After they declared themselves independent of Great Britain in 1776, the American colonists faced another challenge even as they battled one of the world’s mightiest militaries: forming a national government. The result -- proposed in 1777 and adopted in 1781 -- was the Articles of Confederation. While the government under the Articles was able to win the Revolutionary War in 1783, soon after the Articles’ flaws became apparent, and in 1788 the United States enacted a different system of government under the Constitution.
The Articles’ Formation
After declaring their independence in 1776, members of the Continental Congress knew that they needed a national government not just to wage war against the British, but also to conduct diplomacy, gain foreign recognition and obtain aid. At the same time, however, they were deeply fearful of a strong central government; moreover, many felt that if the United States formed a large republic, the people’s representatives could not stay in touch with their constituents, and the nation would degenerate into tyranny. The Articles of Confederation -- first drafted in 1775 by Benjamin Franklin, then subjected to five substantial rewrites before being approved in 1777 -- concentrated power in the states, and gave the national government very little authority. The Articles were finally ratified in 1781.
“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 stated. The national government had no judicial or executive branches, and its congressionlal power was subjugated to that of the states.
The Articles’ Problems
Although the United States was able to, under the Articles, win the Revolutionary War and sign the 1783 Treaty of Paris that officially ended it, the young country’s plight soon thereafter took a turn toward the chaotic. There was economic chaos rooted in Congress’s inability to regulate trade or print money, not to mention the fact that Congress had no authority to raise taxes. There was legislative chaos, as it took agreement from all 13 states to amend the Articles, and any law that passed had to be approved by nine, which meant nothing got done. There was diplomatic and foreign policy chaos, as the government could not forge trade agreements with other countries (although individual states could, and did) and foreign powers did not know whom to negotiate with. In addition, the government had very little capacity to defend itself against threats. While Congress could declare war, it could not raise the money to finance an army, and instead had to rely on unreliable state militias. Finally, there was judicial chaos, as states ignored laws and nullified any national actions they didn’t like.
The Articles’ End
By 1787, many of the country’s leaders realized that the Articles were not functioning effectively. Leaders from the 13 colonies reconvened in Philadelphia that year and crafted the U.S. Constitution, a document that replaced the confederacy with a federal system – a system that divides power between the national and state governments.
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