The Articles of Confederation, America's First Attempt at a Constitution and a Limited Power Government

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The Articles of Confederation, which was the first constitution of the United States, was adopted by the Continental Congress in 1777. It went into effect in 1781, after being ratified by all thirteen states, and lasted until 1789. The Articles of Confederation provided the United States with a deliberately weak and unimportant central government with Congress being the only institution of national authority. The government under the Articles of Confederation was not an effective one, however it had also achieved important accomplishments.

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The Articles of Confederation did not provide Congress with the powers that were necessary for an effective government. The individual states had more power than Congress and each state was virtually a sovereign nation. Two of the powers that Congress lacked was the power to directly tax the people and the power to draft troops. In order to receive troops and taxes, Congress had to make a formal request to the state legislatures which could and often refused them. Without the power to tax, it was extremely difficult for the national government to pay off its debts from the Revolutionary War. The weakness of Congress’s inability to draft troops showed during Shays’ Rebellion. The national government was unable to deal with the rebellion and instead, a state militia financed by a loan from a wealthy merchant had to disperse Shays and his men.

Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress could conduct foreign relations but the Confederation was held in low esteem by foreign nations. This caused diplomatic problems for the United States. There was difficulty in getting Britain to honor the agreements made in the peace treaty of 1783. The British had failed to carry out their promise to evacuate their troops out of American territory nor did they carry out their promise to compensate slave-owners whose slaves were confiscated by the British army. When John Adams was sent as a minister to London in 1784 to resolve these differences, the British did not know if he represented one nation or thirteen different ones. Britain had also refused to send a diplomatic minister to the American capital in the 1780s.

The Articles of Confederations required at least nine of the states to approve any important measures and all thirteen states to approve of any amendments. This made it extremely difficult to amend the Articles and to have any laws passed. In 1786, the Confederation agreed to a treaty with Spain who would have accepted the American interpretation of the Florida but the southern states had blocked the ratification of the treaty because it called for limits on their access to the Mississippi River. This further weakened the Confederation’s standing in world diplomacy.

Even though the government under the Articles of Confederation was severely flawed and weak, the Confederation had also achieved some accomplishments. The most important accomplishment was the resolution of the disputes involving the western lands. In 1784, Congress passed the Land Ordinance of 1784, which divided the western territory into ten self governing districts. The districts could apply for statehood when its population equaled the number of free inhabitants in the smallest existing state. This was to avoid creating second class citizens in the territories just as how the colonists felt they were second class citizens when they were living in colonies under the British. The Land Ordinance of 1875 created a system for surveying and selling the land. In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance was passed, which abandoned the ten districts established by the Ordinance of 1784 and created a single Northwest Territory which could be divided into between three and five territories. The Northwest Ordinance also specified a population of 60,000 as a minimum for statehood, guaranteed freedom of religion, and the right to trial by jury to residents of the Northwest. These three land ordinances brought order and stability to the process of white settlement in the Northwest but they also brought more conflicts with Native Americans.

In conclusion, the government under Articles of Confederation was mostly ineffective even though it had a few important accomplishments. Congress lacked many powers necessary for an effective central government and it was held in low self esteem by other nations. The major accomplishments of the Confederation were the Land Ordinances of 1784, 1785, and 1787. Because of the Articles’ ineffectiveness, a new constitution had to be created. The Articles of Confederation and its flaws served as a stepping stone for the new constitution which would ultimately become one of the greatest system of government in the world.

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