Our First “Constitution”: The Articles of Confederation

Why the Articles of Confederation Failed Its New Nation

Why the Articles of Confederation failed its New Nation

The Articles of Confederation was the first constitution of the United States of America.
It established a confederate style of government for America, which united 13 States with their own strong governments under one purposefully weak central government.

A Confederacy was born

The Founders established a confederacy, because they had just fought a war (the Revolutionary War) against the British to escape an oppressively strong central government. The Founders wanted to avoid any type of strong central government. They opted to give the States the power to establish their own governments, foreign relations, trade agreements, military and economic practices.
This distribution of power was chosen by the Founding Fathers because American colonists were wary of strong national governments. Having dealt with the British Crown for so many years, the American colonies did not want to create yet another out-of-touch, national government. Moreover, Americans identified most strongly with their individual colony, so it seemed natural to construct an American government based on powerful State governments.

It Took Four Years for All States to Ratify

The Articles of Confederation was first proposed in 1777 at the 2nd Continental Congress, after more than a year of debate. It was put into effect in 1781, after all 13 States had ratified it. The states were slow to act on ratification. It took twelve States until 1779 to approve it and Maryland didn’t approve it until March 1781 after settling a land argument with Virginia.
However, it became increasingly obvious that the Articles of Confederation were not effective for governing the growing American States. In their efforts to avoid a strong federal or central government, the Founders had created a central government too weak to handle the basic needs of a new nation.

There were three main areas of problem:

1) Economic disorganization

No means to handle debt

The new nation struggled financially and disorganization added to this struggle. America faced debts accumulated fighting for its independence and lacked the ability to find the means to handle the debt under the Articles of Confederation.

No ability to regulate trade

Congress could only regulate trade between American Indian tribes, but could not regulate trade and the States were becoming increasingly competitive with each other.
Congress had no ability to negotiate trade agreements, including import and export policy, while States could not enact policy over imports and exports. There was no economic trade coordination amongst the States and each State had its own agenda.

No uniform currency

There was no uniform currency. While Congress could regulate the alloy and value of coins the central government created and that States created, they did not have the ability to regulate all forms of American currency. The central government could print money, but so could each State. This made trade between the States cumbersome and trade between foreign entities very difficult.

No ability to fund needs

Only the States had the power to impose taxes and raise revenue. This meant that anything the central government wanted to do had to be funded by the States. States supplied the funds based on the value of the land held by each State. It was up to the States to determine how to raise that money, but there was no good means to force States to give money to the federal government. The problem of shortfalls was constant and substantial. The unpredictability of funds left the central government even weaker.

2) Lack of central leadership

No leadership

With a lack of funds and very little power, America’s central government was not only ineffective, but also rudderless, because there was no real leadership to allow necessary work to be done.  The Articles of Confederation did not provide that rudder.

No independent judicial system

There was no independent judiciary function, leaving the States as the sole source of all judiciary needs. This meant States could overturn any actions taken by the central government with no fear of retribution.  It also meant that no individual or State could take any action against the federal government. While States could simply ignore the central government, individuals had no recourse.

No central diplomatic contact

Foreign affairs was left to the central government, but there was no chief executive to handle that function for America. Additionally, because the States had some capacity to affect foreign policy for their own State, especially with trade, there was considerable confusion around foreign policy. Other countries actually complained that there was no central government entity to contact for diplomatic purposes. This left America at a disadvantage over other countries.

No ability to raise an army

While the central government and its one governing body, Congress, could both seek peace and declare war , it had no ability to raise an army and had to rely on the State militias. This left Congress with no ability to effectively or quickly respond to domestic or foreign threats. With Britain already beginning to break the agreement as signed with the Treaty of Paris, America was noticing its inability to defend itself.
Further, an incident called “Shay’s Rebellion”, which was a tax protest by farmers in Massachusetts, fully demonstrated that America’s central government was unable to squelch a domestic rebellion without having to rely on State militias funded by private business people. That is, the central government couldn’t act to protect the “perpetual union” it was tasked with protecting in the Articles of Confederation.

3) Legislative Inefficiencies

The set of rules in the Articles of Confederation allowed for forming legislation, but those rules proved to be ineffective and inefficient and problems developed.

States with small populations had as much power as States with large populations

With each State having one vote, small States had the same voting impact as large States with no appropriate proportion in issues. The differences in State populations was especially significant at the time.  States with large populations were disgruntled over this method for voting.

Amendments were impossible to pass

Because approval from nine of the thirteen States was required for any new legislation, achieving enough support to pass laws was difficult. This requirement allowed only five States to block a bill from passing. This also meant that five States with less population than just one of the States with a larger population could block a bill or, put another way, a very small portion of America’s population could block bills from passing.
The amendment process proved to be impractical and far too difficult to enact needed amendments. Any amendment had to be approved both by Congress and by EVERY State’s legislature. The requirement to have a unanimous vote made it nearly impossible to enact any changes.

Need for Change:

For the reasons cited above, the Articles of Confederation was not a successful constitution for a young, emerging nation. The Articles of Confederation, officially ratified in 1781 by all 13 States, ended up being replaced with the ratification of a new constitution in 1788.
While the general idea of a confederacy initially appealed to Americans, it was clear that their zeal for a weak central government left America unable to handle the efforts needed to unify the States adequately enough to have an effective national government.
In a confederate style government, the local or regional governments are very strong and the central government only has as much power as the States allow it to have. This form of government did not work for a new nation governing emerging States.

The Solution:

For this reason, the Founders decided to completely scrap the Articles of Confederation and form a new federal government. With a federal government, sovereign power is given to BOTH the regional and central governments.

Learning from prior mistakes

But, to accomplish the Founders’ end goal of forming a central government that was strong enough to handle its necessary duties, but also not so strong as to be oppressive to the States and citizens, they recognized the need for a constitution which carefully structured the central government to be effective, while also limiting its powers. It is from these roots and trials that the existing Constitution of the United States was formed and was formed as a republic.

Balanced power, republic government

While the official process of replacing the Articles of Confederation began in 1785 and resulted in a final document that was ratified in 1788, many other influencing factors shaped the resulting Constitution of the United States, including the lessons learned from the Articles of Confederation.  It is important to understand that the Founders’ push for a stronger federal government was prompted by the failures of a very weak central government.  But, the Founders were also careful to balance the increased strength in a republic form of government that could prevent the central government from becoming too powerful.
– The Founding Project Administrative Staff Writer

Sources:

http://ushistoryscene.com/article/articles-of-confederation/ https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/10-reasons-why-americas-first-constitution-failed               http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/u-s-constitution-ratified https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_drafting_and_ratification_of_the_United_States_Constitution
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4 Comments

  1. Interesting how the States surrendered their powers to unelected bureaucrats. As legislation grows in government the states are continuing to be undermined and answerable to government entities separated by ideological rather than statehood interests. Its no wonder the people continue to be exploited by ideological extortion and fraudulant means by bureaucrats assigned to limit accountability. It seems this faltering Democracy we find ourselves caught in was ideologically installed not voted on but forced into our Republic by foreign invaders, planted to undermine our Republic. Holding America tied to that which we fled. Special interests builds government to support outside interests using revenues collected ove and above the interests of that which government was to protect we the people contributing to our productive workforce, instead white collar out earned the blue collar family interests, knowing responsibility of family needs outweighed labor ethic. Thats what Democracy rules by, its advantage over those of the majorities needs of the people. It claims the majority rules but in practice its the victims that reinforce the need of interventions of government entities. Creating victims by exploitation empowers political overgrowth.

    • The Founders were very careful to avoid establishing a democracy, preferring a republic to best allow ALL citizens to be represented, rather than a majority rule situation.
      There currently seems to be a squeakiest wheel focus, but there is also a terrible civic duty deficit, as very few citizens live up to their responsibility to routinely contact their reps.

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