What You Should Know About the Articles of Confederation

Howard Chandler Christy's
Howard Chandler Christy's "Signing of US Constitution". Howard Chandler Christy via Wikimedia Commons

The Articles of Confederation established the first governmental structure unifying the thirteen states that had fought in the American Revolution. In effect, this document created the structure for the confederation of these thirteen states. The Articles went into effect on March 1, 1781 and lasted until March 4, 1789, when they were replaced by the US Constitution. So, why did the Articles of Confederation fail after just eight years?

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 with the central government of the United States, only responsible for the common defense, the security of liberties, and the general welfare. To this effect, the Articles were purposely written to keep the national government as weak as possible. However, this led to many of the problems that became apparent once the Articles took effect. 

Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation

Following is a list of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation that would quickly lead to problems which 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.
  • Amendments to the Articles of Confederation required a unanimous vote.
  • Laws required a 9/13 majority to pass in Congress.

Under the Articles of Confederation, each state was concerned with preserving their own sovereignty and power. 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 agreements with foreign governments. Almost every state had its own military. Each printed its own money. This, along with issues with trade, meant that there was no stable 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 amongst the states to help put down the rebellion. 

Gathering of the Philadelphia Convention

As the economic and military weaknesses became apparent, especially after Shays' Rebellion, individuals 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.

However, as more states became interested in meeting to change the Articles, a meeting was set in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787. This became the Constitutional Convention. It was quickly realized that changes would not work, and instead the entire Articles needed to be replaced with a new Constitution.