Why was the Articles of Confederation Replaced by the Constitution?
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A revised version of this essay is included in the recently published, second edition of my (Freeway Flyer/Paul Swendson) American history book.
Problems With a Weak National Government
Why has the “Tea Party Movement” chosen that particular name? From what I can gather, “Tea Partiers” are trying to connect their movement to our nation’s historical roots. Just as those first patriots rebelled 235 years ago against a powerful central government that tried to tax, regulate, and control them too much, believers in this modern movement are fighting to restore our nation’s original ideals of freedom and limited government, ideals embodied in our nation’s Constitution. In their minds, the federal government has grown too large, taxes and spends too much, and has gotten involved with issues over which it has no Constitutional jurisdiction.
There is no doubt that those first American revolutionaries were generally afraid of a powerful central government. Given their experiences with Great Britain, these fears were understandable. So shortly before the Revolutionary War ended, the thirteen states agreed to a political system called the Articles of Confederation. In this system, the national government had the bare minimum of powers: forming a military, negotiating with foreign powers, establishing a postal service, and creating currency. Essentially, it dealt only with matters that concerned the nation as a whole, namely national defense and interstate trade. Most significant, however, were the powers it did not have. For one thing, the national government could not tax. It could merely request money from the states to fund its various activities. There was also no national court system. Instead, state and local courts handled all judicial matters. If interstate disputes arose, the national government was supposed to be the arbitrator. The system for doing this, however, was extremely complex and cumbersome, and there was no powerful executive to enforce much of anything anyway. You could make a good argument, in fact, that the European Union today is a more united body than the United States was under the Articles of Confederation. The United States was essentially a military and loose economic alliance of thirteen nation-states.
To people who believe in a limited federal government and states’ rights, this original political system must sound great. Because most of the power was at the state and local level, government was more responsive to people’s needs. Your vote carried more weight in this system because each individual citizen constituted a larger percentage of the population in the important state and town elections than they did in the mostly irrelevant national elections. A mayor of a town, after all, is more willing and able to meet with an individual constituent than the president of an entire nation. Also, because the size of the state and city bureaucracies would be smaller than with a powerful national government, there was less possibility of corruption and waste.
The only problem with the Articles of Confederation was that it did not work. States did not provide adequate funding when the federal government requested it, making it impossible to get much of anything done. Debts to foreign nations and to Revolutionary War soldiers remained unpaid. States sometimes created their own currencies and established tariffs on goods coming from other states, making it difficult for merchants to conduct any kind of interstate trade. Businessmen, in fact, were some of the biggest advocates for changing the system. Finally, the federal government under the Articles was unable to perform the most basic functions of government: defending the state and maintaining order. Spain and Great Britain encroached on American territory with no consequences, and in 1787, a man named Daniel Shays led a rebellion of indebted farmers that had to be put down by the Massachusetts state militia.
So in 1787, 55 men from 12 states got together with the official purpose of amending the Articles of Confederation. Very quickly, however, they agreed to go much further than that. The result was a system in which the federal government would be much stronger than before. It could now collect taxes to fund itself. A national court system was created that could override the decisions of state and local courts. Only the federal government could create currency, and tariff barriers between states were forbidden. A separate executive branch was set up, headed by a President, which would carry out the laws passed by a Congress, consisting of a House and a Senate. Interstate disputes could now be resolved by this new federal government that clearly had the final say.
Some historians, like many Americans in the late 1780’s, view the Constitution as a counterrevolutionary document. The Articles, based on the principles of democracy, personal freedom, and states’ rights, embodied the original revolutionary spirit. But the elites of society, in this thesis, felt threatened by the Articles. Shays Rebellion seemed like an indication of things to come, with poor people grabbing their guns and taking the law into their own hands. More future events like this were bound to happen in a society with too much democracy and a weak federal government. The next thing you knew, the poor would be pushing for the passage of laws or taking violent actions that would confiscate the property of the wealthy. Businessmen saw limited potential for profit in a system that had no consistent rules regarding currency, trade, and contracts.
So with the Constitution, these 55 men, who mostly represented the elite classes, created something that would protect their interests. This new government would be strong enough to maintain order, and it would not be overly democratic. In fact, the only officials in the Constitution as it was originally written who were directly elected by voters were the members of the House. Senators were selected by state legislators, the President was chosen using a strange Electoral College system (that we are still stuck with), and Supreme Court justices were nominated by the (non-democratically elected) President and approved by the (non-democratically elected) Senate.
So was this a conspiracy of elites, or were the framers of the Constitution merely creating a system that would compensate for the weaknesses of the Articles? There is no doubt, after all, that these so-called self-centered elites had their own suspicions about excessive government power. This was why power was divided into three branches, with each branch having the ability to check and balance the primary powers of the other two. Even the limits on democracy do not necessarily constitute a conspiracy. At the time, choosing leaders through elections was not exactly the norm around the world, so relative to other nations at the time, the Constitution allowed voters to participate a great deal.
Ratification of this new government was by no means a done deal. In the end, concessions had to be made in order to get majority support in the required nine of thirteen ratifying conventions. It was agreed that a Bill of Rights would be added to set limits on this new national government. So amendments one through ten were added two years after the Constitution went into effect, and to many Americans, some of the principles found in the Bill of Rights represent the crowning achievements of the Founding Fathers. The conspiracy theorists mentioned earlier, however, can point out that the Bill of Rights was not part of the original plan. They were only added in order to get the Constitution ratified, indicating that the original framers saw them as unnecessary and possibly even a threat to their plans. All of those individual protections, after all, could make it more difficult to keep order.
Whatever your point of view on the framers of the Constitution, it is fascinating that the Tea Party, a movement primarily focused on limiting federal government spending and power, views itself as being rooted in Constitutional principles. They are celebrating, after all, a document that greatly increased the power of the national government. (It makes you wonder if Tea Party people would have been among those Americans 220 years ago who were trying to block ratification of the Constitution.) Still, when they argue that the federal government is doing things today that go beyond the limits set in the Constitution, they definitely have a point. I plan to address some of those concerns in future hubs. But for now, I will finish with one important lesson learned from those eight years that the Articles of Confederation was our system of government: a federal government that is too weak can do a poor job of carrying out the two duties that Tea Party people and conservatives in general care about the most: defending the nation and encouraging business activity. Believe it or not, a powerful federal government is not necessarily bad for business. (To be continued.)
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