The Articles of Confederation
By Mark Relation, DLAR Intern
One of the greatest issues facing the new central government was how much power it was to be given. We may take the existence of a strong central government for granted today, but many of the delegates to the Continental Congress foresaw the federal government as only a temporary measure to conduct war with the British, to be dissolved after the war and leaving all power with states which would in all respects would be independent nations. America had just declared Revolution against a strong central legislature and executive in the parliament and king, and there was genuine fear that the British tyrants would be replaced with American tyrants if the central government was given too much power. This was also before the establishment of a sense of greater American national unity, as people’s loyalty was to their home states and seldom extended any farther.
Another contentious issue was that of the territorial claims of frontier states of land west of the Alleghenies. While this was not directly related to the question of national governance, the ability to delay the ratification of the Articles of Confederation due to the required approval of all 13 states allowed Maryland to pressure Virginia, North Carolina, and other such states to cede their claims of yet unsettled frontier land. Once these claims were abandoned and the political balance between large and small states was restored, Maryland ended its three year deadlock and approved the Articles on February 27th, 1781, and the Confederation assumed authority shortly after.
However, this authority was extremely limited due to the nature of the Articles. While the central government was given a wide range of responsibilities, it was given very few means to carry them out, which so handicapped its power that the most talented statesmen of the time nearly always chose to remain in their state governments rather than serve in the Confederation. The Confederation was given exclusive power over foreign relations and the conduct of war, but had no means of raising troops to fight war once it was declared. It could pass laws, but these were in practice just suggestions to the states as the Confederation had no authority to compel states to follow them. Perhaps most cripplingly, the Confederation could only raise money by requesting it from the states which by and large did not oblige and left the Confederation with very little ability to act as a government at all. Most interestingly, the Articles of Confederation did not establish the separation of powers that would become so synonymous with American government later on. The Confederation’s powers, limited though they were, all lay in the hands of the Congress, a president merely presided and no real judiciary was established.
While it is easy to criticize the failings of the Confederation government, it is more appropriate to view it as a product of the times. America was engaged in a war against what it saw as the oppression of centralized authority, a war which was very nearly lost. The establishment of the Constitution only came some time after the war, when the economy and population were on the rise in the wake of a great American triumph and highly favorable peace treaty with the British. While the Articles of Confederation were far from perfect, it did serve its purpose of keeping the fragile political union of the 13 colonies alive during its most bitter struggle and paved the way for the establishment of American government as we know it.