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The Articles of Confederation (1781-1789)

The Founding Fathers

Articles 1-2

Summary

Articles 3-4

Summary-State Sovereignty

By signing the document, the delegates of each state agree to the form of government described in the Articles of Confederation and therefore commit their state to the permanent union of states that will be called the United States.

The form of government created by this document is called a confederacy, or a loose organization of independent states. Each state will maintain sovereignty, which means that the state maintains the power to run its own affairs. Any rights, privileges and powers that are not specifically given to the Congress by the Articles of Confederation are maintained by the state.

Commentary

Where the balance of power would rest in the newly formed union—whether it would rest in the state governments or in a centralized national government—proved to be one of the most challenging and divisive issues that the Second Continental Congress faced. The debate between state power and central or national power continued to occupy politicians throughout the nation's early history, and vestiges of it are found in today's big government versus small government debate.

When Richard Henry Lee proposed independence and the establishment of a new government to replace the King and Parliament, the debate was largely theoretical. Did the central authority that previously rested in the hands of the King and Parliament get passed down directly to the Second Continental Congress? Or did the power to govern rest directly with the people protected by the authority in each independent state? Those who favored the argument for a strong central government were called conservatives, and feared that the absence of a strong central government would lead to anarchy in the states. Those who favored states' rights were called radicals, and felt that simply replacing one strong central government with another defeated the purposes of the American Revolution.

The original draft of the Articles of Confederation was written by the conservative John Dickinson and described a confederation that placed a significant amount of power in the hands of the central government, or Congress. In this first draft, states were allowed to keep as many of their laws, rights and customs as they choose, and to have the sole authority to regulate their internal police, as long as this power did not interfere with the Articles. Congress would represent the supreme authority on any issue. This was quickly criticized by radicals in Congress for providing no distinct authority to the states separate from that of Congress and for giving states no protection against an all-powerful central government. By the time the articles were distributed for review by state legislatures, the radicals had insisted that the balance of power be shifted to favor the states over the central government. This shift was reflected in the wording of Article II.

The Second Continental Congress operated mostly as a strong central government without any legal authority before the Articles of Confederation, but radicals were unwilling to put that strength into written law. Not only had the Congress raised a military, appointed military leaders, requisitioned supplies and administered all war efforts, it had also tended to foreign diplomacy, establishing currency and a post office, and had even begun to establish administrative departments to manage certain areas of national government. The power of Congress to do these things during wartime was never questioned. But when it came time to write a constitution that would govern during times of peace, radicals could not see the necessity of having so much power concentrated in the hands of the central government.

This dislike of a centralized government was rooted in the radicals' belief that the union of states was formed solely for the purpose of common defense against Great Britain. Radicals argued that the purpose of the Revolution was to form more democratic governments, by definition requiring a close relationship between the people and their government. They argued that a strong centralized government exerting its power over many thousands of people would simple cease to be democratic, because the authority would lie too far from the people. Let the states govern their own affairs, they said, and the liberties of the people are most likely to be protected. To radicals, the only purpose of the confederation was to provide a foundation for mutual defense and foreign policy should they be threatened by an outside power again. They interpreted the Articles of Confederation as a pact between thirteen separate states that agreed to delegate certain powers for specific purposes, not one that granted general powers to a central government.

After the American Revolution, many people feared the prospect of another strong central government that would simply replace the British government. This fear was reflected in the final draft of the articles, which not only strongly claimed that sovereignty rested with the state (in Article II), but also effectively stripped the congress of any effective powers whatsoever in the remaining articles of the document.

The ineffective and disunited governance that resulted between 1781 and 1789 proved to the people that they could effectively disempower the national government by placing many checks and controls on its power. However, it also demonstrated to most people that their rights and liberties would be threatened in the absence of a national government that could serve as a supreme authority over all of the states.

By successfully removing all significant powers from congress, the radicals won the first round of the nation versus state debate. However, a few years of experience in self-government convinced many that, in practice, the theory of basing power in the hands of the people did not work. By 1786, many who had been radicals would clamor for giving more effective power to the central government and to place sovereignty with the nation. As such, the spirit expressed by Dickinson's original draft of the Articles of Confederation, which he could not persuade others to accept on purely theoretical terms, was later expressed in the U.S. Constitution.

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