The Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776, but the government as described in the US Constitution didn’t begin until March 4, 1789. So what brought the early Americans through the Revolutionary War, and for that matter, why was the new nation called The United States of America, rather than simply America? There was another attempt at self-governance that ultimately failed: The Articles of Confederation.
The first government established after the Declaration of Independence was quite a bit different from what we know today. Imagine a United States without a federal court system or an executive branch. No president, no vice president, and no Supreme Court – just a number of sovereign states represented by the single-house Congress of the Confederation to keep everyone working together. That was the vision for America under the Articles of Confederation: Each state maintained as much authority unto itself as possible while still being a member of the United States, hence the name. It was, as Article III explains, “a firm league of friendship.”
So how did the Articles fail, and what made the Constitution different?
Article II declared:
“Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”
Under British rule, the colonies were heavily taxed and regulated – despite the fact that they had very little support from the crown. When this treatment was protested, the king responded with force, sending troops to enforce compliance.
Fresh from declaring independence, the leaders of the new United States were reluctant to create a strong central government for fear of trading the tyranny of British rule to a tyranny of their own making. So why not 13 independent nations, one for each colony?
The Founders knew that in order to defend the freedom they fought for, the colonies would need to be united. The people were to be free to come and go as they pleased from one state to another, and each state agreed to turn over any criminals fleeing justice from another. Congress alone held the power to declare war or peace and to enter into treaties with other powers, but even this power was limited. The states were responsible for raising their own armies for the common defense, coming to the aid of any other state should it be attacked, and charging and collecting their own taxes to pay for it all. Outside of foreign relations, Congress existed primarily to act as the final judge between the states in disagreements.
Ultimately, the Articles of Confederation served better as wartime alliance than an actual civil government. The people of the 13 colonies were fiercely independent and loyal to their own states rather than any centralized power, and without the war to unite them, things began to fall apart.
Legislation at the federal level was next to impossible; any law that would affect all 13 colonies required the vote of at least nine, and any amendment to the Articles of Confederation required unanimous support. The states still conducted their own foreign policies. While Congress was supposed to retain that authority, the central government didn’t have the power or resources to actually enforce it.
But the biggest failure of the Articles of Confederation was money. Congress did not have the power to charge taxes to fund its own operations and thus relied on the states to send what their leaders felt was fair. Lacking funds, the central government couldn’t maintain the military or even back its own currency. And that currency wasn’t the only money system in use; each state had its own. With a weak central government and different types of money from state to state, trade was difficult between the United States and other countries – and even between the states, for that matter.
When a tax protest by western Massachusetts farmers couldn’t be put down without the aid of a privately sponsored state militia, it became clear that without money, the central government couldn’t actually protect the “perpetual union” the Founders dreamed of. In 1786, delegates from five states met at Annapolis, Maryland to discuss a change. They suggested a meeting of all 13 states the next year, and the resulting Constitutional Convention of 1787 marked the end of the Articles of Confederation.