The Articles of Confederation

Our First Constitution: An Attempt to Unify America

Background

On June 12, 1776, three weeks before the proclamation of independence, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to draft articles of government for a "firm league of friendship" of the thirteen colonies/states. The Articles of Confederation were presented to Congress on July 12, 1776 (just after declaring independence from Britain); however, the frame of government proposed for the "perpetual" union by the committee appeared to many of the delegates as being too centralized.

Let's Not Appear Too British

The kind of government that the Americans would establish to replace the British form of government, which is what the Americans had been operating under, was as important to the Americans as the actual establishment of independence.. Representatives of the Second Continental Congress wanted to prevent the reappearance of any "centralized" authority which they associated with the British governmental system.

What to Do?

After lots and lots of discussion which centered around the issues of representation, taxation, control of western lands, and the power of the states -- the delegates agreed upon a confederate system which placed limited power in the hands of a central government. The Articles of Confederation became a framework for a government at war and they were sent to the states for approval in 1777. Though the Articles of Confederation were not ratified until 1781 (when the western land issue was finally settled), this was the government system under which the states operated.

The Final Form

Again, Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation in 1777, and in it's final form -- the Articles of Confederation were comprised (or made up of) a preamble and 13 articles.



  • Congress became the single branch of national government (unicameral), but it would have limited powers in order to protect the liberties of the people.
  • Each state had one vote in the Congress.
  • Congress could settle conflicts among the states, make coins (money), borrow money, and make treaties with other countries and with Native Americans.
  • Congress could also ask the states for money and soldiers, but the states had the right to refuse these requests.
  • The national government did NOT have a president or a national court system.


The Articles of Confederation were finally ratified by the last of the 13 American states, Maryland, in 1781, and it became the ruling document or first constitution in the new nation.


Watch the video below and pay close attention to the parts about the Articles of Confederation.

The Constitution, the Articles, and Federalism: Crash Course US History #8

Let's Look At This Again....

So just to recap a bit.....


A confederation is a group of individuals who unite together for a purpose -- in this case, the 13 states that had previously been under British rule.


The Articles of Confederation explained how the 13 states would be governed as one nation. Here are the basics:


  • each state was independent, and had its own government
  • each state would send representatives to the "Congress of the Confederation," a law-making body
  • Congress was the only branch of government -- no president and no courts
  • in Congress, each state got one vote

Pros & Cons and Lots of Differences

Pros:

On one hand, the Articles of Confederation had qualities that citizens appreciated. Because the Articles did not set up a very strong government, STATES got to keep their power and independence. There was NO powerful government telling them what to do. Citizens did want protection though and the Articles gave Congress the power to create a military to protect all the states.


Cons:

There were problems though. The Articles did not give Congress the power to enforce its laws. Congress had no power to collect taxes to pay for the military. And, if anything needed to be changed or amended in the Articles, EVERY single state had to agree to the changes. All of these "cons" led people to realize AND believe that the government system wasn't really working.


Lots of Differences:

With 13 different states, there was no easy solution to fix the problems, and here's why:



  • States had different needs. For example, some states depended on fishing while others depended on agriculture.
  • States had different size populations. Some states had a large population while others had a small population. Think how big Virginia is compared to Rhode Island!
  • People had different opinions. Some people feared a central government while others believed that a central government was necessary.
  • Many people feared that they would lose their freedom if a central government had too much power. And, others were tired of the WEAK government created under the Articles of Confederation, and felt like nothing would ever get done if no one was in charge.


In the words of George Washington, the government created by the Articles of Confederation was "little more than the shadow without substance." As the need for a stronger federal government began to be realized leaders from throughout the states got together to decide how to create it. The delegates from the 13 states gathered in Philadelphia in May, 1787. They intended to amend or make changes to the Articles of Confederation, but realized that so much more needed to be done so they instead drafted our current Constitution of the United States, which created a stronger central government. And, that's a lesson for another day!

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Five Major Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation

  1. A weak national or central government.
  2. Congress could not tax or regulate trade.
  3. One vote per state no matter the size of the population or land size.
  4. The national government did not have an executive or judicial branch.
  5. No common currency among the states.

Resources:

McGraw Hill Education: United States History to 1877 textbook

https://bensguide.gpo.gov

Teaching American History for All, UC-Berkeley

https://icivics.org

Library of Congress