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From the Articles of Confederation to the U.S. Constitution

U.S. Government under the Articles of Confederation

Structure of the Government under the Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation, approved by the states in 1781, was the first written plan of government for the new United States. It laid out the powers and purpose of the national government, which consisted of a one-chamber legislature.

The Articles of Confederation, the first U.S. constitution, established a central government with limited powers while granting most governmental power to the states. The document, in effect from 1781 to 1789, created a loose confederation of independent states. A confederation, or confederal system, is a political system with weak or loose organization of states, where the central government is granted authority by the states. The document says that the states form a "league of friendship" designed for their mutual defense and welfare, pledging to assist each other in the event of attacks made against any of them because of religion, trade, or other issues.

The 13 articles in the document outlined the structure of the national government based on the principle of state sovereignty—the individual states had supreme authority and the power to govern themselves. In other words, any power not specifically given to the U.S. government belonged to the individual states. The authors of the document were attempting to prevent the national government from holding excessive power. While the articles specifically gave the national government the powers to determine war and peace, maintain an army and navy, and enter treaties and alliances with other countries, it denied that government the power to collect taxes, regulate commerce between states, or enforce its laws.

The Articles of Confederation created a Confederation Congress that was unicameral, meaning it only had one house or legislative chamber. This congress constituted the whole of the national government; there were no executive or judicial branches. The states could send between two and seven delegates to the Confederation Congress, but each state had only one vote. Any measures or laws passed by the Congress had to be approved by 9 of the 13 states.

Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation

In the Articles of Confederation, Americans deliberately established a weak confederation of sovereign states because they did not want to be ruled by another authoritative central power like the British crown.

Because the states were sovereign under the Articles of Confederation, the national government could not operate effectively. It was given powers but not the ability to fully execute them. For example, the national government could maintain an army and a navy, but it did not have the ability to compel the states to provide troops or supplies. The government also could not enforce some of the provisions of the Treaty of Paris, the formal agreement between the United States and Great Britain that ended the American Revolution. One provision allowed for British creditors to sue Americans for debts they had accrued before the Revolution. Many state governments ignored this provision because it would have been financially devastating to their citizens, and the national government had no power to compel the states to honor it. Creditors foreclosed on farms, and many debtors ended up in prison.

These harsh economic conditions led to Shays's Rebellion in 1786 and early 1787. In this rebellion, poor farmers and others marched on courthouses to stop foreclosures on their properties and the imprisonment of debtors. Formed in western Massachusetts and led by Daniel Shays, a veteran of the American Revolution, the revolt was ended forcefully by the Massachusetts militia in February 1787. However, the conflict gave weight to calls to revise the articles, and worried leaders agreed to meet for that purpose later in 1787.

Comparing the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution

Articles of Confederation U.S. Constitution
Weak central government Stronger central government
One branch of government only—no executive or judicial branches Three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial.
Unicameral national legislature Bicameral national legislature
Legislative branch with few powers Legislative branch with power to make laws and raise revenue through taxation; executive branch with the power to enforce the laws; judicial branch with the power to determine the constitutionality of laws and executive actions
Unanimity required to amend Three-fourths of the states could approve amendments