In 1777, the colonies adopted the Articles of Confederation – a document that served as the first constitution of the United States (Ginsberg et al 34). The adoption of such a constitution was important to the colonies, which included New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to hold them together as one nation-state. The Articles is divided into 13 articles, including a provision that described the relationship of the states as a “league of friendship” (Article III, Articles of Confederation). The implication of such wording is that the states only acknowledged their voluntary association with one another without surrendering their individual independence. The Articles of Confederation achieved the resolution of one important issue that could have broken the alliance had it been left unresolved. This was the settlement of land claims by some states, particularly those involving Maryland (Bardes et al 38). Nonetheless, the Articles had inherent weaknesses that impacted on the effectiveness of the confederation as a single entity. These weaknesses stemmed from provisions that were deliberately included or omitted by the states to create a central government that did not in any way pose risk to their individual sovereignty and independence. Although the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation were meant to preserve the individual integrity of the states, these weaknesses nevertheless, affected the states eventually because not only did they endanger the economic and political stability of the region, but they were also seen in the international front as a weak confederation.
As earlier stated, the Articles of Confederation turned out to be a weak document and had to be substituted with another agreement that is more effective and more responsive to the conditions of the Union. This weakness stemmed from the reluctance of the states to create a central power that could potentially weaken their individual independence and sovereignty. This reluctance was set by the tone used in Article II, where, rather than emphasizing the power and ability of the central government the states stressed the retention of their “Sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction and right” unless expressly delegated to Congress. In comparison, the Tenth Amendment indicated only ‘reserved powers’ to the states as an afterthought stressing more the delegation of power to the central government. Reserved powers are powers not expressly delegated to the central government or powers not prohibited by the Constitution to be exercised by the states. The difference between these provisions is that the first evidently declared individual states as the more powerful entities vis-à-vis Congress. On the other hand, the second implies a more powerful Constitution because it has the power to prohibit states from exercising certain powers. The reluctance to give up substantial powers to a central authority is also indicated by the deliberate failure of the states to create central executive and legislative branches.
The reluctance of the states to give up substantial power to the federal government resulted in an inherently weak Articles of Confederation. As a matter of fact, the grant of powers to the central government, constituted only by a Congress, seemed only ceremonial because these powers lack real teeth for effective implementation. For example, under paragraph 1 of Article IX, Congress is granted the power to determine and declare a state of war, but it was completely at the mercy of the states, which may or may not contribute to raise the funds for it as this was a voluntary matter on their part. In contrast, under the present Constitution, the power to lay tax and other forms of revenues for the defense and general welfare of the country and to pay its debts is expressly granted to Congress. The Articles’ weakness was even exacerbated by the fact that the national government had no reserved military of its own because it had no power to draft its own military, but was completely dependent on the states to provide for militias that could fight on the national level.
The weakness of the Articles was illustrated and highlighted by the Shay Rebellion, which occurred in 1787. The lack of coordination, particularly in the area of trade and commerce, between and among states due to the lack of a central authority figure that could impose regulation in these areas, resulted in chaos. Neither was a central authority present that could impose peace and order effectively. The resulting economic depression compelled banks to enforce even old loans and to refuse the grant of new ones. Many small farmers who were not able to pay their loans were thrown into prison. In 1787, Daniel Shay, who used to be an army captain, led a group of men to stage a rebellion against the Massachusetts government by seizing courthouses. The siege was meant to stop the court from hearing the trials of debtors in Springfield. Although the mob was eventually repelled, the rebellion illustrated the weakness of the US government and the ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation (Ginsberg et al 35).
Another weakness of the Articles, which complicated and made miserable the relationships between and among states, were the absence of a central regulatory body that could balance and control interstate and foreign commerce. Under the second paragraph of Article III, for example, even the taxes for costs of war shall be levied by the states individually within their respective jurisdiction. The states were thus, left on their own devise to design their own tariff systems without a central regulatory body. This became problematic when tariffs are imposed on goods coming from other states or what goods or services from other states that were levied with taxes and imposts and duties. A state could thus, even stopped trading with other states if it chose to do so (Bardes et al 39).
In all these, Congress, the sole central authority created under the Articles of Confederation had no real power of its own that did not originate from the states themselves. The representatives of the states that made up Congress were under the dictates of the sending state, received salaries from that state and were, thus, completely at the mercy of that state. The inherent weakness of the federal government was not lost to the international world at that time and this became a disadvantage to the position of the US in the international realm. European countries took advantage of the weak position of the US often pitting one state with the others. John Adams discovered this in 1786-87 when he was unable as a US representative to gain the trust of European countries who would rather deal with each of the state than deal with a representative of the federal government (Ginsberg et al 35).
The failure of the original 13 colonies to create an effective central government that would have overseen the economic and political issues, among others, of the entire United States in the 1780s resulted in a weak nation-state. The failure, which stemmed from the colonies’ deliberate creation of a weak central government, had a domino effect on all aspects of federal life including the emergence of interstate trade and commerce excesses, political and social dominance of one sector of society, and the general failure to impose peace and order. As a result, the US’ position in the international front was diminished and mocked. Realizing their folly, the states were forced to reconsider their earlier position by drafting a more effective document that would bring about a more stable and unified federal system of government, not only constituted by an independent Congress, but also an executive central government and a national judiciary system.
Articles of Confederation.
Bardes, Barbara and Mack Shelley, Steffen Schmidt. American Government and Politics Today: The Essentials 2009 - 2010 Edition. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2008. Print.
Ginsberg, Benjamin and Theodore Lowi, Margaret Weir, Robert Spitzer. An Introduction to American Politics: We the People. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011. Print.