Washington Crossing the Delaware

By Ian Millhiser

Five years after General George Washington took command of a revolutionary army, he believed that the revolution was on the verge of collapse.

The Articles of Confederation, which bound the thirteen former British colonies together prior to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, were fundamentally flawed. Congress, under the Articles, could not directly tax individuals or legislate their actions. Delegates to Congress had little authority to exercise independent judgment, as they both owed their salaries to their state government and could be recalled “at any time.” Of particular frustration to General Washington, the Articles also gave Congress no real power to raise troops or to provide for them once they were assembled under Washington’s command. Congress could request recruits or money, but it was powerless if the states denied these requests.

The framers understood . . . that there will be problems that face the entire nation, and that these problems require a government powerful enough to address these national concerns.

“Unless Congress speaks in a more decisive tone,” Washington wrote in 1780, “unless they are vested with powers by the several States competent to the purposes of war . . . our Cause is lost.”

The Revolutionary War taught our first president the value of a strong central government. And this understanding was not limited simply to the need to provide a capable army. As Washington wrote a young former aide named Alexander Hamilton shortly after the war was won, “unless Congress have powers competent to all general purposes, [] the distresses we have encountered, the expenses we have incurred, and the blood we have spilt in the course of an eight years’ war, will avail us nothing.”