Establishing a New Nation: 1783-1792

Articles of Confederation

Reasons for the Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation were written by Founding Fathers who were leery of a strong central government. The Articles established a loose confederation of states that held power over a weak national government.

In 1776 the 13 colonies that would become a fledgling nation declared their independence from British rule. The first national government for the newly formed nation was established by the Articles of Confederation. The Articles of Confederation—in effect the country's first constitution—established a central government while granting most of the power of government to the states. The articles were agreed to and adopted by the Second Continental Congress, a body of delegates from each of the 13 colonies, in 1777. However, the articles did not take effect until they were ratified by all the states in 1781. In the interim, a provisional government was run by the Continental Congress.

In June 1776 a committee of 13 delegates, one from each colony, began drafting the Articles of Confederation. The colonies were already a year into war with England and would officially declare their independence that July. The colonial leaders were therefore eager to further unite against the Crown. Colonial conflicts with the powerful central government in Great Britain were fresh in the delegates' minds. Consequently, this document established a confederation of 13 independent states that shared a weak national government. Sovereignty, or authority to self-govern, was retained by the states. One of the most notable characteristics of the government created by the Articles of Confederation was the specification that all powers not expressly granted to the central government belonged to the states. The Articles of Confederation established a unicameral legislature, one made up of only one congressional house. The articles did not establish an executive branch independent from the legislative branch for fear that a strong national government would take away power from the states.

Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation failed because of the weaknesses inherent in a central government with no power.

The Articles of Confederation provided for a weak national government over 13 states that jealously guarded their sovereignty. The lack of a strong central government led to many problems for the young nation. Funds were needed to pay off the country's huge debts from the American Revolution, but Congress lacked the power to levy, or collect, taxes. It could request money from each state but was powerless to force them to pay. States refused to pay their debts to the national government, and the Continental currency lost all value. Without tax funds, the national government did not have the money to raise a military. Also lacking the power to regulate interstate or foreign trade, Congress was powerless to interfere with duties placed on imports by the states. Each state maintained independent relationships with foreign nations. There was no centralized judicial system. In general, the national government under the Articles of Confederation was powerless to act as a unifying force for the states and a representative of the confederation in international affairs.

Under continuing pressure from the national government to pay its taxes, the state of Massachusetts raised taxes on its residents. This caused particular difficulties for the state's farmers, who had a hard time coming up with the cash required to pay the taxes. Many families lost their farms, and some farmers were imprisoned for their debts. Antigovernment feelings surged, particularly among American Revolution veterans, who felt betrayed by the country they had fought to create. In August and September 1786 large groups of farmers marched on Massachusetts courthouses to prevent farm foreclosures. The September protest was led by farmer Daniel Shays, himself an American Revolution veteran. Shays and his followers continued their revolt—which became known as Shays's Rebellion—and in January 1787 they attacked the national arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts. Although the insurgents were unsuccessful in their attack, Shays's Rebellion lent a strong argument for the revision of the Articles of Confederation, which led to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.

The following chart outlines the major strengths and weakness of the articles:

Articles of Confederation

Strengths Weaknesses
National government could wage war and enter peace treaties. Each state had one vote regardless of population.
National government could establish a currency system. Amendments required a unanimous vote.
National government was run by democratically elected representatives. National government could not regulate interstate and international trade.
National government could borrow money. National government could not levy taxes.
National government could raise a military. There were no judicial or legislative branches.