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Articles of Confederation

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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 some independent 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: It was, as Article III explains, “a firm league of friendship.”

So how did the Articles fail, and what made the Constitution different?

The people were to be free to come and go as they wanted between states. Congress held the power to declare war or peace and to make agreements with other powers.

But the states were responsible for raising their own armies, helping each other when attacked, and charging and collecting their own taxes to pay for it all. Outside of foreign relations, Congress was mostly just the final judge between the states in disagreements.

In the end, the Articles of Confederation served better as wartime partnership than an actual civil government. The people of the 13 colonies were very independent and loyal to their own states rather than any national government, and without the war to unite them, things began to fall apart.

Making laws at the federal level was hard; any law that would affect all 13 colonies needed the vote of at least nine, and any change to the Articles of Confederation required the support of all 13.

Congress did not have the power to charge taxes, so it depended on the states to send what they felt was fair. Without money, the central government couldn’t maintain the military or back its own currency.

It became clear that without money, the central government couldn’t protect the “perpetual union” the Founders dreamed of. In 1786, representatives from five states met at Annapolis, Maryland to discuss a change. They suggested a meeting of all 13 states the next year, and the time of the Articles of Confederation ended.

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