HGov Review: Moving to the Constitution


After declaring independence, Congress appointed a committee to prepare a plan of government known as the Articles of Confederation. This plan was approved by Congress in 1777 and sent to the states for ratification, or formal approval. The states did not get around to approving the Articles until 1781, just months before the fighting ended.

The national government created under the Articles of Confederation was much weaker than the governments established in the states. Although some members of Congress wanted a strong central government, the majority preferred a loose confederation, with most powers remaining at the state level. The Articles emphasized that each state would retain its “sovereignty, freedom, and independence.” Any power not specifically given to Congress was reserved for the states.

The government created under the Articles consisted only of a congress, with members chosen by the states. It had neither an executive to carry out laws nor a judicial branch to settle legal questions. On paper, Congress did have several key powers. It could declare war, negotiate with foreign countries, and establish a postal system. It could also settle disputes between states. But it had no power to impose taxes, which meant it was often starved for funds. Despite these limitations, Congress held the nation together through years of war. It also enacted at least one landmark piece of legislation, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. This law established procedures for the creation of new states in the Northwest Territory, a region bounded by the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The Northwest Ordinance served as a model for all territories that later entered the Union as states.

However, for the most part, the government created by the Articles of Confederation was a failure. Lacking the power to levy taxes, Congress could not raise the funds needed to support the Continental Army. It had to borrow heavily to fund the revolution. After the war, it had no way to raise funds to repay those debts. Additionally, Congress lacked power to control trade among the states. After the war, states began setting up trade barriers and quarreling among themselves. Matters came to a head when farmers, led by Daniel Shays, attacked a federal arsenal in Springfield, Massachusetts. Although Shays’ Rebellion was finally put down by state troops, it revealed how little Congress could do to hold together the increasingly unstable country.

By 1786, it was clear to many of the nation’s leaders that the government formed under the Articles was not working. That fall, representatives from various states met at Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss trade issues. While there, they issued a call for a constitutional convention to meet the following year in Philadelphia. In theory, the purpose of the convention was to revise the Articles of Confederation. Once the delegates met, however, they decided to scrap the Articles and create an entirely new constitution. The table below lists some of the weaknesses of the Articles and explains how they were eventually fixed under the new plan of government.

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