As the first official document that defined the United States government, the Articles of Confederation both reflected the ideals and philosophies of the American Revolution and highlighted the practical difficulties of democratic government.
The idea of a union formed for mutual defense began in 1643 with the founding of the first colonial union, called the New England Confederation. Recognizing that a union would help the colonists to defend themselves against the threat of Indian attacks and French invasion, this confederation established the idea that unified strength was an effective power on the North American continent.
As the governments of the colonies evolved and established more power, they continued to rely on unions for mutual defense. At the beginning of the French and Indian War in 1754, additional colonies attended the Albany Congress for the purpose of forming a unified defense strategy against the French and Indians. The colonists learned an important lesson from this experience, and began to instinctively rely on the power of unions any time their rights were abused during the pre-Revolutionary era.
The governing body that eventually created the Articles of Confederation was based on this tradition of defensive unions, but was formed in a time of peace—not actually preparing for war. However, the Second Continental Congress, originally formed for the purpose of mutual defense of the thirteen colonies, suddenly found itself in 1776 waging a full-scale war and governing a nation.
Congress managed to successfully direct the Revolution effort and to prevent domestic anarchy by relying more on improvisation than on any codified system of laws. Consensus worked for the thirteen states when faced with the imposing task of defeating the British; however, when Congress approached the topic of drafting a constitution that would serve to direct the affairs of the nation, numerous controversies erupted over how to establish a balance of power between individual states and a national governing body. Despite all their experience in organizing unions for mutual defense, the representatives had no reliable source from which they could draft the plans for a new and democratic form of government.
The source of most of the controversies lay in that Americans held sharply contrasting interpretations of the implications of the American Revolution. Radicals believed that the purpose of the Revolution was to establish a government, unlike any other at the time, that placed power solidly in the hands of the people. Therefore, they interpreted the confederation to be like past unions, given power solely to provide for mutual defense. Sovereignty, they claimed, belonged close to the people in the hands of state governments, not in a strong central government. Conservatives, on the other hand, viewed the Revolution as an opportunity to remove control from a foreign elite and place it solidly in the hands of a centralized government in America. Like radicals, they believed in the importance of mutual defense, but wanted to extend the union's power to be able to manage all affairs of the new nation.
The shape of the new government, as established by the Articles of Confederation was largely influenced by the radicals' point of view. The Articles were submitted to the states for ratification in the midst of war with Great Britain. Most Americans greatly feared the possibility that their new American government would be as strong and as destructive to individual rights as the British one, and that the war would thus have been fought in vain. The government established and approved by the people in 1781, therefore, consisted of a national congress with extremely limited powers and thirteen independent state governments that held the balance of power.
The significance of the Articles of Confederation is that it provided enough of a structure for the nation to survive during those eight years, while the American people learned about the requirements to run an effective national government. The weaknesses inherent in the Articles of Confederation eventually provided the means for change.
In the midst of frustrating economic chaos and political confusion, individuals began to assert their own power against ineffective and unfair government created by the Articles. In Shays' Rebellion, Massachusetts farmers rebelled against a state legislature that seemed no different than Parliament in its unwillingness to change tax regulations and debt- repayment laws. Respected leaders from many states met at the Annapolis Convention in 1786 to try to determine a uniform system of commerce amongst themselves in the absence of a national policy. In both cases, Americans had realized that their liberties were threatened when not protected by a strong enough central government.
When delegates of the states met to revise the Articles of Confederation at the Constitutional Convention in May of 1787, they had gathered enough experience about the intricacies of government to more clearly define what the next government of the nation should and would do. It would not abandon the ideas of the American Revolution by placing too much power in the hands of the central government, but it also would not allow numerous competing government systems to tear the union apart.
Once again, the concept of union had evolved. Having learned from the failures of the government created by the Articles of Confederation, the delegates at the Constitutional Convention created a government that not only provided mutual defense against outside threats, it also created a central government strong enough to reign in and withstand internal threats and represent unified national interests to the world.