Why the Articles of Confederation Failed

Howard Chandler Christy's "Signing of US Constitution"
Howard Chandler Christy/Wikimedia Commons/PD US Government

The Articles of Confederation established the first governmental structure unifying the 13 colonies that had fought in the American Revolution. In effect, this document created the structure for the confederation of these newly minted 13 states. After many attempts by several delegates to the Continental Congress, a draft by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania was the basis for the final document, which was adopted in 1777.

The Articles went into effect on March 1, 1781, after all 13 states had ratified them. The Articles of Confederation lasted until March 4, 1789, when they were replaced by the U.S. Constitution. So, why did the Articles of Confederation fail after just eight years?

Strong States, Weak Central Government

The purpose of the Articles of Confederation was to create a confederation of states whereby each state retained "its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right ... not ... expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled." 

Every state was as independent as possible within the central government of the United States, which was only responsible for the common defense, the security of liberties and the general welfare. Congress could make treaties with foreign nations, declare war, maintain an army and navy, establish a postal service, manage Native American affairs and coin money.

But Congress could not levy taxes or regulate commerce. Because of widespread fear of a strong central government at the time they were written and strong loyalties among Americans to their own state as opposed to any national government during the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation purposely kept the national government as weak as possible and the states as independent as possible.

However, this led to many of the problems that became apparent once the Articles took effect. 

Achievements Under the Articles of Confederation

Despite their significant weaknesses, under the Articles of Confederation the new United States won the American Revolution against the British and secured its independence; successfully negotiated an end to the Revolutionary War with the Treaty of Paris in 1783; and established the national departments of foreign affairs, war, marine, and treasury.  The Continental Congress also made a treaty with France in 1778, after the Articles of Confederation had been adopted by the Congress but before they had been ratified by all the states.

Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation

The weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation would quickly lead to problems that the Founding Fathers realized would not be fixable under the current form of government. These included the following: 

  • Each state only had one vote in Congress, regardless of size.
  • Congress did not have the power to tax.
  • Congress did not have the power to regulate foreign and interstate commerce.
  • There was no executive branch to enforce any acts passed by Congress.
  • There was no national court system or judicial branch.
  • Amendments to the Articles of Confederation required a unanimous vote.
  • Laws required a 9/13 majority to pass in Congress.
  • States could levy tariffs on other states' goods.

Under the Articles of Confederation, each state viewed its own sovereignty and power as paramount to the national good. This led to frequent arguments between the states. In addition, the states would not willingly give money to financially support the national government.

The national government was powerless to enforce any acts that Congress passed. Further, some states began to make separate agreements with foreign governments. Almost every state had its own military, called a militia. Each state printed its own money. This, along with issues with trade, meant that there was no stable national economy. 

In 1786, Shays' Rebellion occurred in western Massachusetts as a protest to rising debt and economic chaos.

However, the national government was unable to gather a combined military force among the states to help put down the rebellion, making clear a serious weakness in the structure of the Articles of Confederation.

Gathering of the Philadelphia Convention

As the economic and military weaknesses became apparent, especially after Shays' Rebellion, Americans began asking for changes to the Articles. Their hope was to create a stronger national government. Initially, some states met to deal with their trade and economic problems together. However, as more states became interested in changing the Articles, and as national feeling strengthened, a meeting was set in Philadelphia for May 25, 1787. This became the Constitutional Convention. It was quickly realized that changes would not work, and instead the entire Articles of Confederation needed to be replaced with a new U.S. Constitution that would dictate the structure of the national government.