Articles of Confederation (1776–1789)Document that established the interim government in power from the American Revolution in 1777 until the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789.
The Confederation operated as a loose arrangement, rather than a federal system. It was a central government that could ask for funds, supplies, and troops but had no method to compel the states to comply. The executive under the Confederation, an elected leader of the Congress who held a one-year term, remained extraordinarily weak. Amendments to the Confederation required a unanimous vote of the participants, making it difficult to add measures like federal courts, trade regulations, or uniform taxes. This system, given time, might have matured into one resembling the British parliamentary cabinet, with increasingly powerful departments.
Financial pressures doomed the Confederation. With the central government unable to dictate trade policy, the colonies engaged separately with foreign powers, much to their detriment. Meanwhile, the colonies issued separate money, competed for resources, and laid different tariffs on incoming foreign goods. The shortage of cash and lack of infrastructure hindered growing industry, while foreclosures on mortgages outraged many war veterans, and debtors demanded increased circulation of paper money. Shays’ Rebellion, an uprising in Massachusetts against poll and land taxes and protesting that citizens were unable to pay for goods using commodities like corn and whiskey, illustrated the flaws of the Confederation and sparked calls for a stronger central government.
The revolutionary spirit that had prompted the Confederation and that feared the tyranny of a strong central authority faded when merchants, bankers, and crafts workers demanded a steady money supply, central planning, and use of resources to encourage American manufacturing and business. Additionally, some of the revolution’s leaders, for example, John Adams, George Washington, and James Madison, disapproved of the regionalism and ruthless competition among the new states, reevaluating their assumptions that the new nation would be governed best by being governed least. Against the wishes of the Anti-Federalists, many of them farmers, the Articles of Confederation were eventually relegated to retirement in favor of the new U.S. Constitution. Interim steps toward a federal government included the 1786 Annapolis Convention, arranged by George Washington to decide the navigation rights to the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, and the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
Despite its weaknesses, the Confederation calmed Americans’ fears of tyranny, provided a government through the Revolutionary War, negotiated the Treaty of 1783, and prevented the seizure of the infant state by any clique of politicians. Although economically disadvantageous, the Confederation survived the fires of the revolution and 12 years of execution before being replaced by a stronger, centralized system.
Jensen, Merrill. The Articles of Confederation. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1940.
Ketchem, Ralph, ed. The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates. New York: New American Library, 1986.
See also: American Revolution; Constitution.