Articles of Confederation: Strengths, Weaknesses & Quiz

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Michael Knoedl

Michael teaches high school Social Studies and has a M.S. in Sports Management.

We pay federal taxes, and give more power to the federal government than we do the state, because the Articles of Confederation failed miserably as the first constitution. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation here.

We also recommend watching Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and Shays Rebellion and The Articles of Confederation and the Northwest Ordinance

History

The Articles of Confederation, the United States' first constitution, was written during a time when the American people feared strong national governments. The new nation needed some kind of organization to hold states together, which would help them fend off future attacks and would hopefully make a stronger economy, and the Articles of Confederation seemed like the best answer to build unity at the time.

The English government had been especially abusive to the Colonists, who were very reluctant to install a new government that could potentially function similar to the monarchy under King George. The loyalty of the people seemed to align more with the individual states than with the nation. After the American Revolution, states were still printing their own money, which was worthless in other states and further hindered cooperation. The 13 new states needed to find common ground and a way to cooperate.

During the American Revolution, many states wrote their own state constitutions. These constitutions consisted of political ideas that provided equality and freedom. States particularly relished the three branches of government and the idea of a republic, where citizens elect political officials. However, when the states came together to complete the first constitution, the nation was formed as a confederation - where states were sovereign, while trying to work together.

Betsy Ross and the flag with 13 stars
Betsy Ross

Articles

The Articles of Confederation only set up the Continental Congress at the federal level. There were no executive or judicial branches except within the states. The states were allowed to keep every right that was not specifically given to Congress. The bonding of the states was through a 'firm league of friendship' that best served as a defense agreement against invasion. States were not allowed to use taxes as a way to discourage treaties, and states were extremely limited in their dealings with foreign nations.

Strengths

Not many historians today talk about the strengths of the Articles of Confederation, likely because of how unpopular the document quickly became. The Articles did set the legislative body, Congress, as the highest power in the nation because of the fear of a monarchy. Congress had the sole power to declare war, assign treaties, entertain foreign relations, and operate post offices. Disputes between states and territorial issues were to be brought to Congress. The document also stipulated that Canada was allowed to enter the Union if they desired.

Weaknesses

There were more weaknesses than strengths under the Articles of Confederation. The lack of power given to the Continental Congress strangled the federal government. The Articles gave Congress the power to pass laws, but no power to enforce those laws. If a state did not support a federal law, that state could simply ignore it. Congress had no power to levy taxes or regulate trade. Without a federal court system or executive leader, there would be no way to enforce these laws, either. Amending the Articles of Confederation would also require a unanimous decision, which would be extremely difficult.

Continental currency
continental currency

Downfall of the Articles of Confederation

The major downfall of the Articles of Confederation was simply weakness! The federal government, under the Articles, was too weak to enforce their laws and therefore had no power. The Continental Congress had borrowed money to fight the Revolutionary War and could not repay their debts. States had also fallen into debt and were raising taxes to pay off those debts.

Rhode Island dollar
RI dollar
States' self-printed paper money was worthless, so the state governments were demanding payment of taxes in gold or silver. States were foreclosing on farms that could not pay their taxes, and a farmer named Daniel Shays was unwilling to give up his farm after fighting for freedom.

Shays gathered support from other farmers and land owners in similar financial situations and forced some Massachusetts courts to shut down so they could no longer rule on tax cases. Shays and the rebels tried to march on an armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, but were met with resistance and turned back. Shays' Rebellion all but ended at Springfield, but it did turn the political tide toward a stronger federal government.

Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck lead a rebellion in Massachusetts
Shays Rebellion

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