Challenges of the Articles of Confederation

The Constitution emerged from the debate about the weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation as a blueprint for limited government.

Explain the relationship between key provisions of the Articles of Confederation and the debate over granting the federal government greater power formerly reserved to the states .

Specific incidents and legal challenges that highlighted key weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation are represented by the:

  • Lack of centralized military power to address Shays’ Rebellion

  • Lack of tax law enforcement power

After declaring independence in early July 1776, the delegates to the Second Continental Congress began the task of creating a formal national government for the new nation. Within a few weeks, a committee proposed “Articles of confederation and perpetual union,” but it took until November 1777 before the Congress could agree on the details. The Congress then submitted the Articles of Confederation to the states, stipulating that all 13 state legislatures must concur before the new government would go into effect. The Articles created a weak central authority acting on behalf of powerful states. It provided:

State sovereignty: The states would retain all powers not “expressly delegated” to the national Congress

. • Single governing institution: National power would reside in a Congress, with no separate executive or judicial branch.

State equality: Each state would have one vote in Congress, with each state legislature selecting between two and seven delegates to serve for one-year terms and who could be recalled and replaced at any time.

Limited powers: The Congress could not raise taxes or establish a military on its own authority (but had to requisition these from the states), or regulate foreign commerce (except through treaties) or commerce between the states.

Supermajority requirement: On the most important matters—such as going to war, entering into treaties, requisitioning revenues and military forces, and coining and borrowing money—9 of the 13 states had to agree.

Amendments: Changes to the Articles required the unanimous consent of the 13 state legislatures.

This type of system, where a limited national government acts on behalf of sovereign states, is called a confederation

State supremacy was made clear in the first substantive provision of the Articles: “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 created “a firm league of friendship” to secure the “common defence” of the states, “the security of their liberties,” and “their mutual and general welfare.” Despite the supremacy of the states in the new plan, the Articles described the “Union” as “perpetual” five times, highlighting the importance of a permanent association of the states for broad common purposes. Within 18 months of receiving the new plan, 12 states had ratified the document. Maryland, however, held out for nearly two more years, objecting to claims by other states to lands west of the Appalachians (the mountain range at the western border of most of the states on the east coast). After several states ceded their territorial claims to the national government, Maryland ratified the articles in March 1781—just seven months before the Battle of Yorktown effectively ended the Revolutionary War.

Considering the difficulties faced by the new state constitutions; a war against a preeminent military power it is not surprising that everything did not go smoothly. Even after peace was formally achieved in 1783, serious economic and political problems gripped the new nation in what came to be called the “critical period.” Eventually many Americans came to believe that the nation needed a more powerful national government and new restrictions on the states.

Weaknesses of the National Government

It became painfully clear during the first decade of independence that the weak central authority—initially the Second Continental Congress and then the Congress under the Articles of Confederation (which is called the Confederation Congress)—could not govern the new nation effectively. Dependent on the states for revenues and an army, the national government was perennially short of cash and fielded an undermanned and underequipped fighting force during the war. Commander in Chief George Washington implored the states time and again to meet their obligations. In 1780, he predicted that the army would soon disband or, even worse, “subsist upon the plunder of the people” if the states did not take “very vigorous and immediate measures . . . to comply with the requisitions made upon them.” Even after the war ended, the states failed to provide the revenues requested by the Congress, leaving the Confederation perennially on the verge of bankruptcy. Equally serious was the refusal of the states to defer to the Congress on foreign policy, making it impossible for the nation to speak with one voice overseas. Some states conducted their own foreign policies, striking separate commercial deals with other countries, and sometimes even ignored treaties approved by Congress. Many states, for example, refused to respect the rights of Loyalists (Americans who had supported Britain during the war) that were guaranteed by the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which ended the war.

By the mid-1780s, the national government was virtually bankrupt, lacked respect overseas, and was often unable even to gather a quorum of delegates to do business. The government seemed unable to achieve the very purposes for which it was created.

Conflicts between the States

Because the states set their own commercial policies, those with natural harbors—such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina— made their neighbors pay duties on foreign goods that came through their ports. The states hurt by these policies retaliated as best they could with regulations that favored their own citizens. This commercial warfare was bad for economic development, exacerbated tensions among the states, and undermined a sense of common nationhood.

Territorial conflicts were another source of tension. Many of the states had conflicting claims to western lands, and in some cases the borders between the states were in dispute. Most serious was the conflict between the settlers of Vermont, who desired to be a separate state, and New York, which claimed sovereignty over the territory. Sporadic fighting occurred throughout this period. The dispute did not end until Vermont was admitted to the Union in 1791 as the fourteenth state after the national government compensated New York financially. Farther south, violence erupted between settlers from Connecticut and citizens of Pennsylvania over an area called the Wyoming Valley, contiguous to Pennsylvania. The dispute was resolved after a special court appointed by the Congress sided with Pennsylvania.

Problems within the States

As troublesome as these problems were, many of the founders were even more disturbed by events within the states themselves. Weak governors and courts often could not prevent legislatures from overstepping their constitutional bounds. Thomas Jefferson, who served as governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781, called the concentration of power in the state legislature “precisely the definition of despotic government.” It did not matter that the “despots” were all elected: “an elective despotism was not the government we fought for.” Jefferson faulted provisions in the state constitution that gave the legislature control over the salaries of the governor and judges and over the election and reelection of the governor.

Shays’s Rebellion

One of the most alarming events of this period was Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts. In the late summer and fall of 1786, mobs of debt-ridden farmers, angry with the Massachusetts legislature for refusing to issue paper money or to take other actions to relieve high taxes or to stop farm foreclosures, prevented courts from operating in several towns. Daniel Shays, a destitute farmer and former captain in the revolutionary army, gathered some 1,200 men, who camped for two months in Worcester, 40 miles west of Boston. Including other forces allied with Shays, about 3,000 men took up arms against the lawful authority. In December, the rebels marched on the arsenal at Springfield, in the western part of the state. At first, Governor James Bowdoin lacked a military force sufficient to meet the threat. He called on Congress for assistance, but the national government was essentially bankrupt and unable to help. After borrowing money from wealthy Bostonians, the governor raised a force of 4,400 men. It assembled at Boston, marched to Springfield, and defeated and scattered the rebels.

Later, Bowdoin’s successor, John Hancock, pardoned them all. Although limited to Massachusetts, Shays’s Rebellion had a powerful effect throughout the nation. Responsible leaders were appalled at the rebellion itself but also at the initial weakness of the state and federal governments in responding to it. Washington wrote to James Madison that “we are fast verging to anarchy and confusion”; and Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, wrote to Jefferson that “these mobish insurgents are for sapping the foundation, and destroying the whole fabrick at once.”

Shays’s Rebellion did much to prepare the public mind for a new, more powerful national government Deficiencies of State Laws Finally, leaders such as Madison complained of the “multiplicity,” “mutability,” and “injustice” of state laws. According to the Virginian, the sheer number of laws and the rapidity with which they were “repealed or superseded” was “a nuisance of the most pestilent kind,” causing confusion and instability within the states. But even worse was the “injustice” of state laws, which, as Madison wrote to his friend Jefferson, “has been so frequent and so flagrant as to alarm the most steadfast friends of Republicanism.” Madison was thinking of such laws as those that burdened commerce, that denied trial by jury, that disenfranchised the Quakers in Pennsylvania, and that violated constitutional distributions of power in state governments.

Rage for Paper Money

Even more troubling was what he called “the general rage for paper money” that spread throughout the states in 1785 and 1786. Depressed economic conditions, heavy debt, high taxes, and the scarcity of specie (gold and silver coin) led many to call on their states to issue paper money. Farmers and others could then borrow the paper money from the government, with their property as security, to pay their taxes and debts. Increasingly, the voters elected officials who favored using the printing presses to relieve economic distress. When several states issued large amounts of paper currency, it depreciated rapidly and was shunned by merchants and creditors. Rhode Island suffered the most disastrous effects. In March 1786, more than two-thirds of the legislators in Rhode Island voted against a request from six towns to issue paper money. Elections a month later, however, gave advocates of paper money a commanding majority in the legislature. Within a few weeks, the state issued a large amount of paper money. Property owners could borrow the paper for up to half the value of their land. It was made legal tender in all commercial transactions and in payment for all debts, past, present, or future. Realizing that creditors who had previously lent gold or silver would not freely accept the new paper in repayment, the legislature stipulated that anyone could pay off his debts with paper money at a court. Because so much paper money began circulating, it fell to one-fourth of its face value in just three months. When merchants refused to accept the currency at anything like its face value, the legislature, meeting in special session, made it a criminal offense to refuse it. Trial would be within three days of the offense before a panel of three judges, no jury allowed. The judgment of a majority of the panel was to be final and without appeal.

These measures ruined the economy in Rhode Island. Merchants closed their shops, and producers from neighboring states and foreign nations refused to bring their goods for fear of having to accept relatively worthless paper in return. Further controversy arose when the supreme court of Rhode Island ruled that the legislature could not deny a jury trial to those who refused to accept the paper money. Outraged by the court’s decision, the legislature called in the judges to explain themselves. Although the lawmakers did not remove the judges, the people refused to reelect all but one. Soon thereafter, the legislature bowed to economic reality and repealed the “forcing acts” and the requirement that the much depreciated paper be treated as legal tender. These events were closely watched throughout the nation.

Although the Articles of Confederation recognized the need for a central government, this document relied on the states to make the decisions that would ultimately determine whether the country would survive. Under the Articles of Confederation, the national government had two levels—a weak national government with a one-house Congress and dominant state governments. Congress was given limited power to declare war, make peace, and sign treaties. The national government could borrow money, but it had no power to tax the individual states. The Articles of Confederation created a national army and navy, but the government had no power to draft soldiers. There was no chief executive or national court system, and legislation had to be passed by a two-thirds majority.

The states could create economic havoc by imposing tariffs on each other, by creating their own currency in addition to the national currency, by refusing to amend the Articles of Confederation (an amendment needed unanimous approval by the states), and by refusing to recognize treaties made by the national government.

Foreign policy was virtually nonexistent. The Barbary pirates threatened our ships, and our borders were vulnerable to attacks from both English and Spanish interests.

A success of the national government was the Northwest Ordinance, which abolished slavery in the newly acquired Northwest territories.

The most positive aspect of the government was that a new middle class was developing on the state level. Even though the old guard from the colonial era still existed, small farmers began to dominate state politics. This created a broader political base and started the beginning of opposing political parties (Federalists and Anti-Federalists).

By 1787 it was obvious that, at a minimum, the Articles of Confederation had to be revised, and many felt they should be totally changed to reflect the realities of what a functional government should be.