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The Articles of Confederation

Articles of Confederation, was the basic law of the country from its adoption in 1781 until 1789, when it was superseded by the U.S. Constitution. When the founding fathers wrote up the Articles they wanted to avoid the tyranny that they had under British rule. As a result of this fear, they created a central (national) government that had very limited powers. This way, they thought, the government could not become so strong that it would abuse its power as the King had done.

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
  • 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.

The government was unicameral, meaning it had only one house or legislative body. Each State had one vote. There was no executive branch so there was no President. It was expected that the national government would leave the making of law to the states so there was no need for a branch to carry out the law. There was also no judicial branch because it was expected that the states would judge lawbreakers.

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

  • It could not raise money by collecting taxes; it had to ask for money from the states who were under no obligation to give the money.
  • it had no control over foreign commerce
  • it could not regulate trade between the states and dates were free to tax each other.
  • 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.
  • it could not draft soldiers and had to ask the states to provide them willingly.
  • 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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