Written in the midst of a war against tyranny, the Articles of Confederation, the first official constitution of the United States, reflected the aversion to centralized power that had driven the American Revolution. The national government created by the Articles of Confederation proved too weak, however, to resolve the domestic and international issues that arose in the country's early years. Less than a decade later, in 1789, the states adopted the current Constitution, which augmented the powers of the federal government considerably.
"A Firm League of Friendship"
The Articles of Confederation, ratified in March 1781, called the nation that emerged from the Revolutionary War a "firm league of friendship" among largely sovereign states, notes History.com. A few powers, including the authority to define foreign policy, maintain an army and wage war, were allocated to the national government, which consisted solely of a legislature. The federal government was nonetheless handicapped in its endeavors by its inability to collect taxes. The Articles of Confederation also left the national government powerless when it came to regulating trade between states and with other countries.
Foreign Policy Challenges
While foreign policy was the domain of the national government under the Articles of Confederation, there was little the legislature could do little to enforce its authority. Many states, for example, chose to ignore the provision of the Treaty of Paris of 1783 that required Americans to pay debts owed to British entities. Consequently, the British would not abandon its military posts on American territory. Moreover, Georgia took matters into its own hands when it came to disputes over the border with Spanish Florida. The state even threatened to go to war if Spain did not return slaves that had escape to its territory.
The nail in the Articles of Confederations' coffin was an insurgence of Massachusetts farmers that came to be known as Shays' Rebellion. By 1784, the fledgling United States was mired in an economic depression that was felt particularly strongly among agriculturists in Massachusetts. While indebted farmers resorted to violent protests in a number of states, the largest insurgency, led by former Continental army officer Daniel Shays, took place in Massachusetts from 1786-87. The Massachusetts militia quelled the uprising before it became a threat to state stability. The revolt, however, exposed the inability of the federal government to respond to such crises and left many leaders, including Alexander Hamilton, clamoring for reform.
The Constitutional Convention
Beginning in May 1787, delegates from 12 of the 13 states -- Rhode Island chose not to participate -- gathered in Philadelphia with the explicit purpose of revising the federal government described by the Articles of Confederation. The convention's efforts to address the flaws resulted in current Constitution, which established three branches of government -- executive, legislative and judicial -- whose powers are limited by a series of procedures known as checks and balances. Under the new Constitution, ratified in 1789, the newly created Congress became a bicameral legislature consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives and given the authority to collect taxes and regulate commerce. Moreover, the judicial branch could legally get involved in resolving conflicts between the states.
- History.com: Articles of Confederation -- Facts & Summary
- U.S. Department of State Office of the History: Constitutional Convention and Ratification, 1787–1789
- History.com: Shays' Rebellion -- Facts & Summary
- USHistory.org: Independence and the Articles of Confederation
- SparkNotes: Building the State (1781-1797) -- The Demise of the Articles of Confederation
- U.S. Department of State Office of the History: Articles of Confederation, 1777–1781
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Constitutional Convention
- Utah State University OpenCourseWare: Free Online Course Materials - Comparison of Constitution and Articles of Confederation
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