Shortly after signing the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress began drafting a document to govern the 13 former colonies. Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson finished writing the "Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union" in 1777, and it became binding with Maryland's final signature in 1781. The limitations on federal authority reflect the fear and suspicion of centralized power that dominated the former colonies.
More Money, More Problems
The Articles gave full sovereignty to the newly independent states. Within their borders the states were free to print their own currency, and seven of the 13 states did just that. The Confederation Congress had no power to create a single currency for all the states, and this lack of uniformity made trade difficult -- both with other countries and between the states themselves. Although the states agreed pay taxes to the federal government based on the value of privately held land within their borders, the Congress had no means to force states to pay these taxes if they refused. As a result, states rarely paid any money into the heavily indebted federal treasury. Proposals to amend the Articles and give Congress the power to tax directly failed twice.
No Attendance Policy
The former colonists had stronger ties to the state in which they lived than to the nation as a whole, and congressional delegates were far more interested in political and personal issues back home than they were in attending congressional meetings. They had designed the federal government to be fairly weak and saw no point in attending. Although the Articles gave Congress powers such as declaring war or signing treaties, nine delegates of the 13 had to be present for anything to be considered. Even the Treaty of Paris, the document that formally ended war with the British, sat for weeks before enough delegates were present to sign it into law. Powers reserved to Congress were useless when delegates had no compulsion to attend meetings.
A Rope of Sand
Though called the United States of America, the "firm league of friendship" created by the Articles was basically a loose association of independent states -- linked only "by a rope of sand," according to future president George Washington. The Articles left the federal government largely at the mercy of the state legislatures, reflecting the prevailing belief that a republic couldn't fairly govern a country as large as the U.S. This lack of centralization caused problems abroad, such as when U.S. ambassadors tried to negotiate a treaty with Great Britain for improved economic relations. The British flatly refused on the grounds the Confederation Congress had no means to force the states to abide by the treaty's terms.
All Bark and No Bite
Ultimately, the federal government created by the Articles was toothless. Though it had the power to declare war, it had no means to compel states to participate in the war by supplying troops or equipment. No federal executive existed, and the Confederation Congress had no way of forcing states to do anything against their will. Nor did the Articles create any national court system to resolve disputes and interpret laws. While Congress had the power to mediate disagreements between two states, such as the location of shared boundary lines, it couldn't require the states to accept its decisions. All these limitations spelled disaster for the new nation -- which is why when delegates met in 1787 to amend the Articles, they decided to toss it and start anew, creating the Constitution.
- Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library: Avalon Project: Articles of Confederation
- U.S. Department of State Bureau of International Information Programs: Outline of the U.S. Government
- History.com: Articles of Confederation
- The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History: The Articles of Confederation, 1777
- The Library of Congress American Memory: Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 - 1789
- Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images