How Did The Constitution Fix The Weaknesses Of The Articles Of Confederation Essay
It was 240 years ago today that the Articles of Confederation, the first American constitution, was sent to the 13 states for consideration. It didn’t last a decade, for some obvious reasons.
On November 17, 1777, Congress submitted the Articles to the states for immediate consideration. Tow days earlier, the Second Continental Congress approved the document, after a year of debates. The British capture of Philadelphia also forced the issue.
The Articles formed a war-time confederation of states, with an extremely limited central government. The document made official some of the procedures used by the Congress to conduct business, but many of the delegates realized the Articles had limitations.
Here is a quick list of the problems that occurred, and how these issues led to our current Constitution.
1. The states didn’t act immediately. It took until February 1779 for 12 states to approve the document. Maryland held out until March 1781, after it settled a land argument with Virginia.
2. The central government was designed to be very, very weak. The Articles established “the United States of America” as a perpetual union formed to defend the states as a group, but it provided few central powers beyond that. But it didn’t have an executive official or judicial branch.
3. The Articles Congress only had one chamber and each state had one vote. This reinforced the power of the states to operate independently from the central government, even when that wasn’t in the nation’s best interests.
4. Congress needed 9 of 13 states to pass any laws. Requiring this high supermajority made it very difficult to pass any legislation that would affect all 13 states.
5. The document was practically impossible to amend. The Articles required unanimous consent to any amendment, so all 13 states would need to agree on a change. Given the rivalries between the states, that rule made the Articles impossible to adapt after the war ended with Britain in 1783.
6. The central government couldn’t collect taxes to fund its operations. The Confederation relied on the voluntary efforts of the states to send tax money to the central government. Lacking funds, the central government couldn’t maintain an effective military or back its own paper currency.
7. States were able to conduct their own foreign policies. Technically, that role fell to the central government, but the Confederation government didn’t have the physical ability to enforce that power, since it lacked domestic and international powers and standing.
8. States had their own money systems. There wasn’t a common currency in the Confederation era. The central government and the states each had separate money, which made trade between the states, and other countries, extremely difficult.
9. The Confederation government couldn’t help settle 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.
10. Shays’ rebellion – the final straw. A tax protest by western Massachusetts farmers in 1786 and 1787 showed 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 alarmed 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 discuss changing the Articles of Confederation.
The group included Madison, Hamilton and John Dickinson, and it recommended that a meeting of all 13 states be held the following May in Philadelphia. The Confederation Congress agreed and the Constitutional Convention of 1787 effectively ended the era of the Articles of Confederation.
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The Articles of Confederation
During the American Revolution, Americans drafted the Articles of Confederation to set up a new government independent of Britain. The Articles served as the constitution of the United States until 1789, when a new constitution was adopted.
In the years leading up to the American Revolution, tension grew between the colonists and Britain. In 1765, 27 delegates from nine colonies met to oppose legislation passed by Parliament imposing a stamp tax on trade items. The delegates to the Stamp Act Congress drew up a statement of rights and grievances and agreed to stop importing goods from Britain. Parliament repealed the Stamp Tax Act. But it continued to impose new taxes on the colonies, and hostility to Britain kept growing. In 1773, some colonists protested a tax on tea by dressing up as Indians, boarding three British ships, and dumping their cargo of tea into the harbor. In response to the Boston Tea Party, Britain closed the Port of Boston.
In turn, colonists convened the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in September 1774. There was significant disagreement among the delegates. Many had supported efforts to repeal the offensive laws, but had no desire for independence. Even after battles broke out at Lexington and Concord in 1775 and the colonies began assembling troops to fight the British, many delegates remained loyal to the king. John Hewes, a delegate from North Carolina wrote in July 1775: “We do not want to be independent; we want no revolution . . . we are loyal subjects to our present most gracious Sovereign.”
Many delegates felt a strong sense of loyalty to the Empire. But they also opposed independence because they saw a need for strong central control. Without the authority of a Parent State, wrote Joseph Galloway, a delegate from Pennsylvania, “many subjects of unsettled disputes . . . must involve us in the horrors of civil war.”
A second Continental Congress met in May 1775, and Congress began advising the colonies on how to set up new state governments without royal governors and judges. On July 4, 1776, Congress issued the Declaration of Independence. The tie with Britain was now formally cut. But the challenge of developing a central authority for the newly independent states remained.
Creating a Constitution
Congress had appointed a committee to draft a plan of confederation. The chairman of the committee was John Dickinson, a former opponent of independence. He had spoken in favor of a strong central government. On July 12, 1776, Dickinson’s committee presented its draft of a federal constitution to Congress.
After a few days of debate, Congress was deeply divided. One major issue was representation: whether each state should have an equal vote, or, as John Adams wrote, “whether each shall have a weight in proportion to its wealth, or number, or exports and imports, or a compound ratio of all?” Another issue was taxation. And the third and most contentious issue was determining the boundaries of colonies that claimed to own land west of the Allegheny Mountains “to the South Seas.”
Congress continued debating the Articles of Confederation, but the war was putting tremendous demands on the delegates. Some delegates lost interest in a confederation now that the revolution had begun. But others felt strongly that a formal confederation was necessary to make foreign alliances. In frustration, one delegate wrote: “No foreign court will attend to our applications for assistance before we are confederated. What contract will a foreign State make with us, when we cannot agree among ourselves?”
Finally, in November 1777, Congress agreed on an amended version of the Articles. Congress urged the states to ratify the Articles of Confederation by March 10, 1778.
The states did not comply. The issue in contention was the ownership of the land west of the Alleghenies. Three “landless” states, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, insisted that Congress should have the power to set the disputed boundaries. They also demanded that land unsettled before the war should be common property, and Congress should eventually divide it into new states. When New York and Virginia finally agreed to cede their claims to western territory, the three holdout states agreed to sign. The Articles of Confederation were finally ratified on March 1, 1781.
How the New Confederation Worked
During the months of debate, Congress made many changes were to the original draft. One was offered by Thomas Burke of North Carolina. He was a leader strongly opposed to having a strong central government. Because of their experience with the British government, many delegates agreed with him. Burke thought “that unlimited power cannot be safely trusted to any man or set of men on Earth.” He believed that Dickinson’s draft undermined the independence of the states. To prevent that, he introduced an amendment, which was approved by 11 states and stands as Article II of the Confederation. (Article I named the union as “The United States of America.”) In its final form, the amendment reads:
Each State retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the united states in Congress assembled.
|Articles of Confederation|
The Articles of Confederation set up the first government of the United States. Here is a summary of the government it set up.
Executive Branch. No executive branch.
Judicial Branch. No judicial branch. Each state had its own court system.
Legislative Branch. Congress. Each state had 1 vote. The Congress elected a president to preside over Congress.
Passing a Law. Nine of the 13 states must vote in favor of it.
Amending. To change the Articles, every state had to agree.
Raising an Army. No power to raise an army. Could only ask states to send soldiers.
Taxing. No power to tax. Could only ask states for tax money.
Controlling Trade. No power to control trade between the states or with other nations.
Bill of Rights. None.
With the addition of Article II, Congress could exercise only the powers expressly delegated to it. Those included the control of war and foreign affairs and the power to regulate trade with Indians. It had the power to regulate the value of its coinage (and that of the states), but no control over states printing paper money. Congress was also empowered to provide a board of arbitration to settle disputes between states and between individuals claiming land under different grants.
But many important powers were not assigned to Congress. It lacked the power to regulate trade, the power to levy and collect taxes, and the authority to limit the powers of the individual states. Nor did the Articles create any federal courts.
The states retained all powers not expressly delegated to Congress. Each state had only one vote (but was required to have at least two representatives in Congress and could have as many as seven). No one could be a member of Congress for more than three out of every six years. No one could be president of Congress for more than one year out of any three. Citizens of each state were allowed to move freely to any other state. And states were required to extradite criminals and to give “full faith and credit” to the judicial proceedings of other states.
Thus the Articles created a union of equal states. The central government was subordinate to the member states, and no individual was likely to assume the power and prestige that come from serving long terms in office.
Depression and Rebellion
On November 5, 1781, Congress unanimously elected John Hanson the first president of the United States. The Articles of Confederation did not specifically define the powers of the president. Hanson and the seven other men served as president under the Articles of Confederation. They formed various departments including a Department of War, an office of Foreign Affairs, and a national post office.
Congress created a national land policy and set up a territorial administration to handle the vast western lands. The Land Ordinance of 1784 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 set criteria for statehood in the western territories. These acts were significant achievements for the Confederation Congress.
Congress also faced problems that ultimately it could not solve. The war with Great Britain had ended in 1783, and an economic depression followed. It lasted more than five years. War debts were accumulating, and many states had not paid the amount they were supposed to. Seven of the 13 states had issued their own paper money. Many debts were being paid with this money, which had little, if any, value. Anger and bitterness grew among merchants, wealthy planters, and other creditors who were owed money. Some states began levying duties on goods. New York, for example, taxed cabbages from New Jersey. These duties outraged merchants.
Members of Congress tried to address the war debt by introducing amendments that would allow Congress to impose import duties. One such amendment in 1781 almost passed, but it was defeated because one state, Rhode Island, refused to give the unanimous consent required to amend the constitution. A similar amendment in 1786 was defeated when New York would not consent.
The economic depression and disputes over paper money also caused problems for state governments, particularly in New England. Massachusetts tried to solve its finance problems by increasing the poll tax and adopting a stamp tax. These taxes outraged farmers, who felt they were overtaxed and underrepresented. In August 1786, a mob of angry farmers interrupted a meeting at Hampshire County Court. The farmers were led by Daniel Shays, a bankrupt farmer who had served in the Continental Army. The uprisings continued throughout the fall until the state recruited an army of 1,200 volunteers and defeated Shays and his band of rebels.
Toward a Stronger Union
Shays’ rebellion was crushed, but the uprising worried many wealthy men who had feared democracy even before the revolution. After the rebellion broke out, Noah Webster penned an article that appeared in many newspapers. He stated that he would “definitely prefer a limited monarchy” because he would rather be subject to the “caprice of one man than to the ignorance of a multitude.” Some leaders grew convinced that the new nation needed a strong central government to crush rebellions and to control the actions of states and their citizens.
Faced with opposition within Congress, these leaders decided to convene a convention to discuss issues of commerce and trade. In January 1786, the Virginia legislature invited states to send delegates to Annapolis in September. The delegates met for four days and concluded that it would not be possible to give Congress the power to regulate trade without changing the Articles. Accordingly, they sent a report to Congress recommending another convention.
When Congress met again in January 1787, it agreed to call a convention to meet in Philadelphia in May. The convention was to meet for “the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation” and recommending changes to “render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the union.”
The stated purpose of this convention was to revise the Articles of Confederation. When the delegates met, however, they abandoned the idea of amending the Articles of Confederation (which required the unanimous agreement of the states). They decided instead to write a new constitution that would go into effect when nine states had ratified it.
The new constitution upended the balance of power between the central government and the states. Under the Articles, states could pass any laws they wished to. Under the new constitution, the powers of both Congress and the state legislatures were limited. The new constitution gave the central government more powers, but it also provided safeguards against unchecked democracy. Faced with a choice between a league of sovereign states or a stronger union, the country’s leaders chose to create a nation.
1. Why were the Articles of Confederation created?
2. What were the accomplishments and failures of the Articles of Confederation?
3. What do you think accounted for the failures?
A C T I V I T Y
Comparing the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution
In this activity, students make charts comparing the governments set up by the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.
The chart briefly explains the government that the Articles of Confederation set up. The headings from the chart are listed below and next to each is the section in the Constitution that deals with that part of the government. Use the chart, the information below, and a copy of the Constitution to create a chart comparing the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.
Executive Branch. Article II, Section 1.
Judicial Branch. Article III, Section 1.
Legislative Branch. Article I, Sections 1, 2, and 3.
Passing a Law. Article I, Section 7.
Amending. Article V.
Raising an Army. Article I, Section 8.
Taxing. Article I, Section 8.
Controlling Trade. Article I, Section 8.
Bill of Rights. Amendments I–X.For Further Information
The American Revolution
Encarta: The American Revolution
Wikipedia: The American Revolution
Columbia Encyclopedia: The American Revolution
Answers.com: The American Revolution
Citizendium: The American Revolution
1911 Britannica: The American Revolution
PBS: Liberty: The American Revolution This creative site has special features like special news clippings, different perspectives on the war, and even a trivia game called “The Road to Revolution.”
TheAmericanRevolution.org This site offers comprehensive sources on the revolution, providing detailed information on battles, biographies, historical documents and recommend readings.
Sparknotes: The American Revolution (1754–1781) and Pre-Revolutionary America (1763–1776) A study guide.
Yahoo Directory: The American Revolution
Google Directory: The American Revolution
Open Directory Project: The American Revolution
The Articles of Confederation
Encarta: Articles of Confederation
Wikipedia: Articles of Confederation
Columbia Encyclopedia: Articles of Confederation
Answers.com: Articles of Confederation
Citizendium: Articles of Confederation
1911 Britannica: Articles of Confederation
Study Guides on the Articles:
Sparknotes: Articles of Confederation (1781-1789)
CliffsNotes: Articles of Confederation
Constitutional Topic: Articles of Confederation An essay.
The American Revolution: The Articles of Confederation and the Constitution Essay by R. B. Bernstein, Visiting Professor in American History, Brooklyn College/CUNY (1997–1998),
and Adjunct Professor, New York Law School.
BookRags: Articles of Confederation A good short history.
Ben’s Guide: Articles of Confederation A short overview of the articles.
The National Archives: The First Constitution and The Articles of Confederation
Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation Bullet points on the weaknesses.
Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation (PDF file) A chart.
WikiAnswers: Why were the Articles of Confederation weak?
Federalist 21: Hamilton Lists the Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation (1787)
Revered Freedom Document Critique: Articles of Confederation A critique of sections of the document.
Ludwig von Mises Institute: Rethinking the Articles of Confederation The author of this article argues that the Articles of Confederation “proved themselves to be a perfectly viable structure for a free society,” which differs from the typical characterization of the Articles.
Text of the Articles of Confederation:
Avalon Project: The Articles of Confederation The text of the Articles of Confederation.
U.S. Constitution Online: Articles of Confederation
From Revolution to Reconstruction: Articles of Confederation
Early America: Articles of Confederation
Our Documents: Articles of Confederation
Google Directory: Articles of Confederation
Open Directory Project: Articles of Confederation
Yahoo Directory: Articles of Confederation
Encarta: Shays’ Rebellion
Wikipedia: Shays’ Rebellion and Daniel Shays
Answers.com: Shays’ Rebellion
Columbia Encyclopedia: Shays’ Rebellion
The Articles of Confederation Revisited: Shays’ Rebellion An essay by Rosemary Vest, Pueblo Community College, Colorado.
Calliope: Shays’ Rebellion (1786–87) and the Constitution
National Park Service: Shays Rebellion
Shays2: About Shays Rebellion An article and links.
BookRags: Shays’s and Whiskey Rebellions
Yahoo Directory: Shays’ Rebellion
The History Place: American Revolution
TheAmericanRevolution.org: A Timeline of the Revolution
Indiana Historical Bureau: A Northwest Ordinance Timeline
Encyclopedia Articles on John Dickinson:
Wikipedia: John Dickinson
Encarta: John Dickinson
Columbia Encyclopedia: John Dickinson
Answers.com: John Dickinson
1911 Britannica: John Dickinson
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress: John Dickinson
U.S.History.org: John Dickinson
Dickinson College: John Dickinson
The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774–1781 By Merill Jensen.
Collective Action under the Articles of Confederation By Keith L. Dougherty.
Amending America: If We Love the Constitution So Much, Why Do We Keep Trying to Change It? By Richard Bruce Bernstein.
The Making of the American Constitution By Merrill Jensen.
Jefferson’s America: 1760–1815 By Norman K. Risjord.
The Birth of the Republic, 1763–89 By Edmund S. Morgan.