February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
Constitution, Take One
On March 1 the Articles of Confederation, the United States’s first attempt at establishing a national government, took effect upon their adoption by Maryland, the last of the 13 states to ratify. The Articles had been nearly five years in the making, and the drawn-out ratification process exemplified the problems that would plague the ill-fated document. The first draft was completed on July 12, 1776, but not until November 15, 1777, did Congress, admittedly distracted by other matters, approve a final version. It took more than three additional years for the states to ratify it.
As would happen a decade later at the Constitutional Convention, Northern and Southern states had divided over whether slaves should count as citizens for the purpose of determining each state’s tax bill. The final document used “the value of all land within each State” as the basis of assessment. Conflicting claims on Western lands were another source of dissension. Under the final language, they would be resolved by Congress, which was the entire federal government (the Articles established no courts and no executive), under a complicated adjudication procedure.
One problem with the Articles was that they granted too much power to, and conferred too much responsibility upon, the individual states. This was probably unavoidable for a disparate group that was already rebelling against a powerful central government. But what doomed the Articles to an early demise was their lack of enforcement power. Congress could not raise money or enlist troops on its own but instead had to requisition them from the states. That was a recipe for trouble.
The system would have worked if the states had lived up to their responsibilities, but too often, in war and peace alike, they found reasons not to. Once a few states had shirked their duties and gotten away with it, the others also felt free to ignore Congress’s requests. Even after the Constitution replaced the Articles, episodes like the Whiskey Rebellion would show the paramount need for taxing power and a central military force if the federal government was to survive.
Yet the Articles of Confederation were much more than a bad idea. During their brief time in force, Congress won a war, established peace, and passed the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, under which much of the continent was settled. Despite their flaws, the Articles showed that a union of 13 fractious states was possible even without the impelling emergency of war—even as their deficiencies revealed the powers that would be necessary in a lasting constitution.