The Articles of Confederation: A Dress Rehearsal

The American journey from being subjects of the King of England to a self-governing republic under the United States Constitution was a trip with many detours.  One of the most significant of those detours, the ratification of the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, occurred this week (March 1) in 1781.  It gave America its first national government, and like most first stabs at something, there was room for improvement — as members of Congress quickly recognized.  Indeed, when they sent the Articles to the states for ratification back in 1777, they wrote an accompanying letter that said, in effect, “We know this isn’t perfect, but it was really hard to create a government that accommodated your 13 different sets of interests and priorities.”

The larger problem with the Articles, however, was that they were toothless.  Since the colonists had fought their revolution in great part because they wanted to rid themselves of a powerful “central government,” namely King George III and Parliament, they weren’t about to replace one such central power with another. As a result, the Articles gave most powers to the state governments, including the power to tax, regulate trade, issue currency and raise standing armies.  What’s more, the Articles made no provision for a strong executive — indeed, there was no executive at all, just a unicameral legislature that could ask the states for money and troops, but had no enforcement powers should the states refuse to comply (and they usually refused).

The inadequacies of the Articles were clearly recognized during the war, which America managed to win in spite of them, but in the war’s wake, serious Americans began re-evaluating the effectiveness of the Articles. Perhaps some were motivated by the fact that — adding insult to injury — the Treaty of Paris ending the war with England languished for months because the states never bothered to send enough representatives to Congress to approve it.  Under the Articles Congress had no power to command their attendance!

In any case, several motions to revise the Articles were subsequently proposed, but because unanimous approval was necessary, all failed until Alexander Hamilton and (my hero) James Madison convinced enough state representatives to assemble in Philadelphia in 1787 to discuss “improvements” to the Articles.  That gathering became known as the Constitutional Convention, and after junking the Articles entirely, it produced the Constitution that still governs us today.

To give the Articles their due, they did manage to hold America together until the fear of a strong central authority subsided and more balance between state and federal power could safely be established.  Think of the Articles as a dress rehearsal.  In hindsight, their signature achievement was to make the actors more comfortable with the real thing.