America’s First Failure at Government: The Articles of Confederation

Posted by on Jul 17th, 2012 | 23 Comments
<Tholey, A. (Augustus), artist. “Leaders of the Continental Congress,” 1894. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-14414.

After the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the thirteen American colonies needed a government to replace the British system they were attempting to overthrow. The Founding Fathers’ first attempt at such governance was formed around the Articles of Confederation. The Articles of Confederation were first proposed at the Second Continental Congress in 1777 in Philadelphia. They were fully ratified and put into effect in 1781. The reign of the Articles of Confederation was brief. Why did the articles of confederation fail? What were the flaws of the Articles of Confederation and how did it distribute power? Read more to discover why by 1789 the former colonies were under the law of a new governing document—the Constitution of the United States of America. ((Articles of Confederation: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=rbpe&fileName=rbpe17/rbpe178/17802600/rbpe17802600.db&recNum=0; Fathers of the Continental Congress: http://www.americaslibrary.gov/jb/revolut/jb_revolut_2ndcong_2_e.html))

The inherent weakness of the Articles of Confederation stemmed from the fact that it called for a confederacy—which placed sovereign power in the hands of the states. This is most explicitly stated in Article II, which reads: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” ((Yale Law School: Lillian Goldman Law Library, Articles of Confederation: March 1, 1781, 2008, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/artconf.asp; accessed June 2012.))

This distribution of power was chosen by the Founding Fathers because American colonists were wary of strong national governments. Having dealt with the British Crown for so many years, the American colonies did not want to create yet another out-of-touch, national government. Moreover, Americans identified most strongly with their individual colony, so it seemed natural to construct an American government based on powerful state governments.

That said, during its short lifespan, the Articles of Confederation became increasingly ineffective at governing the continually growing American states. The main cause of this ineffectiveness stemmed from a lack of a strong, central government. From the absence of a powerful, national government emerged a series of limitations that rendered the Articles of Confederation futile.

Specifically, the lack of a strong national government in the Articles of Confederation led to three broad limitations.

  1. Economic disorganization
  2. Lack of central leadership
  3. Legislative inefficiencies

Economic Disorganization

The first flaw of the Articles of Confederation was its economic disorganization which  led to financial hardship for the emerging nation. By the late 1780’s, America was struggling to compete economically and pay off the debts it accumulated in its fight for independence. These problems were made worse by a series of economic limitations present in the Articles of Confederation.

1) Congress could not regulate trade

In 1786, James Madison wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson detailing the economic problems caused by disorganization and competition between the states:

“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….I almost despair of success.” ((Hank Edmondson, Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.))

America in the mid-1780’s was plagued by economic chaos that originated from the national government’s inability to manage trade. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had limited power to regulate trade. Congress was only able to regulate trade and commerce with Native American tribes and, even then, only if it did not impair an individual state’s ability to monitor its own trade. Congress had no ability to negotiate trade agreements with foreign countries. The central government could enact foreign treaties, but such treaties were specifically barred from policing imports and exports. ((American Fur Trade (photo): http://www.historicfortsnelling.org/sites/historicfortsnelling.org/files/images/Fur_traders_in_canada_1777.jpg)) States, on the other hand, could make and enforce any trade restriction they saw fit. The only power they lacked was the ability to make foreign treaties. Since the central government had so little trade power, there was very little economic coordination amongst the states. Each state had its own agenda and import and export policies differed greatly from state to state

2) No uniform system of currency

 

North Carolina’s Own Currency

Article IX of the Articles of Confederation stated, “The United States in Congress assembled shall also have the sole and exclusive right and power of regulating the alloy and value of coin struck by their own authority, or by that of the respective State.” ((Yale Law School: Lillian Goldman Law Library, Articles of Confederation: March 1, 1781.)) While Congress had the right to regulate all forms of American currency, the Articles failed to call for a singular form of currency. This meant that the national government could print money, but each state could as well. Consequently, America had no uniform system of currency which made trade between the states, and with foreign entities, much more difficult and less efficient.

 

3) No power of taxation

 Only the states, not Congress, had the authority to impose taxes and raise revenue. Accordingly, Congress had to request for funds from the states. Per Article VIII, these funds “shall be supplied by the several States in proportion to the value of all land within each State.” ((ibid)) How that money was raised, within each state, was up to the state legislatures. Unfortunately, this money was oftentimes not raised by the states or given to the national government long after it was due. ((Sarah McNeil, Articles of Confederation, 2012 June, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=277 (accessed 2012 June).)) As a result, Congress faced substantial revenue shortfalls. Without payment from the states, Congress struggled to pay off America’s foreign debts and was incapable of fulfilling its other tasks, such as managing foreign affairs. Moreover, the unpredictability of the central government’s revenue stream made establishing a national budget nearly impossible. Not knowing how much and when states were going to pay their share severely handicapped an already-limited national government.

In short, it was a lack of economic unity that brought about many of America’s economic woes during the years under the Articles of Confederation. Congress had few effective means to enforce its laws, raise revenue, or regulate the economy. The result was a disorganized economy that lacked the ability to pay for itself..

Lack of Central Leadership

The second series of limitations that the Articles of Confederation had to contend with deal with was the lack of central leadership it provided. As detailed earlier, the Articles placed sovereign power in the hands of the state. Most critically, this led to economic troubles, but it also led to leadership deficit. Lack of national leadership took various forms.

1) No independent judiciary

The Articles of Confederation offered no system of courts in the jurisdiction of the national government. This meant that the entire judiciary branch was dependent on the states. According to Article IV, “Full faith and credit shall be given in each of these States to the records, acts, and judicial proceedings of the courts and magistrates of every other State.” ((Yale Law School: Lillian Goldman Law Library, Articles of Confederation: March 1, 1781.)) Consequently, states could overturn national actions that they found objectionable. Since Congress had no means to enforce its laws, the states could simply ignore national laws without fear of retribution. Also, since there was no national courts system, individual persons or states could not file complaints against the national government. The states could always ignore anything they disagreed with, but if a citizen had a grievance with the national government there was no system in place to hear the lawsuit.

2) No foreign affairs head

One of the glaring differences between the Articles of Confederation and its successor—the Constitution of the United States—was its lack of a chief executive. Most notably, the lack of a presidential figure or body left America without a representative to conduct foreign affairs. Britain actually complained of such difficulties, protesting that they did not know who to contact in order to initiate diplomacy. Without a single executive to act as the head of foreign affairs, America was at a serious diplomatic disadvantage.

3) Inability to deal with internal and external threats

It seems counterintuitive that a body of government would be tasked with declaring war, but not be allowed to commission an armed force. According to the Articles of Confederation, Congress had the sole power to make peace and war, but did not have the authority to raise an army of its own: “The United States in Congress assembled, shall have the sole and exclusive right and power of determining on peace and war.”((ibid)) Instead, the national government had to rely on state militia. Since it was dependent on state troops, Congress was severely limited in its capabilities to quickly and effectively responding to internal and external threats. Abroad, Congress failed to defend American from the continuing threat of Britain following the Revolutionary War. Shortly after signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Britain began to break the agreement.

“Shays’s Rebellion.” The portraits of Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck, leaders of the Massachusetts “Regulators,” 1787. Bickerstaff’s Boston Almanack of 1787 (c. 1787), National Picture Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

By 1784, the British were infringing upon American fishing rights and the British Royal Navy was impressing American sailors into forced conscription. Without the aid of a unified military, though, Congress was incapable of fighting back and protecting America’s sovereignty. At home, the inability of Congress to decisively put down the internal threat of Shay’s Rebellion was a direct result of the lack of a capable national army. The rebellion began in 1786 due to the post-war economic depression and the American government’s harsh policies in response to the economic downturn. Rebels initially protested peacefully ,  resisting the collection of taxes and debts from struggling Americans. ((David P. Szatmary, Shay’s Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1980: 43.)) However, following the arrest of several of their leaders, rebels became much more militant. The national government failed to come up with the funds to raise an army capable of putting down the rebellion. It took a group of rich merchants from Massachusetts pooling their resources to pay for a militia. ((ibid, 84-86)) The rebellion was eventually put down, but the inability of the national government to act effectively made the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation ever more apparent. Shay’s Rebellion served as one impetus for the creation of a stronger, central government in the upcoming Constitution. ((ibid, 120; Shay’s Rebellion: http://www.arps.org/amhersthistory/shay’s%20pages/Shay’s%20Index/heading%20into%20battle.jpg; Daniel Shay and Jacob Shattuck, two of the leaders of Shay’s Rebellion: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b9/Daniel_Shays_and_Job_Shattuck.jpg/300px-Daniel_Shays_and_Job_Shattuck.jpg))

Legislative Inefficiencies

Lastly, the Articles of Confederation proved ineffective because of a set of rules that made legislating under this framework inefficient.

1) Each state had one vote

Per Article V, “each State shall have one vote.” ((Yale Law School: Lillian Goldman Law Library, Articles of Confederation: March 1, 1781.)) As a result, small states and large states had the same voting weight in Congress andthere was no proportionality in voting matters. Considering the large discrepancy in state populations, states with larger populations were quite unhappy with this set-up. For example, in 1780, Virginia had over ten times the number of citizens as Delaware. In fact, Virginia had twice as many people as every state except for Pennsylvania, yet each state received only one vote in Congress. ((U.S. Department of Commerce: Bureau of Census, “Estimated Population of American Colonies, 1630-1780,” 1998 February, http://merrill.olm.net/mdocs/pop/colonies/colonies.htm, accessed June 2012))

2) Difficulty passing laws

In a pre-calculator era, one might think that ”one state, one vote” would make it easier to pass laws. Regrettably, the opposite rang true since it took the consent of nine of the thirteen states to approve legislation. This meant that blocking a bill took only five of the thirteen states. In 1780 , the five least populated states—Delaware, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Georgia, and New Jersey—had a total population of less than 400,000. Virginia, on the other hand, had a population of over 500,000. ((U.S. Department of Commerce: Bureau of Census, “Estimated Population of American Colonies, 1630-1780)) Thus, a unified population smaller than the single state of Virginia could block any piece of legislation presented in Congress. A very small percentage of the American populace could preclude bills from passing that could benefit the majority of Americans.

3) Impractical amendment process

The most ironic of the Articles’ legislative inefficiencies was the difficult amendment process it detailed. Article XIII prohibited “any alteration at any time hereafter be made in any of them; unless such alteration be agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State.” ((Yale Law School: Lillian Goldman Law Library, Articles of Confederation: March 1, 1781)) This meant that any amendment had to have the consent of the national Congress and all of the states. Requiring a unanimous vote made it extremely difficult to pass changes. Ironically, the fact that the Articles of Confederation was so poorly structured that it did not have mechanisms in place  to fix itself. Ultimately, the Articles were scrapped altogether in favor of an entirely new governing document.

The main difference between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution is that the Articles called for a confederate style of government, whereas the Constitution outlined a federal form of governance. The divergence between confederate and federal models occurs when sovereign power is granted. ((Hank Edmondson, Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, http://hercules.gcsu.edu/~hedmonds/U.S.%20Constitution/Articles%20of%20Confederation.htm, accessed 2012 June))

In a confederate government, that ultimate power resides in regional and local governments. The central government only has as much power as regional governments are willing to give to it. The only noteworthy examples are the Articles of Confederation and the Confederacy during the Civil War. Neither of these regimes lasted more than a decade.

In a federal government, sovereign power is given to both regional and central governments. A strong and clear constitution is needed in order that power is clearly divided. This notion of a separated government was popularized by the Constitution of the United States and can be found in modern politics in countries such as Canada, Germany, and Spain.

The third form of government, that neither the Articles nor the Constitution proposed, is a unitary government. Unitary governments place all power in the central government. Acting like the opposite of a confederacy, regional governments only have the power that is given to them by the national government. Modern unitarian governments include Britain, France, and Italy.

Primary Source Documents

  1. Articles of Confederation, March 1, 1781: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/artconf.asp

Additional Resources

  1. The Articles of Confederation: Before the Constitution (video): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h10eSXRFsTM
  2. Lessons Learned: The Articles of Confederation (video): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lj2UpUVqzE

This article helps answer “why did the articles of confederation fail?”  Themes: failures of the articles of confederation, articles of confederation lack of unity, flaws of the articles of confederation, articles of confederation ineffective, problems with the articles of confederation, reasons why the articles of confederation failed, flaws of articles of confederation, failure of articles of confederation, limitations of articles of confederation, powers or institutions the national government did not have under the articles of confederation, articles of confederation and taxes, articles of confederation and currency.

Comments

  1. If it weren’t for the representative system set up by the Constitution, the US would be much more focused on regional politics. With Congress being many times larger under the Constitution and the addition of party politics, citizens can unite across vast geographic areas in support of a policy that would probably be marginalized if each state had only one vote. The complicated, sometimes frustrating system afforded by the Constitution is what has allowed a national government focused on ideas and moving its people forward as a whole rather than sorting out regional fighting between confederate colonies.

  2. I found it interesting that the Articles didn’t provide for a uniform currency to be adopted by the states. This, in addition to the other reasons for economic inefficiency seem to reduce the (almost non-existent) federal government to a near ceremonial status. I know that the newly sovereign nation was wary of a strong central power, but it seems almost laughable that they would believe the Articles of Confederation could be successful. Another part of the Articles of Confederation that I found interesting was article 11, which allowed for Canada to join the confederation if they so choose.

  3. Certainly seems like the U.S. learned a lot from the mistakes of giving the states too much power instead of a central government. There was no balance with the Articles of Confederation.

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  13. What this article calls weaknesses of the Articles are exactly examples of their strengths. The nationalists did not like the fact that the states would play off of each other for economic competitiveness, but I fault to see why this makes it a problem. When Mass wanted to institute mercantilism for themselves like the British Empire, other states made their ports free. This is beautiful. It gave instant feedback to the tyranny in states like Mass. They could not simply raise taxes, impound goods, or raise the tariff. They would be instantly undercut. As it should be I say !!! So the nationalist wanted all states to conform to a uniform tariff. I dare say, that if the Articles had not been replaced by the Constitution there would not have been the tariff issue then, and as a result there would not have been a civil war. Another reason why the Articles were superior to the Constitution.

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