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Is weak government best for the preservation of democracy?

"The government which governs least, governs best."

--Thomas Jefferson

In declaring themselves free from the tyrannical rule of England the colonists set out to create a new nation free of the rule of a strong central government. As most colonists identified themselves as citizens of their state or colony and not the colonies or nation as a whole, states rights became an important feature in the new government. The Articles of Confederation brought the colonies together as a loose confederation with states rights being considerably more important than the power of the federal government. This confederation of failed due to structural reasons.

Articles of Confederation, was the basic law of the country from its adoption in 1781 until 1789, when it was superseded by the U.S. Constitution.

Under the articles, the nation was a confederacy, league of independent states, each with a single vote. The unicameral legislature had little power and all states were equal, thus giving the larger states a proportional disadvantage based upon their size.

The Congress, or central government, made up of delegates chosen by the states, was given the power to conduct foreign affairs, make treaties, declare war, maintain an army and a navy, coin money, and establish post offices.

The new nation did have a few successes among them:

  • The negotiation of the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War.
  • Guiding the young nation through the critical period at its birth.
  • The passage of the Northwest Ordinance, which provided for orderly admission of states to the Union.

Measures passed by Congress, however, required the approval of 9 of the 13 states. The Congress was severely limited in its powers.

  • It could not raise money by collecting taxes;
  • it had no control over foreign commerce;
  • it could pass laws but could not force the states to comply with them. Thus, the government was dependent on the willingness of the various states to carry out its measures, and often the states refused to cooperate.
  • In addition, the articles were virtually impossible to amend, so problems could not be corrected.

These defects provided an insurmountable barrier to effective constitutional government. Several failures illustrated the new governments weakness. These failures included:

  • The inability to pay off the debt from the war collectively thus appearing less like a nation in they eyes of the world. It also hurt our ability to borrow money.
  • Discord among states who began taxing each other. This led to an overall slump in the national economy and, eventually, a depression.
  • The government was powerless to put down Shay's Rebellion, a farmers revolt.

The nation's leaders realized that a stronger central administration was needed if the United States was to survive. In 1787 the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia to draw up a constitution, which was adopted in 1789.


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