutional History. Chicago. 

External links[edit]

  1. ^ abEllis 1999, p. 1.
  2. ^Morris 1987, p. 101.
  3. ^Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 71.
  4. ^Jillson & Wilson 1994, pp. 71–73.
  5. ^Jillson & Wilson 1994, pp. 75, 89.
  6. ^Jillson & Wilson 1994, pp. 77–78.
  7. ^ abcdGregory A. Stiverson, "Hanson, John, Jr.", American National Biography Online, February 2000.
  8. ^H. James Henderson. "Boudinot, Elias", American National Biography Online, February 2000.
  9. ^Sanders 1930, 13.
  10. ^Jillson & Wilson 1994, pp. 76, 82.
  11. ^Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 81.
  12. ^Sanders 1930, pp. 21–22.
  13. ^Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 76.
  14. ^Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 80.
  15. ^Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 78.
  16. ^Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 89.
  17. ^Morris 1987, p. 100
  18. ^Jillson & Wilson 1994, pp. 85–88.
  19. ^John K. Alexander, "Mifflin, Thomas", American National Biography Online, February 2000.
  20. ^Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 87.
  21. ^ abcdefgJillson & Wilson 1994, p. 88.
  22. ^Sanders 1930, p. 29.
  23. ^Sanders 1930, pp. 30–31.
  24. ^Sanders 1930, p. 11.
  25. ^Sanders 1930, pp. 11–12.
  26. ^Fowler 1980, p. 191.
  27. ^Fowler 1980, p. 199.
  28. ^Fowler 1980, p. 230–31.
  29. ^Ford, Worthington C.; et al., eds. (1904–37). "Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789". Washington, D.C. Retrieved December 31, 2017. 
  30. ^ abBurnett 1941, 503.
  31. ^Burnett 1941, p. 524.
  32. ^Jillson & Wilson 1994, p. 77.
  33. ^Burnett 1941, p. 34.

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