The Woes of Thomas Mifflin and his Congress

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College

The bells were rung, and every manifestation of joy shown when the Articles of Confederation were ratified on March 1, 1781. The Continental Congress was now named the Confederation Congress, but were these Articles able to solve the woes of Congress?

The Betsy Ross flag of the US.
The Revolutionary War had made way for different challenges for the Confederation Congress. (Image: Yuriy Boyko/Shutterstock)

Thomas Mifflin had become the president of the Confederation Congress on November 3, 1783 when Congress was already beset with a number of challenges. Let us look at the challenges that welcomed him from his first day in office.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Wartime Debts of Congress

The Articles had provided no new means of raising revenue, and Congress had incurred wartime debts. At the end of the war, the foreign debts contracted by the United States had amounted to the towering figure of $10 million in loans: $4.4 million came from the French, another $1.8 million came from the Dutch.

Congress had also issued reams of paper money and IOUs in the form of quartermaster and commissary certificates that amounted to around $400 million, and which constituted yet another form of indebtedness. And none of this included the debts that individual state governments had contracted during the Revolution.

The Remedy for Financial Woes

By the time Thomas Mifflin had assumed the role of president, the Confederation Congress had tried to fix its financial woes by proposing the adoption of a federal import tariff, known as an impost.

A month before the Articles were formally ratified, Congress proposed an amendment which placed a five percent tariff on imports. The idea was to raise money to pay off the debts that Congress had incurred or may incur during the course of the Revolutionary War.

But the amendment was too much for the solons of Rhode Island. Despite being the smallest of the 13 states, Rhode Island had to agree to the impost because the Articles demanded unanimous approval for any amendment.

And Rhode Island was not going to approve. The state legislature hemmed and hawed, hoping some other state would announce non-compliance first, but, at length in October 1782, they voted unanimously to disapprove the impost as a violation of Rhode Island’s sovereignty. Congress tried again in March 1783 with another impost proposal, this time limited to just 25 years. It failed, too.

The Congress and the Continental Army

The painting shows the soldiers of the Continental Army.
The Continental Army was on the edge of mutiny in 1781 and 1783. (Image: Ogden, Henry Alexander/ Public domain)

The Continental Army was underpaid and undervalued, and had nearly taken Congress by the neck in 1781. The Pennsylvania regiments, starving and shivering in camp at Morristown, New Jersey, sent an angry delegation of sergeants to Philadelphia to meet an unnerved committee of Congress about their grievances.

An ominous outburst occurred at the beginning of 1783, when a delegation comprising General Alexander McDougall and two colonels showed up in Philadelphia to meet with Congress. With the nearness of peace, they suspected that Congress would attempt to disband the Army and send it home with nothing more than promises.

In June, 80 men of the 3rd Pennsylvania Regiment took matters in their own hands and marched on Philadelphia. They surrounded the State House—now Independence Hall—where Congress was sitting, and menacingly warned Congress to act, “or otherwise, we shall instantly let in those injured soldiers upon you, and abide by the consequences.”

Congress promptly adjourned, with outgoing President Boudinot wisely announcing that the next session would convene on June 26 in Princeton, New Jersey. It took another month for a quorum of Congress’s 23 members to show up. Nor was it possible to keep a quorum once obtained, and so Congress resolved to move again, to Annapolis.

Lear more about the American Revolution-Washington’s war.

Thomas Mifflin and the Treaty of Peace

On November 22, the newly arrived treaty of peace between Great Britain and the United States was delivered to Mifflin in Philadelphia. If ever a topic should have brought a quorum roaring to a Congressional session, it should have been for the vote ratifying the treaty, especially since the British had set a deadline of March for acceptance and return of the treaty.

A portrait of Thomas Mifflin.
Thomas Mifflin had to work hard to get the treaty of peace ratified in Congress.
(Image: inc/Public domain)

But neither the treaty nor Thomas Mifflin could make a quorum happen. Every state had to send at least two delegates under the Articles according to Article 5 and seven such state delegations had shown up by December 13.

Mifflin had to prod by letter delegations from New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Georgia to show up because the safety, honor, and good faith of the United States required the immediate attendance of their delegates in Congress.

In fact, Congress would not have enough representatives on hand in Annapolis to take a vote on the peace treaty until January 14, 1784. The British wanted peace as badly as the Americans, so the deadline was finally extended by the British until May 12, when the ratifications were formally exchanged.

Learn more about George Washington’s doubts.

Was Congress a Total Failure?

It has to be said, in at least partial defense of the Confederation Congress, that the Congress was not a total failure. It managed to head off further conflict between states with claims on western land by writing a Northwest Ordinance which would organize the west as entirely new states, rather than extended colonies of the original 13.

It wrote trade agreements with Britain, France, and Spain, and it struggled to recall a substantial portion of the valueless paper money and certificates it had put into circulation during the Revolution, shrinking that circulation down to about $34 million. It also successfully demobilized the Continental Army through furloughs, more IOUs, and emergency borrowing.

The End of Thomas Mifflin’s Career

Congress reconvened in Trenton after leaving Annapolis. It was here that they elected a new president to relieve the unhappy Thomas Mifflin. They had to wait for nearly a full month before enough delegations showed up to elect Richard Henry Lee as Mifflin’s successor.

Thomas Mifflin retired from his Congressional presidency, and spent most of the remaining 16 years of his life in Pennsylvania politics. As one acidulous critic described, he was in a state of adultery with many women, wholly dissipated and given to low company. He managed to get two towns, five townships, a county, and a fort named for himself, but he also burned through most of his family’s fortune and ended up hiding from bill collectors.

Common Questions about the Woes of Thomas Mifflin and his Congress

Q: How much foreign debt had the United States contracted at the end of the Revolutionary War?

At the end of the Revolutionary War, the foreign debt contracted by the United States had amounted to the towering figure of $10 million.

Q: Who succeeded Thomas Mifflin as the president of Confederation Congress?

Richard Henry Lee succeeded Thomas Mifflin as the president of Confederation Congress.

Q: When did Thomas Mifflin become the president of Confederation Congress?

Thomas Mifflin became the president of Confederation Congress on November 3, 1783.

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