Although historians generally regard the Articles ofConfederation as a complete failure, they were actually a necessary step in theformation of the Constitution which laid out a balanced government inaccordance with the ideals of the American Revolution. Adopted by the SecondContinental Congress at the height of the Revolution in 1777, the Articles ofConfederation reflected the fears of American citizens, in particular, the fearof tyrannical rule. When the Articles failed, a stronger and more stablegovernment replaced it, the government America has today, defined by theConstitution. Errors made under the weak Articles of Confederation were thecatalyst for the ratification of the Constitution. The Articles played animportant role by proving a strong central government was not to be feared, itwas a necessity.Following the Revolution, Americans desired to be free from burdensome taxes,to have a market economy and, most of all, not to be manipulated by a distanthead of state.
The former colonies existed as 13 individual republics, onlytenuously as a union. The Constitution, which would not be written until 1787,declared supremacy over state laws, let the federal government tax the peopleand gave power to an executive. Because of this sharp contrast in ideology, itis clear the Constitution would not have been ratified immediately after theRevolution. This simple fact is the strongest proof that the Articles ofConfederation were necessary to the formation of today’s government.
The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, as they are formally named,were written during the fervor of the Revolution and reflect the philosophylaid out in the Declaration of Independence. Under the Articles, the States areunited “…for their common defense, the security of their liberties, andtheir mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, againstall force offered to, or attacks made upon them…
” The Congress of theConfederacy was the sole governing body and was granted no power to tax ordemand funds from states. In fact, the only powers expressly designated to thefederal government were to conduct foreign relations, borrow money and declarewar. Although in keeping with the desires of the American people, the Articlesproved too weak to hold thirteen sovereign states in order. In contrast, theConstitution provides a powerful central government readily capable oforganizing states into an efficient nation. However, without the Articlesdemonstrating such a government was required, the Constitution would never havebeen ratified.Despite being granted the power to issue money, the federal government couldnot regulate it under the Articles of Confederation. This type of oversight waswhat truly destined the Articles to failure.
Such issues could only be resolvedby an amendment to the text of the Articles; because a unanimous vote was required,this was rare. The inability of congress to raise revenue lead to massivenational debts; veterans and investors remained unpaid. In 1783, veterans, onceloyal soldiers, rioted in Philadelphia, forcing Congress to temporarily movethe capitol. Shay’s Rebellion, which indirectly produced a movement to revisethe Articles, was started by indebted farmers in Western Massachusetts whodemanded increased money supply and tax relief from the state government.Congress under the Articles of Confederation was powerless to resolve suchproblems and prevent new ones from arising. By then, it was apparent that theonly way to prevent the United States from collapsing was to create a new,stronger government.Under the Constitution, ratified September 13, 1788, these problems were solvedwith a controversially powerful central government.
Although the Constitutionwas a far cry from the revision of the Articles of Confederation called for bythe aptly named Meeting of Commissioners to Remedy Defects in the Federal Government(which commissioned the Constitutional Convention one year later), it proved tobe extremely successful. Article VI, Clause II of the Constitution declares thesupremacy of federal laws over state laws. This gave the national governmentthe power it needed to make the United States stable and successful but wastremendously controversial in the political atmosphere of the era. The clausewas thought to be necessary to fix many of the problems in the Articles ofConfederation, primarily taxation.
Although not a designated power, the FirstBank of the United States was created in 1791. Alexander Hamilton, the bank’screator, describes how the bank provides an answer to many of America’s earlyfinance problems which the Articles of Confederation failed to resolve:”…indirectly, by increasing the quantity of circulating medium andquickening circulation,…by creating a convenient species of medium in whichcitizens are to be paid. … The institution of a bank also has a naturalrelation to the regulation of trade between states…”Unlike the weak response to Shay’s Rebellion, during the Whisky Rebellion, inwhich Pennsylvania farmers took up arms to protest federal taxes on distilledalcohol, President George Washington, Commander-in-Chief, used his Constitutionalpower to crush the uprising. This displays the stabilizing effect the strongcentral government created in 1788 had on the United States. Only through thefailures of the Articles of Confederation could so ideal a government befashioned.The Constitution was passionately debated because many saw it as a betrayal tothe ideals of the Revolution, the foundation of American nationhood. Those whoopposed the Constitution argued that the government’s power to tax is notdissimilar to that of Britain’s Parliament and that the President was awardedpowers near that of a king.
Upon close examination we see that in every casethe Framers use checks and balances to prevent unequal distribution of poweramong the various branches of the government. As Herbert J. Strong states inhis book What the Anti-Federalists Were For, “The Federalists remindedAmericans that the true principal of the Revolution was not hostility togovernment but hostility to tyrannical government.” (Strong, PageUnmarked)The Constitution describes a government so successful it would become theoldest republic in the world. It could not have been written or enacted withoutthe experiences under the earlier Articles of Confederation. Despite failing tocreate a functional government body, the Articles nevertheless left a positivemark on America’s history; only in its wake could the Constitution, andsubsequently the United States of America, flourish.