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The Critical Period

The Articles of Confederation left the young country ill-equipped to deal with a series of problems. The period from the adoption of the Articles to the adoption of the Federal Constitution (1781-89) has been labeled the “critical period” of American history. George Washington, describing those days, lamented that the states were held together by a “rope of sand.” Foreign and domestic challenges existed:

  • Problems with Britain. Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1783 in which American’s independence was recognized, the British had pledged to vacate all of their military posts within the boundaries of the new country. The Americans, for their part, had promised to recommend strongly to the states that they make fair settlements with the Loyalists who had lost property during the war. The Congress made no progress on the compensation issue and the British exhibited no haste in withdrawing from American territory.
  • Economic Chaos. Following the war's conclusion, America slipped into an era of inflation and depression. Currencies were not uniform among the states and the value of many media of exchange was plummeting. Workers previously employed in war production faced protracted unemployment. Most states experienced some degree of tension between the frontier or farming interests of the west and the wealthier shipping or manufacturing interests of the eastern cities. These feelings boiled over in Massachusetts in 1786 in Shays’ Rebellion.
The “critical period” was not a time of unmitigated disaster. Despite its shortcomings, the Articles did foster some sense of national unity by bringing together men from all parts of the country. Improvements were made to transportation and communication (improved mail delivery, for example), which also fostered the beginnings of a national identity. Most importantly, Americans were buoyed by their victory in the war and felt a common pride in their emerging place in the world.