From 1781 to 1787, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation. Under this system of government, the national legislature was granted very little power, with almost all sovereignty reserved for the individual states. The results were chaotic; there were breakdowns in commerce and security. In 1786, as the Articles' failure became increasingly clear, George Washington lamented, "What a triumph for the advocates of despotism to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves." These deficiencies led directly to the federal system encapsulated in the Constitution.
A Weak National Government
The Articles of Confederation were conceived at the beginning of the Revolutionary War and ratified at its climax, so it's unsurprising that the former colonies were determined to never again fall under the thumb of a despot. Their solution was to reserve almost all power for the states. "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," the Articles proclaimed. The national government would have no executive or judicial branches. Any changes to the Articles required every state's assent, which made effecting any needed alterations nearly impossible.
The Articles' Many Flaws
While the United States under the Articles was able to fight and win the Revolutionary War and sign the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the confederation's many inherent flaws soon became apparent. Congress could not raise taxes to pay off the debts the country incurred in the Revolutionary War. While Congress could ask the states for money "in proportion to the value of all land within each State," states often didn’t pay what they owed. The national government had no judicial branch, as each state had its own. Effectively this meant that states could disregard national policies without consequence. States had their own currencies and forged their own import and export policies, which led to economic chaos and, ultimately, a depression.
Because the country had no head of state, managing foreign affairs became an impossible task. Foreign diplomats did not know to whom they should go for negotiations. The Articles granted Congress the right to declare war, but not the ability to raise an army. Congress had to rely on unreliable state militias instead. The young country found itself incapable of responding to British infringement on American fishing rights or the conscription of American sailors in the British navy. Congress also struggled to respond to a revolt by indebted farmers in western Massachusetts in 1786. Because of Congress' impotence, merchants privately raised the funds to put down the insurrection.
The solution to this morass was federalism, a central principle of the U.S. Constitution. Federalism is a division of power between national and state governments and marked an effort to give the national government as much authority as it needed to function while still maintaining the local sovereignty the states demanded. It was a balance between liberty and stability, with the states and the national government designed to keep each other in check.
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