The Articles of Confederation were indeed important instruments since they created a basis to form a government which included checks and balances, something which was very advanced for the time and notably absent in other countries. The innovative approach included a three tier government which gave certain independence to the states but at the same time, the system of President, House of Representatives and Senate was radically innovative since it allowed neither branch of the Executive or Legislative gain control.
In a sense this all started with the Constitutional Convention which took place in Philadelphia and which laid the groundwork for a written Constitution which is still in force today. Perhaps the greatest powers of the government under the newly drafted Articles of Confederation was the ability to conduct business with other countries as well as address local state problems which were always on the agenda.
However there were weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation which did not always create a proper basis for effectively governing. First and foremost was the limiting of the states to between two and seven members in the House of Representatives – this did not allow for the rapid population expansion which took place in later years although the Founding fathers could be excused for not predicting this.
Another problem was that under these articles, the central government’s power was drastically limited. Although the Congress appointed by the Confederation could take decisions, it drastically lacked the power to enforce. In fact, the actual implementation of a large number of these decisions which also included the modification of said Articles could only be made by the unanimous approval of all the thirteen states and their respective legislatures.
Additionally, Congress did not have any taxation powers but it could only as for money from the states themselves. During the American War for Independence in fact, the states often did not come up with the money with a situation where more money had to be printed by Congress in the end severely depreciating the value of the dollar. Attempts to wring further amounts of taxation most notably by John Jay came to nothing as the states absolutely refused to comply creating a deadlocked situation which demonstrated the weakness and ineffectuality of the Articles of Confederation.
Trade was another issue and the Articles of Confederation were also ambiguous on this issue since Congress had absolutely no power to regulate foreign trade or even commerce between states which was jealously guarded by the states themselves. Since some of the states did not pay off their war debts, the issue became a Federal affair and this was one of the major mainstays of the need for a Constitutional Convention.
However there were accomplishments and achievments with the Articles of Confederation. Two of the most important decisions taken were the creation of the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance. These created a system of territorial government and also set up conditions for the admission of new states, the division of land into units as well as the parcelling off of land in settlements and towns for eventual public use. These decisions proved very successful and continued to provide an important base for the incredibly successful expansion of the United States which took place throughout the 19th century.
Amongst the other accomplishments of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was the creation of a number of new states such as Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin and ensured that new states which entered the Union could not be slave states.
Although the War for Independence was won, the treaty of peace left the country with a structure of government that was shaky to say the least. Although the Articles created what may be termed as a permanent confederation of states, Congress had little or no ability to finance itself since the states held all control over finances. This was perhaps the greatest stumbling block of the Articles of Confederation since although achieving a lot in terms of the Northwest Ordinance, the issue of financing threatened to hamper Congress from carrying out its work.
The situation in foreign trade was similarly restricted since Britain, France and Spain held the monopoly over most areas of shipping especially in places like the West Indies which were closed to all other shipping apart from the British. New producers faced harsh competition from British products which again became available on the market and there was also considerable unrest in some states that refused to accept to pay their war debts. Although the Continental Congress continued printing paper money, the situation certainly did not improve since the value of the dollar continued spiralling downward creating problems of inflation.
Foreign policy was also extremely hampered in the sense that Congress had no power to sign treaties through its representative who was John Quincy Adams. In fact Adams could not come up with a tteaty for individual commerce when he went to London in 1785 and he could not get any assurances from the individual states that they would agree to a treaty. The need for a complete revision of the Articles of Confederation was thus made absolutely paramount and this led to the Annapolis Convention of 1786 proposed by future President James Madison.
After urging by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the Virginia delegates proposed to meet in Annapolis to discuss ways and means of eliminating interstate conflict which eventually led to the proposal of a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia which took place in May 1787.
Amongst the changes that were made to the Articles of Confederation was the all important one granting Congress the power over foreign and domestic commerce as well as allowing it to collect money from the states. However although the state delegates were actually only authorised to amend the articles, they actually wrote a new Constitution which was radically different from the said articles and which allowed for far greater federal powers than envisaged previously. Although there were still some representatives such as Patrick Henry and George Mason who were reluctant to give up the autonomy of the states, general agreement was that the country had to function under the system of a republic if it was to be a success. There was also the need for the new nation to be more assertive in foreign policy and without the ability to negotiate, this would not have been possible. However, although the nation is still extremely powerful today, the United States occasionally suffers from lack of agreement between states especially on thorny issues, the most prominent one being the slavery issue that continued to dog the country until 1861 when it descended into Civil War. Still the Constitution has more or less remained firm ever since 1787.
Bernstein, R.B. (1999). "Parliamentary Principles, American Realities: The Continental and Confederation Congresses, 1774–1789". In Bowling, Kenneth R. & Kennon, Donald R. Inventing Congress: Origins & Establishment Of First Federal Congress. pp. 76–108.
Brown, Roger H. (1993). Redeeming the Republic: Federalists, Taxation, and the Origins of the Constitution. ISBN 978-0-8018-6355-4.