About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.
In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.
Articles of Confederation
The Articles of Confederation provided the colonies, and then the states, with a formal governmental structure which bridged the gap between the monarchical rule of Great Britain and the federal system established under the United States Constitution. The Articles saw the country through the Revolutionary War and the uncertain times that followed. While generally viewed as a failure because of the weakness of the federal government under them, the Articles provided a necessary and workable transition that loosely held the country together until Americans realized the need for a stronger central government in 1787.
The Articles of Confederation provided the colonies, and then the states, with a formal governmental structure which bridged the gap between the monarchical rule of Great Britain and the federal system established under the United States Constitution.
A First Government
Proposed in 1777, but not ratified until 1781, the Articles of Confederation established a confederal system of government in which the majority of power (sovereignty) resided with state governments. Fearful of the tyranny of the British unitary government, where ultimate sovereignty rested in the central government, the colonists predictably shied away from creating a government that could coerce states into obedience. Thus, they established a government consisting of only a legislative branch which had limited power. Lacking an executive branch, the Confederation Congress had to rely on states to enforce its laws, potentially in thirteen different ways. Under the Articles each state had one vote, major legislation required a two-thirds majority, and any changes to the Articles required a unanimous vote of the states, which made it highly unlikely that the central government would be strengthened. Notably, the federal government under the Articles lacked the power to tax and to regulate interstate commerce because Americans were fearful of the abuse they had experienced in those areas under British rule. Despite this lack of power, the Confederation government achieved a significant degree of success in some areas.
Fearful of the tyranny of the British unitary government, the colonists predictably shied away from creating a government that could coerce states into obedience.
Financing the Un-Financeable
The delay in the ratification of the Articles of Confederation was caused by the insistence of Maryland that all states give up their western land claims to the central government. The reason for this was that states like Maryland that had no western land claims would have to rely on taxation to pay off their war debts rather than on their ability to sell land. On the heels of the American Revolution, which many viewed as caused by excessive taxation, raising taxes was a dubious proposition. The ceding of western land claims to the central government resulted in one of the most positive successes of the Articles. The Land Ordinance of 1785 established a system of survey and sale that allowed the Confederation government a source of income without having to requisition states. Land was surveyed according to a “township system” which divided land into six mile square “townships.” Each township was then subdivided into thirty-six “sections”, each being one mile square and consisting of six hundred and forty acres. Land was to be sold by sections for a dollar an acre. This method of sale put the purchase of land out of the reach of most common settlers who could not muster six hundred and forty dollars necessary to purchase a section. As a result most of the land was bought by land speculation companies that then subdivided each section into smaller, more affordable parcels. On the heels of this success came the Land Ordinance of 1787, commonly known as the Northwest Ordinance. The Ordinance provided that the Northwest Territory would be divided into no fewer than three or no more than five states, with five states ultimately being created. It also provided the specific stages that territories had to go through to become states, a process that most, though not all, subsequent states followed. The Northwest Ordinance also provided that a “Bill of Rights” must be included in the constitutions of the territories seeking statehood. The ordinance also banned slavery in the Northwest Territory and contained provisions for the support of public education. Thus, the Confederation Congress achieved considerable success in the management of western lands.
The delay in the ratification of the Articles of Confederation was caused by the insistence of Maryland that all states give up their western land claims to the central government.
A Victory in Treaty
Despite many failures on the diplomatic front (i.e., the failure to secure the right of deposit at New Orleans and the failure to remove British troops from the Northwest Forts), the Confederation Congress appointed representatives who negotiated the very favorable Treaty of Paris of 1783 ending the Revolutionary War. In that treaty Great Britain acknowledged the independence, agreed to remove its troops from the Northwest forts, and granted very favorable territorial concessions to the United States. Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, the United States received title to the “Trans-Appalachian West”, that is, the territory west of the Appalachians to the Mississippi River. In more than doubling the size of the original thirteen colonies, the Confederation Congress achieved a major success.
Despite many failures on the diplomatic front, the Confederation Congress appointed representatives who negotiated the very favorable Treaty of Paris of 1783 ending the Revolutionary War.
The Articles Just Aren’t Strong Enough
Despite these successes, the inability of the Confederation Congress to resolve critical issues proved to be its downfall. The lack of power to regulate interstate commerce left the government incapable of resolving trade wars that developed between the states. States placed tariffs on goods entering their boundaries from other states thus hampering economic development of the country as a whole. The inability of Congress to levy taxes left the national government on a very precarious financial footing as states were reluctant to pump money into a national government. The lack of an executive branch of government left the Confederation Congress at the mercy of the states to enforce its laws. The lack of policing power also meant that the national government could not respond to civil unrest.
The lack of power to regulate interstate commerce left the government incapable of resolving trade wars that developed between the states.
Thus, internal hostilities such as Shays’ Rebellion had to be resolved by states as the national government was powerless to act. Perhaps most importantly, the requirement of a unanimous vote to amend the Articles effectively meant that its shortcoming would not be corrected. The national government under the Articles lacked prestige or respect as evidenced by the fact that the government wandered nomadically through the middle states looking for a permanent home and the fact that the Confederation Congress frequently lacked a quorum and could not officially conduct business. Finally a Constitution Convention was authorized by Congress to meet in 1787 for the “sole and express purpose of revising” the Articles. Led by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the convention in all likelihood would have met anyway even without Congressional authorization. Convention delegates quickly scrapped the idea of revising the Articles of Confederation and wrote the United States Constitution that created a more powerful national government and specifically addressed the major weaknesses of the Articles.
Finally a Constitution Convention was authorized by Congress to meet in 1787 for the “sole and express purpose of revising” the Articles.
The Swinging Pendulum
The Articles of Confederation reflected something of an over-reaction to the perceived tyranny of placing too much power in the hands of the British government. Thus the pendulum swung to the position of making the states supreme over the national government. If nothing else, the Articles of Confederation held the country together, be it loosely, until the American people came to realize a more powerful central government was needed to foster peace and prosperity. The U.S. Constitution attempted to find a middle ground between those who feared tyranny (too much power in the hands of the national government) and those who feared anarchy (too little power in the hands of the national government). While debate still rages about the correct position of the pendulum in a federal system that divides power between the national and state governments, it now swings in a much narrower range of possibilities.
The Articles of Confederation reflected something of an over-reaction to the perceived tyranny of placing too much power in the hands of the British government.