- Education and Science»
- History & Archaeology»
- History of the Americas
The Articles of Confederation: A "League of Friendship"
A "League of Friendship"
The Articles of Confederation was the first written national constitution and the first central authority for the new United States. Initiated in 1777 and ratified lastly by Maryland in 1781, the document proposed a “league of friendship” among the thirteen states. The Articles allowed each state one vote in the legislature. Its successes included bringing the War for Independence to an end as well as passing the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. In spite of its successes and the good intention of its framers, the document had some glaring weaknesses: it lacked an executive or judicial system which meant that law enforcement and the settling of disputes would be at a minimum. Second, the Articles required nine of the thirteen states to pass many laws and all thirteen to amend the document. The practical effect of this policy was that laws were rarely changed and the document was never amended. Third, the document also lacked the power to tax and regulate interstate commerce, a weakness continually brought up by the likes of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to champion a stronger national union. As political scientist Richard Stillman put it
“It could draft laws, but not enforce them; ask for money, but not compel payment,; enter treaties, but not maintain them in practice; provide for raising armies, but not fill their ranks; borrow money but not ensure repayment; advise and recommend, but not govern or control in reality. In short, it contained little in the way of a core system of administration in order to make it function effectively.” 
The weaknesses became glaringly apparent during Shays Rebellion when the central government could not enlist the aid of other states to assist Massachusetts in putting down a mob of farmers. This event spooked a good number of Americans, including George Washington, and encouraged more early leaders that something must be done to strengthen central authority.
The Importance of the Articles to the Constitution
The Articles contributed to constitutionalism in at least three ways. First, many historians believe that Shay’s Rebellion spurred states to send delegates to Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation. Second, the Articles provided the foundation for central authority; it is unlikely there would be the present Constitution without the successes and failures of the previous Articles. Third, the Articles provided an object lesson for the nation to observe how law and order breaks down in the absence of central authority. This encouraged the Philadelphia framers to create a stronger central government.
 Richard J. Stillman II, Preface to Public Administration: A Search for Themes and Direction (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 28.
© 2011 William R Bowen Jr