Devised during the Revolutionary War, the weak central government of the Articles of Confederation was unable to cope with the pressing problems of a new nation.
The first government created by the newly independent United States was detailed in the Articles of Confederation, drafted while the fledgling nation was still at war. The provisions of this document reflected those fears of a strong central government while leaving substantial power in the hands of the states. After the war ended in 1783, however, the deficiencies became apparent. Survival of the new nation would depend upon a dramatic revision that resulted in the United States Constitution.
Limitations in the Articles of Confederation
Unlike the three branches of government enumerated in the Constitution, the government under the Articles represented a weak central government: there was no chief executive with any power, there was no federal judiciary, and the Congress was severely limited in what it could do.
The Confederation Congress represented the thirteen states through one vote each, regardless of state population. This disproportionate representation meant that states with large populations, such as Virginia and Massachusetts, would be treated equally with smaller states like Connecticut. The Constitution, after several debates and proposals, would remedy this weakness by creating a bi-cameral legislature that called for a national Senate with equal representation and a House of Representatives elected on the basis of population.
Under the Articles, the Congress could not levy taxes or regulate trade between the states. Even Benjamin Franklin’s earlier Albany Plan, offered before the Revolution, proposed that the Grand Council (his version of a Congress) could levy taxes to be used to pay for colonial defense against Indians. The Confederation Congress did not even have the power to draft soldiers.
Legislation could only be approved by a 9 out of 13 vote. Under the Constitution, a bill becomes a law if a majority passes it and it is signed by the President. Amendments to the Articles had to be by unanimous vote while the later Constitution stipulated a three quarter majority of all states. Clearly, the young nation under the Articles of Confederation was limited to the point of being unable to deal with the enormous crises faced after the war ended.
The Constitution would be considered the “supreme law of the land” and subordinate the sovereignty of individual states under a strong federal system. But this was considered anathema by many of the nation’s leaders that had portrayed American independence, at least in part, as a movement that divested itself of centralized, despotic rule. Even the drafting of post-war state constitutions reflected this idea with some states questioning the need for a governor.
The Need for a Stronger Government
Shays’ Rebellion of 1786-1787 in New England highlighted the need to reform the central government as it became apparent that debts and taxation were turning farmers into rebels. The new nation itself felt the crush of war-time debt and found itself unable to repay loans and bonds. High inflation griped the nation as imports threatened the balance of trade.
The new Constitution addressed the many problems and gave the new government a division of powers reflected in the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches with the ability to check the powers of each branch (“checks and balances”). The addition of a Bill of Rights guaranteed the personal liberties of all citizens.
The Articles of Confederation sufficed as the Continental Congress focused on winning the war for independence. Its weaknesses became apparent once the war ended and the actual process of governing a nation began.
- Samuel H. Beer, To Make a Nation: The Rediscovery of American Federalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993)
- John J. Patrick and Richard C. Remy, Lessons on the Constitution (Social Science Education Consortium, Inc., 1987)