The Articles of Confederation (1781-1789)

by: The Founding Fathers

Articles 1-2

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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