The Articles of Confederation, the United States' first formal governing document, gave most powers to the states -- including those not explicitly allocated -- and only a few to the national government, leaving it essentially bankrupt and unable to assert control over all U.S. territory. Ratified in 1781 as a way to organize the Revolutionary War against the British Crown, yet rooted in a suspicion of centralized authority, the Articles of Confederation created a unicameral federal legislature so ineffective that the states adopted an entirely new set of written laws -- the Constitution -- in 1789.
An Act of War
Under the Articles of Confederation, the main purpose of the national government was to coordinate resources for the war effort against Britain. It was therefore the duty of the federal legislature, formally called the Congress of the Confederation, to organize and maintain the Continental Army. The Articles of Confederation gave Congress the authority to appoint military officials, but not to draft soldiers; it was up to the states to contribute men for the armed forces.
The Articles of Confederation gave the states, rather than the federal government, the power to collect taxes. To fund the war effort and keep the federal government running, Congress could request financial contributions, called requisitions, from the states but the states were obliged to contribute and rarely did. Therefore, although the national government had the authority to issue currency, federal paper money quickly lost its value. By the early 1780s, Congress had no money to pay members of the Continental Army. As a result, in what is known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, some officers in the army planned a mutiny, but ultimately decided against it.
Beyond National Borders
Under the Articles of Confederation, the states had to defer to Congress when it came to declaring war, appointing ambassadors, entering into treaties and alliances with other countries and other foreign affairs issues. It was also up to Congress to administer the formally British lands to the west of the original 13 states, which typically entailed negotiating with Native Americans. Due to poor cooperation from the states, however, the federal government had a hard time exercising many of these powers. The states, for example, refused to fully honor the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which allowed British merchants to demand payment of debts incurred prior to the war. The state of Georgia pursued an independent foreign policy toward Spanish Florida, trying to occupy disputed territories and threatening war if Spain didn't take action to prevent Indian attacks and to keep Florida from becoming a refuge for escaped slaves
While the Articles of Confederation did not allow for any kind of federal interference when it came to interstate commerce, in lieu of national courts, it did give Congress the authority to settle disputes between states. Such disputes usually arose over boundaries and distribution of newly acquired western lands.
- U.S. Department of State: Office of the Historian -- Articles of Confederation, 1777–1781
- Digital History: Articles of Confederation
- U.S. History: Articles of Confederation
- Mount Vernon Ladies' Association: Newburgh Conspiracy
- Library of Congress: In Custodia Legis - The Articles of Confederation: The First Constitution of the United States
- Pierdelune/iStock/Getty Images