The Essential Effect Of The Articles Of Confederation On The Constitution
Although historians generally regard the Articles of Confederation as a complete failure, they were actually a necessary step in the formation of the Constitution which laid out a balanced government in accordance with the ideals of the American Revolution. Adopted by the Second Continental Congress at the height of the Revolution in 1777, the Articles of Confederation reflected the fears of American citizens, in particular, the fear of tyrannical rule. When the Articles failed, a stronger and more stable government replaced it, the government America has today, defined by the Constitution. Errors made under the weak Articles of Confederation were the catalyst for the ratification of the Constitution. The Articles played an important role by proving a strong central government was not to be feared, it was 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 distant head of state. The former colonies existed as 13 individual republics, only tenuously as a union. The Constitution, which would not be written until 1787, declared supremacy over state laws, let the federal government tax the people and gave power to an executive. Because of this sharp contrast in ideology, it is clear the Constitution would not have been ratified immediately after the Revolution. This simple fact is the strongest proof that the Articles of Confederation 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 philosophy laid out in the Declaration of Independence. Under the Articles, the States are united “…for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them…” The Congress of the Confederacy was the sole governing body and was granted no power to tax or demand funds from states. In fact, the only powers expressly designated to the federal government were to conduct foreign relations, borrow money and declare war. Although in keeping with the desires of the American people, the Articles proved too weak to hold thirteen sovereign states in order. In contrast, the Constitution provides a powerful central government readily capable of organizing states into an efficient nation. However, without the Articles demonstrating such a government was required, the Constitution would never have been ratified.
Despite being granted the power to issue money, the federal government could not regulate it under the Articles of Confederation. This type of oversight was what truly destined the Articles to failure. Such issues could only be resolved by 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 massive national debts; veterans and investors remained unpaid. In 1783, veterans, once loyal soldiers, rioted in Philadelphia, forcing Congress to temporarily move the capitol. Shay’s Rebellion, which indirectly produced a movement to revise the Articles, was started by indebted farmers in Western Massachusetts who demanded increased money supply and tax relief from the state government. Congress under the Articles of Confederation was powerless to resolve such problems and prevent new ones from arising. By then, it was apparent that the only 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 solved with a controversially powerful central government. Although the Constitution was a far cry from the revision of the Articles of Confederation called for by the aptly named Meeting of Commissioners to Remedy Defects in the Federal Government (which commissioned the Constitutional Convention one year later), it proved to be extremely successful. Article VI, Clause II of the Constitution declares the supremacy of federal laws over state laws. This gave the national government the power it needed to make the United States stable and successful but was tremendously controversial in the political atmosphere of the era. The clause was thought to be necessary to fix many of the problems in the Articles of Confederation, primarily taxation. Although not a designated power, the First Bank of the United States was created in 1791. Alexander Hamilton, the bank’s creator, describes how the bank provides an answer to many of America’s early finance problems which the Articles of Confederation failed to resolve:
“…indirectly, by increasing the quantity of circulating medium and quickening circulation,…by creating a convenient species of medium in which [citizens] are to be paid. … The institution of a bank also has a natural relation to the regulation of trade between states…”
Unlike the weak response to Shay’s Rebellion, during the Whisky Rebellion, in which Pennsylvania farmers took up arms to protest federal taxes on distilled alcohol, President George Washington, Commander-in-Chief, used his Constitutional power to crush the uprising. This displays the stabilizing effect the strong central government created in 1788 had on the United States. Only through the failures of the Articles of Confederation could so ideal a government be fashioned.
The Constitution was passionately debated because many saw it as a betrayal to the ideals of the Revolution, the foundation of American nationhood. Those who opposed the Constitution argued that the government’s power to tax is not dissimilar to that of Britain’s Parliament and that the President was awarded powers near that of a king. Upon close examination we see that in every case the Framers use checks and balances to prevent unequal distribution of power among the various branches of the government. As Herbert J. Strong states in his book What the Anti-Federalists Were For, “The Federalists reminded Americans that the true principal of the Revolution was not hostility to government but hostility to tyrannical government.” (Strong, Page Unmarked)
The Constitution describes a government so successful it would become the oldest republic in the world. It could not have been written or enacted without the experiences under the earlier Articles of Confederation. Despite failing to create a functional government body, the Articles nevertheless left a positive mark on America’s history; only in its wake could the Constitution, and subsequently the United States of America, flourish.