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So, What's Wrong With the Articles of Confederation?

The Federalist Papers

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Dec 14, 2010, 11:33am Top

I've started this thread in response to geneg's wise post here that we consider the history of the country while operating under the Articles of Confederation, to understand some of the motives for the Framers doing what they did--especially why they exceeded their assignment (and their authority) by writing a Constitution rather than tweaking the Articles.

Dec 14, 2010, 11:49am Top

Starting with the obvious, the Articles of Confederation required unanimous consent of the 13 members to do anything, and given the disparate geography and--well, hell, everything--existing between the states, nothing substantial was ever going to happen under those rules.

And there was stuff that needed to get done, paying off the national debt and then funding the national defense come to mind.

Dec 14, 2010, 12:05pm Top

One of the early problems was Congress getting all thirteen state delegations together at once to vote to ratify The Treaty of Paris. Jeez, they couldn't even get it together to formalize their independence.

Dec 14, 2010, 2:04pm Top

Are there applications of this tension today, i.e., is the socialization of economic risk and the privatization of wealth an example? That is, has the government handed the economic risk of the recent financial debacles to the taxpayers but handed transferred via tax breaks, bailouts, etc., wealth to a few private hands?

If this is off topic, I'll shut up.

Dec 14, 2010, 2:27pm Top

But geneg, some of that could be fixed just by amending the amendment clause to the articles of confederation.

One think the Articles of Confederation lacked was a real executive branch. There was no separately elected President.

Dec 14, 2010, 2:37pm Top

I: No strong central government. As has been stated above, due to all thirteen states being required for legislation, nothing was ever going to get passed. And can you imagine if the nation needed to go to war/pay off the debt/etc., and one single state had the power to bring it down?

II: No Executive. A government needs a centralized leader than can serve as the head of State, someone who has vetoing power and hold responsibility in a way that a group of people cannot.

III: There was no unifying identity. The Articles did not even call itself a government or a nation, but simply a friendship among the states. This would have easily led to separation.

IV: No Judiciary. Congress would have served as the highest court. Which amounts to self-governing, and leads to too many problems that a separation of powers solves.

The Revolutionary War itself proved just how weak this government was. The Congress had to beg the states for money, which usually held a "as long it's not happening here, why should I pay" attitude. People like Washington and Hamilton lived through this, watched as the army starved and froze because Congress could not energize itself and provide the means necessary for proper legislation; it most definitely convinced them the Articles had to be ratified/scrapped, or the next war would end the new nation.

Dec 14, 2010, 3:25pm Top

Perhaps Mr. Hamilton is joining the discussion?

Dec 14, 2010, 3:36pm Top

Seriously, was I the only one who read Plutarch in their adolescence?

Edited: Dec 14, 2010, 3:41pm Top

Well, there was a judiciary, just not an independent one. The ultimate judicial body was congress itself, just like parliament in England. Of course, how you got there was a work in progress.

As to unifying identity, it was an issue, since other countries didn't quite know how to deal with this body. But the ancient Greeks had plenty of unifying identity long before they got a country, and everyone knew they were Englishmen, right??

They were, after all, just articles of confederation.

I note that there were lots of state constitutions being drafted in the interim as well, and some of them had a few ideas.

Separate Question: most new states that gain independence find a single leader or party consolidating power early on, and the creation of orderly succession from one ruler to the next is one of the most difficult parts of the birthing process. Generally Washington is given a lot of credit for our orderly succession, with a nod to the rather reluctant departure of Adams. Could some of our success, however, have been born of that period of decentralization under the articles?

Dec 14, 2010, 9:28pm Top

But the ancient Greeks had plenty of unifying identity long before they got a country

Well it depends on which Greeks you wish to discuss. One could argue that a unifying identity was missing, hence the tense relation between the various city states. The Athenians and Spartans were in many ways diametrically opposed. Athens had no compunction about slaughtering al the men of Melos and enslaving its women because Melos revolted against the Delian League. And to the extent that Athens had a "unified" identity, it was a carefully controlled one. Only the sons of citizens and women who were daughters of citizens could be citizens.

Vis à vis other issues - during the Bush administration a number of Congress persons argued that their job was to support whatever the President wanted. They clearly were not up on matters Constitutional. If so, they would have known that their job was to act as a check and balance on executive power when the situation called for it. At least one Congressman argued that opposition to the President was anti-American. Now of course, the nation seems to have high-tailed it in the opposite direction by failing to give any support to the president.

Dec 14, 2010, 11:29pm Top

#9> Could some of our success, however, have been born of that period of decentralization under the articles?

Good point. I think so, although I'm not sure the specific experience of decentralized government was all-important. A ten-year trial-run, followed by a opportunity to start over with a different framework under the same basic theory of government (Locke's) I think has a lot to do with the success of the Constitution.

I wonder how many of the framers served in congress under the confederation? Hamilton was fighting a war most of the time but as clearly as anyone faced the inadequacies of that government. Granted, a lot of other motives, high and low, were operating, but I'd think that much frustration should have motivated a few with something like patriotism, if not the thing itself. (I see I just made the same point as Phocion in #6, so "What he said!").

Jan 1, 2011, 5:42pm Top

I did a little casual research on the hisorical circumstances that convinced folks that something had to be done to fix a broken government and so led to the convention. Things keep getting foggy on me, so I feel the need to articulate some of what I read, and I'm doing it here on the off-chance this brain-dump (a colleague once called this sort of thing a brainstem-dump) might be helpful to others. I'm doing it from memory so expect mistakes.

Internationally, the fledgling U.S. was being preyed on and exploited. Pirates of the Barbary Coast raided U.S. shipping (probably slave-traders) and the U.S. had no navy to defend itself and no money to pay ransom. Great Britain was refusing to abandon it's military intallations in the Northwest, violating the terms of the Peace of Paris, and Spain closed the Mississippi to U.S. shipping via their control of New Orleans and continued to stir up trouble in Florida--which borders Georgia.

Nationally, states were in conflict with each other and/or in violation of the Articles of Confederation and the national government had neither the funds nor the authority to coerce settlement of the conclict. Maryland and Virginia had a long-standing and often violent conflict over the resources of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomoc River, and Rhode Island was playing beggar-thy-neighbor by printing paper money while refusing to accept it as payment, and by charging fees for use of the Post Road, both in violation of the articles.

Locally, heavy taxation by states attempting to raise their levies and their requirement that payment be made in specie, which was in very short supply, caused insurrections among farmers and other "common-folk", many of whom came to believe they had fought a war to trade one sourse of despotism for another, equally bad. Shay's Rebellion, which might have been called the Massachusetts Civil War, was the most serious example, but smaller rebellions occurred throughout the colonies.

Jan 1, 2011, 6:13pm Top

Please keep rolling with your brain dump. I'm still back at the generalization that the Continental Congress couldn't get anything done because everything had to be approved by everybody, and consensus was never forthcoming. The issues to which that applies, which you are developing, are, I think, important.


Jan 2, 2011, 4:07pm Top

I think that some of the thoughts from Akhil Reed Amar in America's Constitution: A Biography could fit here:

Did the Declaration of Independence form a nation? It did not form a government, and did not begin the “United States of America”. It declared the states to be “free and independent”. It was generally acknowledged, however, that questions needed to be answered for the future as to what would be the relationships between the states and a common government. In June, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, seconded by John Adams moved: “Resolved That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States” and concluded “a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective colonies for their consideration and approbation.” So, well before the approval of the language of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress appointed a committee “to prepare and digest the form of a confederation to be entered into between these colonies”.

When the plan emerged, it “underscored in word and deed the sovereignty of each individual state. The opening passages of the Articles of Confederation variously described the arrangement among the states as a ‘confederacy,’ a ‘confederation,’ and a ‘firm league of friendship with each other’ in which ‘each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence.’” Prior to the 1787, the states were sovereign. The Articles of Confederation was a “multi-lateral treaty of sovereign nation-states”.

To late eighteenth century American lawyers, sovereign states under traditional legal principles were free to enter multilateral treaties, leagues, federations and confederations without surrendering their ultimate sovereignty. This was articulated in the writing of the time by Swiss jurist Emmerich de Vattel in his “Law of Nations” by Locke in his “Second Treatise” and by Blackstone in his “Commentaries”. The mere fact that each of the thirteen states agreed to what the Articles called a “perpetual” “union” in no way negated each state’s continuing sovereign status.

“Although on paper the Congress under the Articles enjoyed some important powers, it had no effective means of carrying them out. It could not directly tax individuals or legislate upon them; it had no explicit ’legislative’ or ‘governmental’ power to make binding ‘law’ enforceable in state courts; it lacked broad authority to set up its own general courts; and it could raise troops and money only by ‘requisitioning’ contributions from each state. On paper, such requisitions were ‘binding.’ In practice, they were mere requests. As one wag put it, ‘Congress may declare everything, but do nothing.’ By 1787 the Confederation was in shambles. Various states failed to honor requisitions, enacted laws violating duly ratified treaties, waged unauthorized local wars against Indian tribes, and maintained standing armies without congressional permission—all in plain contravention of the Articles.” (Footnote omitted.)

Jan 3, 2011, 10:05am Top

A couple items missing from the Articles: a federal court system and a true executive.

I've heard it said that Congress, like Parliament, served as the sole and supreme federal court under the articles, yet know nothing about any cases it might have heard.

It strikes me that the executive may have been the hardest thing for the founders to accept. After over-throwing the king, mostly eliminating the nobility, or at least their titles, and tossing aside the notion of standing armies and ongoing centralized military authority, wasn't the idea of a President pretty much the antithesis of what they'd fought for?

Jan 3, 2011, 9:37pm Top

#12> rolling on...

Spain's closure of navigation on the Mississippi not only revealed the military weakness of the U.S., but also had a direct bearing on the ratification deliberations.

John Jay (yes, the same guy, one of our authors) was the U.S. equivalent of a foreign minister, and when Spain closed the lower few hundred miles of the Mississippi, including the port of New Orleans, to U.S. shipping, Jay went to Madrid to negotiate. The result was the Jay–Gardoqui Treaty, which ceded navigation on the Mississippi to Spain for 30 years, in exchange for other concessions, primarily the opening of Spanish ports in the Carribean to American shipping. The treaty obviously favored Eastern mercantile interests at the expense of Western farmers (who likely were looking at ruin), but was never ratified by the Continental Congress--7 states did ratify the treaty, falling short of the 9 required.

The fact that 7 states DID ratify the treaty made Western farmers very suspicious that a strong central government would eventually trade away their interests in favor of the the interests of the more populous seaboard towns, and that suspicion caused representatives from Western Pennsylvania to vote against ratification of the Constitution (and to make a big fuss after the Pennsylvania convention as a whole did ratify it) and also caused the Kentucky representatives to vote almost unanimously against ratification in the Virginia convention.

Their opposition had to be met, and so the Federalist Papers, and similar writings, were partly done in response to the objections of these rural folk.

Jan 5, 2011, 12:12am Top

>15 A_musing: A_musing, see my question on Ferderalist 1 thread.

Feb 13, 2011, 7:38am Top

One of the biggest problems of the Articles of Confederation was that it did not allow for Federal Taxation. After the war, the U.S. owed money--especially to France. A new country had to pay off debts if it was to maintain credibility.

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