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The Achievements and Failures of The Articles of Confederation

An essay which discusses some of the problems related to the Articles of Confederation, and also discusses the achievements of the Articles of Confederation.

In 1776, Congress commissioned a committee to write a new constitution for the new nation. The result was the Articles of Confederation. This document was later translated to French after the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, to show to the French government that the colonies did have a government in the making. To be accepted as the new constitution, unanimous ratification by the entire thirteen colonies was required. This was no easy matter, and only in 1781, some eight months before Yorktown, Maryland gave in when New York retracted their claim to western lands and Virginia looked it was about to do the same. The Articles of Confederation had been at last ratified by all thirteen colonies. However, although the Articles of Confederation had several merits, it ultimately failed the job it was intended for – providing a stable foundation for the new nation. 

The purpose of the Articles of Confederation was to provide a “firm league of friendship”. The confederation was presided over by Congress. The judicial branch was handled largely by the states, and as a result there was no supreme court. There was also no executive branch – King George III left the colonists with a bad taste for it. These Articles also did not address the issue of representation. Under the Articles, each state had one vote, giving tiny Rhode Island equal representation to the ten times more populous Virginia. The effect of this was that the smaller states had significantly more power than the larger states. To pass bills, nine of the thirteen colonies were required to ratify it and to amend the Articles, unanimous ratification was required. The fact that this was nearly impossible posed no small problem for Congress – the amendment process was completely useless. The colonies would unite together to deal with common problems, such as foreign invasion. However, Congress had no ability to handle foreign affairs.

Congress was weak overall, and intended to be weak. There were two other notable limitations that hindered their administration of the states. For one thing, they could not control or coerce the states on any issue, and this included taxation. At best, they could make recommended quotas for the amount of money each state was to raise on a voluntary basis. This voluntary tax achieved little for Congress, and they usually got less than one-fourth of their quotas. The second notable limitation was that Congress could not control commerce. As a result, states would issue contradictory laws regarding tariffs and navigation. The Articles also did not provide for a standardized currency, and states would often raise their own money, creating even more problems for Congress. State suspicions of a parliament had not yet left, even one of their own people. One of the largest problems with the Articles was that it simply was not what was necessary at the time for the new nation.

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