The Articles of Confederation

Key Ideas

--the ever-present threat of domestic violence and anarchy

--the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation

--the Founders' commentary on the crisis fo the time.

The "Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union," America's first constitution, were a total failure and had to be revised within a decade of their being written. THIS video offers a hint into why the Articles had to be revised.

Really? What does as World Trade Organization protest riot in Seattle in 1999 have to do with the Articles of Confederation? It demonstrates that the government, as we now enjoy it, has the capacity to deal with domestic disorder. Imagine a situation in which a protest such as this--however much merit its complaints might represent,  could not be controlled by the government. This was the point to which our national situation had disintegrated under our first “constitution,” The Articles of Confederation.

The Articles of Confederation were proposed in 1777 at 2nd Constitutional Congress in Philadelphia. They were adopted 1781, with Maryland the last state to ratify. They were short-lived however, lasting only 8 years, as national life under the Articles of Confederation steadily degenerated due to the lack of a strong effective central government.

The country under Articles of Confederation was a confederation. The difference between a unitary, federal and confederate form of government hinges on where "sovereign" power is located; that is, power granted by the constitution (or some other source of authority) that can't be taken away. In a unitary form of government, sovereignty is located in the central government. Any power that the regional governments have (states, or counties, or provinces, or regions, etc.) have, is given to them by the central government. In a confederate government, all sovereign power is held by the regional governments; the central government has only as much power as is given it by all the regional governments.

In a federal government, sovereign power resides in both the central and regional governments. This was our invention at the Constitutional Convention of 1787; however, we only came to that decision after the failure of the Articles of Confederation.

There are a number of present day unitary governments. They include the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Portugal, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Japan. There are fewer federal systems of government Among them are the U.S. of course, and Canada, Australia, Spain and Germany.

There are almost no examples of confederate governments. Experience has taught us that they really don't work very well. We can only cite America under the Articles of Confederation, and the short-lived Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. The United Nations, though not a country, is often cited as an example of a governmental arrangement that follows the confederate pattern.

The weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation included:

1.The inherent problems associated with all confederacies: power is only granted to the central government at the good will of states. This is what some have called "government by supplication.”

2.There was a breakdown of commerce; for example, bordering states could not agree on who had the rights to use rivers common to both states. States also kept throwing punitive tariffs against other states, slowing or stopping the importation and exportation of goods. Since at this time--as now--no state was self-sufficient, this kind of activity quickly caused a crisis within the states because they couldn’t get the food, machinery, clothing and building materials they needed.

3. There was a breakdown of domestic stability, most conspicuously the year-long uprising in western Massachusetts called Shay’s Rebellion.

4. The central government had no power of taxation; it couldn’t raise revenue, even for the war effort against Great Britain. Over the course of the War for Independence, 16 million dollars was requisitioned from the states, only 2 million was granted by the states. Georgia and North Carolina never gave a cent.

5. There was an unworkable amendment process--any changes to the government had to be unanimous, and unanimity among thirteen very different colonies was usually impossible to achieve. 

6. No independent judiciary existed to resolve disputes between the states.

7. There was no uniform system of currency. The national government had the power to print money but so did the States. Imagine the commercial chaos!.

8. There existed no coherent  foreign policy. Great Britain complained they didn't even know who to talk to about foreign affairs.

How bad was it under the Articles
? Consider these quotes from some of the leading men of the time:

"The Eastern States ... exhibit a melancholy proof of what our trans-Atlantic foe has predicted; and of another thing perhaps, which is still more to be regretted, and is yet more unaccountable, that mankind when left to themselves are unfit for their own Government. I am mortified beyond expression when I view the clouds that have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned upon any Country." (G. Washington to Henry Lee, Oct. 31, 1786)


"Fain would I hope, that the great, and most important of all objects, the foederal government, may be considered with that calm and deliberate attention which the magnitude of it so loudly calls for at this critical moment. Let prejudices, unreasonable jealousies, and local interest yield to reason and liberality. Let us look to our National character and to things beyond the present period. No morn ever dawned more favourable than ours did; and no day was ever more clouded than the present! Wisdom, and good examples are necessary at this time to rescue the political machine from the impending storm." (G. Washington to James Madison, November 5, 1786.)


"To suppose that the general concerns of this country can be directed by thirteen heads, or one head without competent powers, is a solecism, the bad effects for which every man who has had the practical knowledge to judge from, that I have, is fully convinced of; tho' none perhaps has felt them in so forcible and distressing a degree. (G. Washington to Dr. William Gordon, July 8, 1783).


"It is by many here suggested as a very necessary step for Congress to take, the calling on the States to form a Convention for the sole purpose of revising the Confederation so far as to enable Congress to execute with more energy, effect and vigor the powers assigned to it." (Richard Henry Lee, President of the Congress [under the Articles of Confederation] to James Madison, November 26, 1784).

"The States are every day giving proofs that separate regulations are more likely to set them by the ears than to attain the common object. When Massachusetts set on foot a retaliation of the policy of Great Britain, Connecticut declared her ports free. New Jersey served New York in the same way. And Delaware I am told has lately followed the example in opposition to the commercial plans of Pennsylvania. A miscarriage of this attempt to unite the States in some effectual plan will have another effect of a serious nature. It will dissipate every prospect of drawing a steady revenue from our imposts....Another unhappy effect of a continuance of the present anarchy of our commerce will be a continuance fo the unfavorable balance on it, which, by draining us of our metals, furnishes pretexts for the pernicious substitution of paper money , for indulgences to debtors, for postponement of taxes. In fact most of our political evils may be traced up to our commercial ones, as most of our moral may to our political...I almost despair of success." (Madison to Jefferson, March 18,, 1786).


In April the newspapers in Philadelphia and many other cities published widely the following letter, which indicated just how far the disintegration of the country had gone:

"Instead of attempted to amend the present Articles of Confederation with a view to retain them as the form of Government, or instead of attempting one General Government for the whole community of the United States, would it not be preferable to distribute the United States into three Republics [New England States and New York; New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland; and Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia], who should enter into a perpetual league and alliance for mutual defence?

In summary, the Articles were an utter failure. Understanding the weaknesses of the Articles is essential to understanding the constitution that replaced it, the Constitution of 1776.  But the reasons for the failure of the Articles are as relevant today as they were at the time.



© Hank Edmondson 2012