The Articles of Confederation, the United States’ primary constitution, was composed during an era when the American people worried about powerful national governments. The new nation required some kind of organization to hold states collectively to help them to defend off future attacks and expectedly make a more powerful economy, and the Articles of Confederation showed like the best answer to establish unity at the time.
The English government had been mainly offensive to the Colonists, who were very hesitant to install a new government that could possibly function comparable to the monarchy under King George. The integrity of the people looked to adjust more with the individual states than with the nation. After the American Revolution, states were still printing their individual money, which was worthless in other states and further limited cooperation. The 13 new states demanded to find common ground and a way to cooperate.
During the American Revolution, many states addressed their own state constitutions. These constitutions consisted of political ideas that contributed to equality and freedom. States especially liked the three branches of government and the idea of a republic, where citizens choose political officials. However, when the states came together to finish the first constitution, the nation was established as a confederation, where states were sovereign while trying to work together.
Articles of Confederation
The primary government of the United States following the Declaration of Independence was the Articles of Confederation. A confederation is a state-centered, decentralized government where the primary controls of government are handled at the state level. The Declaration of Independence talked of the many streams of abuse of King George III, who, as a monarch, conducted over the executive, legislative and judiciary powers of the government.
In the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson declared that both King George III and the form of government in court at the time missed protecting the colonists’ “life, freedom, and pursuit of happiness.” The unitary government, one that concentrated power in government, was unacceptable to the colonists when they attempted to create a government after announcing their independence from the British crown.
The colonists elected to create a government that was quite different from a unitary system where the powers of government were united in a single person. This decentralized system reflected the colonists’ fear of a powerful central government.
- July 4, 1776: The Declaration of Independence is signed by Congress
- July 12, 1776: The Articles of Confederation are officially approved by Congress and delivered to the states for confirmation
- November 17, 1777: The Articles of Confederation are ratified by Congress
- March 1, 1781: The Articles of Confederation take influence (Maryland is the last state to approve the Articles)
- September 3, 1783: The Treaty of Paris is approved, which officially gives independence to the United States
- August 1786: Shays’ Rebellion
- September 11 – 14, 1786: The Annapolis Convention, which asked for amending the Articles of Confederation
- May 25 – September 27, 1787: The Constitutional Convention, which was designed to amend the Articles of Confederation, presents the U.S. Constitution
Strengths and Accomplishments
Not many historians today speak about the strengths of the Articles of Confederation, expected because of how unpopular the document immediately became. The Articles did set the parliamentary body, Congress, as the highest authority in the nation because of the panic of a monarchy. Congress had the individual power to declare war, assign treaties, stimulate foreign relations, and conduct post offices. Conflicts between states and territorial problems were to be delivered to Congress. The document also specified that Canada was permitted to enter the Union if they desired.
- The Articles of Confederation were a printed agreement and the primary constitution of the United States of America.
- Foreign Affairs: The Articles of Confederation granted Congress the power to administer foreign affairs with the authority to maintain war and make peace, alliances, and sign treaties.
- Indian Affairs: The Articles of Confederation granted Congress the power to control Native Indian affairs.
- Military Affairs: The Articles of Confederation helped the Congressional direction of the Continental Army
- Interstate Affairs: Government under the Articles of Confederation strengthened coordination and collaboration between different states and Congress resolved disputes between states.
- Territorial Government: Government under the Articles of Confederation began the Ordinance of 1784 and 1785 and the 1987 Northwest Ordinance that presented for the speedy and orderly development of the new nation.
- The Articles of Confederation provided the formation of new states that had a population of more than 60,000.
- Congressional departments: The Department of Treasury, the Department of Postal Service, and the Department of Foreign Affairs were built.
- A postal service was organized.
- Admiralty courts were installed.
- Coin money landed.
- The government signed a treaty of alliance with France in 1778.
- The government successfully made war for independence against the British.
- The government negotiated an end to the American Revolution in the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783.
- The government granted the free inhabitants of each state “all the privileges and immunities of free citizens in the
- The government provided for the final admission of Canada into the Confederation.
- The government passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which allowed the Northwest Territories to organize their own governments. It allowed the eventual admission to the Union of no more than five states, and no fewer than three, “on an equal footing with the original states.” The Ordinance also banned slavery from the region.
- The government established the Departments of Foreign Affairs, War, Marine, and Treasury.
There were more weaknesses than strengths under the Articles of Confederation. The lack of power given to the Continental Congress smothered the federal government. The Articles gave Congress the ability to pass laws but no power to implement those laws.
If a state did not help federal law, that state could simply ignore it. Congress had no power to levy taxes or regulate trade. Without a federal court system or executive leader, there would be no way to enforce these laws, either. Amending the Articles of Confederation would also need a collective decision, which would be extremely difficult.
- The states didn’t respond quickly. It took until February 1779 for 12 states to ratify the document. Maryland stayed out until March 1781, after it completed a land argument with Virginia.
- The central government was created to be very, very weak. The Articles built “the United States of America” as a permanent union formed to protect the states as a group, but it gave few central powers beyond that. But it didn’t have an executive official or judicial branch.
- The Articles Congress only had one chamber and each state had one vote. This strengthened the power of the states to act independently from the central government, even when that wasn’t in the nation’s best concerns.
- Congress needed 9 of 13 states to pass any laws. Claiming this high supermajority made it very hard to pass any bill that would affect all 13 states.
- The document was practically improbable to amend. The Articles needed unanimous approval to any amendment, so all 13 states would need to accept on a change. Given the rivalries between the states, that law made the Articles impossible to adapt after the war finished with Britain in 1783.
- The central government couldn’t receive taxes to fund its plans. The Confederation relied on the deliberate purposes of the states to transfer tax money to the central government. Lacking funds, the central government couldn’t manage an active military or back its own paper money.
- States were able to manage their own foreign policies. Technically, that task fell to the central government, but the Confederation government didn’t have the real strength to enforce that power, since it required domestic and international pressures and standing.
- States had their own money systems. There wasn’t common money in the Confederation period. The central government and the states each had separate money, which made business between the states, and other countries, extremely hard.
- The Confederation government couldn’t help resolve Revolutionary War-era debts. The central government and the states owed huge debts to European countries and investors. Without the power to tax, and with no power to make trade between the states and other countries viable, the United States was in an economic mess by 1787.
- Shays’ rebellion – the final straw. A tax demonstration by western Massachusetts farmers in 1786 and 1787 conferred the central government couldn’t put down an internal rebellion. It had to rely on a state militia sponsored by private Boston business people. With no money, the central government couldn’t act to protect the “perpetual union.”
These events frightened Founders like George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton to the point where delegates from five states met at Annapolis, Maryland in September 1786 to address changing the Articles of Confederation.
The group combined Madison, Hamilton, and John Dickinson, and it urged that a gathering of all 13 states be kept the following May in Philadelphia. The Confederation Congress accepted and the Constitutional Convention of 1787 effectively finished the era of the Articles of Confederation.