Yesterday marked the end of the academic year for my A-level students, and although the passing of another year is usually a cause for celebration (of alcohol and what not) this one in particular seems more special than usual due to the efforts of both students and staff over the past few months during lock-down. I’m amazing that these students have remained engaged with the work set via Google Classroom and with continuing attendance of the Microsoft Teams lessons. It hasn’t been a smooth ride, which is why I was so happy to have the opportunity of a couple of “face-to-face” classes (in old speak: just a normal class) with the learners before wrapping up the year.

The topic that I covered with the Politics class was the context to the American Constitution. With history being my strong point I really do enjoy outlining the historical backdrop to political developments, and with the American constitution is more important than most other topics that come up in the specification. Hugh Brogan – the historian who wrote the Penguin history of the USA – stresses the need to understand the constitution, and that without doing so a person cannot really understand America. And so, my sessions focused on widening existing knowledge of America and the historical roads toward the revolutionary period.

All of this leads us to the Articles of Confederation. Just what were these, I hear you ask? Well, simply put, they were the first constitution of the United States of America. Such a notion – of an earlier constitution to what became “the” constitution – is something not widely known by the public. Although the Articles were a failure, their place in history is incredibly important in terms of understanding why the main constitution took the form that it did.

paris peace
1783  – Treaty of Paris

The revolutionary war against the British was a successful one, with the 1783 Treaty of Paris confirmed the sovereignty of the United States of America. During the war the thirteen colonies unified under the leadership of the Continental Congress and utilised the Articles of Confederation as the governing document to help them obtain success, both in terms of military victories as well as in cementing a working relationship. Many eyes were on this document; after all, the Americans were creating a democratic union unseen in the Old World. Founding Father, John Jay, noted as much, back in 1777:

The Americans are the first people whom Heaven has favoured with an opportunity of deliberating upon, and choosing, the forms of government under which they shall live.

All other constitutions have derived their existence from violence or accidental circumstances, and are therefore probably more distant from their perfection, which, though beyond our reach, may nevertheless be approached under the guidance of reason and existence.

Reason was the guiding principle, thereby befitting the age (of enlightenment) and of the beliefs of the founding fathers. This led to the creation of the Articles of Confederation which established key features; perhaps the most important one was how each state received one vote in the Congress. Such a point was simple enough but also incredibly important in terms of forging the union: it meant that small states, such as Delaware and Rhode Island, would not be bullied by the bigger states, such as Virginia.

Other key features of this new political system included:

  • Unicameral legislature (Continental Congress)
  • Limited “executive” powers
  • No president (or executive “in charge”) – the “presidents” of the Congress were merely chairpersons
  • State legislatures dealt with governance

Although there is a clear similarity between the notion of states holding equal rights (as seen in the Senate today), there is a clear difference regarding executive power. The Articles of Confederation wanted to avoid bestowing too much power in one person or place, hence the second article relating to states’ rights. As Martin Kelly notes:

Each state keeps ‘its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right . . . not . . . expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled.’ In other words, every state was as independent as possible with the United States was responsible for the common defence, security of liberties, and the general welfare.

However, despite such attempts to establish equality the Articles revealed many weaknesses. These included the weakness of the Congress to obtain funds that it needed, due to this power being held with each state: some states simply did not cough up the money required. Due to the lack of a strong executive there was no way for the Congress to actually enforce payment, something which also applied to enforcing other acts that were passed. Furthermore, the Congress often reached gridlock due to the difficulty in passing laws: legislation required a 9/13 majority to pass. What’s more, even though the Articles needed amending, this required unanimous support from all of the thirteen states; just one veto could scupper the whole process. Francis Fukuyama coined the term ‘vetocracy’ to highlight unbalanced political systems where decisions are delayed or abandoned; the Articles of Confederation are one given example of this.

Shays Rebellion
Shays’ Rebellion: 1787

These problems meant that the government was unable to effectively deal with the severe issues that faced the United States during the 1780s. Although the 1783 Peace of Paris was a great victory, it masked major problems that made the Articles of Confederation unworkable. These problems included the arguing and bickering of the states; the breaking of the rules of the Articles (with some states engaging in direct negotiations with foreign countries); economic instability (rising inflation); and the breaking down of law and order (with key examples being Georgia placed under martial law and Shays’ Rebellion in Boston during 1786-87). Congress could not act in order to restore calm, let alone bring about the greater prosperity that was promised during the revolutionary war.

George Washington – by then a military hero but not yet the two-term president of the 1790s – commented on these issues:

What a triumph for the advocates of despotism, to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty, are merely ideal and fallacious. Would to God that wise measures may be taken in time to avert the consequences.

In 1787 the individual states decided to act on these issues: a convention was established to propose a plan for a new government and constitution. Although concerns remained regarding the smaller states being muscled out by the larger states (as seen in the debates regarding which plan to adopt, such as the “Virginia Plan” or the “New Jersey Plan”) it is clear that the framers of the new constitution realised the need to establish a strong executive. The office of president was created in order to bring about strong decisive action when needed, which in turn led to the growth of a powerful federal government.

George Washington: concerned and dismayed

The debate between federal and states’ rights was initiated during this era, with comprises made to ensure that neither federal government nor an individual state could bring about the ruin of the union. This is one of the reasons for the creation of a bicameral legislature, with the House of Representatives dealing with popular sovereignty and the Senate dealing with representation of the states.

Of course, the debate between federalists and anti-federalists was not solved during this period, with this antagonism running throughout American history (the Civil War of the 1860s highlights this tension). However, the new constitution resolved the issues of the weak government of the 1780s, thereby leading to a stronger and more prosperous United States of America.

Where should the Articles of Confederation be placed, in terms of its historical significance and political importance. Yes, it failed as a constitution: if it remained in place the United States would have remained a fragmented and politically weak nation. However, it is perhaps better to view the Articles as a much needed constitution in the growth and development of the United States. After its glorious win against Britain the young nation needed new problems to overcome in order to grow in strength. And despite such difficulties, this new nation proved that it was able to find solutions. This feature – of finding solutions – was to become a key component of American history and politics in the succeeding two hundred years.