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The Constitution (1781–1815)

History SparkNotes

The Articles of Confederation: 1777–1787

Key People & Terms

The Articles of Confederation: 1777–1787, page 2

page 1 of 3
1777 Congress is created under the Articles of Confederation
1781 Articles of Confederation is ratified
1785 Congress passes Land Ordinance of 1785
1787 Daniel Shays leads attack on federal arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts Congress passes Northwest Ordinance of 1787
Key People
Thomas Jefferson -  Writer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776
Daniel Shays -  Disgruntled farmer who led a revolt against the Massachusetts state government in 1786–1787

The Articles of Confederation

Shortly after Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the delegates at the Second Continental Congress agreed that a new government was necessary to govern the now-independent colonies. After much debate, they drafted and adopted the Articles of Confederation in 1777.

Although the Articles were not officially ratified until 1781 (Maryland refused to ratify because of a territorial dispute), they served as the de facto constitution until that time. Under the authority of the Articles, the states created a national Congress comprised of annually elected delegates from all thirteen states. Each state had one vote in Congress, and, in most cases, decisions were made based on majority rule.

Government Under the Articles

The national Congress’s powers over the states were specific and definite: it had the sole power to negotiate treaties, declare war, and make peace. It also reserved the right to maintain an army and navy and regulated interaction with Native Americans in the West. The delegates also granted Congress the power to resolve interstate disputes, grant loans, print money, and operate a national postal system. Eventually, Congress was also authorized to govern western territories until they achieved statehood.

All powers not granted to Congress were reserved for state governments. Congress had no power to levy taxes, for example. It could only request that the individual states raise revenue to cover their share of national expenses. Furthermore, any amendments made to the Articles required unanimous agreement from the states.

Fear of Strong Central Government

The Articles made the national Congress weak on purpose. Having just won independence from Britain, many Americans feared that creating a strong federal government with too much authority over the states would only replace King George III with another tyrant. Instead, they envisioned Congress to be a supervisory body that would tie the states loosely for the common good. The early United States was thus a confederation of nearly independent states, not the solid federation with a strong government that it is today. The states were in many ways like individual countries bound together to keep Britain at bay.

Americans were especially afraid of federal taxes. Remembering the “No taxation without representation!” cry from the Colonial era, they stipulated that only the individual states could levy taxes. This system proved to be a completely ineffective way of bankrolling a federal government, and in fact, many of the states refused to pay their fair share. Most years, in fact, the Congress received less than a third of what it asked for from the states. Moreover, Congress had been granted no rights to control interstate commerce. States were thus given a free hand to draft conflicting and confusing laws that made cross-border trade difficult.

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