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The Articles of Confederation: A Truly Small Government

Scott is a graduate student and historian who is interested in politics, social movements, education, and religion.


Our First Government

The creation of the Articles of Confederation, ratified on March 1, 1781, was the first attempt by the colonists to create a union of the several states. The Articles of Confederation created a central government which was incredibly small both in size and scope of power, with only thirteen articles composing the document. The framers were educated men who were living in a time of great philosophical debate. The principles and ideals that they championed were rooted in localized democracy, which translated into a document which affirmed the sovereign power of the states, and granted the federal government minimal powers. Most Americans rarely, if ever, think positively of the Articles of Confederation, because they consider the federal government it created to be too meager to handle the business of national governance. This belief is rooted partly in the knowledge that the Articles of Confederation failed, and partly in the fact that contemporary Americans expect more from their government and a greater place in world affairs then did their predecessors. At the time of its adoption however, the Articles of Confederation well represented the ideals of revolutionary America. The union it created was not really a union at all, but rather a “firm league of friendship” between the states. The document in fact spends far more time dealing with what powers the federal government would not have, then what it would have.

The First Article simply states that the confederacy shall be named the “United States of America.” Amazingly, the Second goes on to forbid the federal government from exercising any power not expressly delegated to it. It is interesting to note that the Second Article, and the first of real substance, is a check on government power. That this clause was placed at the start of the document, to be read before any of the powers that the government would have, is telling of the framer’s intention. The use of the word “expressly” is also significant. The framers of the Articles of Confederation were determined to create a government that would not expand, nor gain power as it saw fit. The everyday work of governance was left to the governing bodies of each individual state. This comes in stark contrast to the Constitution.

The First Article of the Constitution grants Congress the power to make all laws which are “necessary and proper” to the execution of governance. The Tenth Amendment also notoriously leaves out the word “expressly” when checking the power of the government to expand into new policy areas. The absence of this word has led to great debate over the limits of federal power. The framers of the Articles of Confederation left no such room for debate in their prohibition of the expansion of centralized power. This is not to say that the Articles of Confederation left no room for growth at all, but rather that the mechanism for expanding government power was fundamentally more difficult to trigger. The constitutional system for expanding government is much easier. The Constitution encourages the government to grow in order to maintain necessary and proper relevance in the changing world. The Articles of Confederation require every state to agree on the expansion of the government, making it very difficult.

The first three articles essentially create a loose union of the states founded on mutual friendship and necessity. The states were left almost completely independent in their own operation. The federal government’s sphere of responsibility was relegated to promoting the general welfare of the several states, while maintaining a viable defense for the nation against external threats. It is again interesting to note that this role is assigned to the central government before, the design of the federal government is even revealed. It is not until Articles Four, Five, and Six that any structure is presented as to how the states are to maintain relative unity, and as to what the government will look like.

Article Four begins to describe what a “firm league of friendship” is. Essentially, it binds the states to respect the laws of their neighbors and provide what might be considered basic diplomatic relations. For instance, citizens of a state would not be denied the “privileges and immunities” of citizens of other states when they travelled. Interstate fugitive extradition, and interstate property rights were are also to be enforced in respect to individual state sovereignty. This is interesting as the term “property” applied to slaves. Hence, Article Four grants free citizens the economic and legal freedom to own slaves anywhere in the nation. One may read this as an early example of colonial leaders choosing to support the slave system in exchange for national unity.

Articles Five, and Six flesh out what the government looked like, and places checks on the powers the states did not have. The federal government was to consist of a Congress of the states, with each state being granted one vote. This single body was to do the work of all three of the modern branches of government. While this may seem daunting, the legislature was considered the most democratic entity possible. By having this single body do all the work of government, without a President or a judicial system, it was hoped democratic principles would remain strong. The Congress of the United States was bound to meet annually though they were free to adjourn at their choosing.

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The decision to grant each state one vote is critical to what the framers of the articles were trying to do. They were not looking to create a national government which was responsive to the major population centers, or one which was to reflect the needs of the largest number of Americans. Rather, they were looking to allow the states to do that for themselves, with a federal congress to equally weigh the needs of all the collective states, regardless of their individual influence or power. The weakness of this government is intentional. While the Constitution allows states to retain “police powers” legislating in the health, welfare, morals, and general safety of its citizens, the Articles of Confederation intended the states to be far more influential in the daily lives of citizens than the federal government.

The states were not to be completely free and independent of each other’s interests. The articles do recognize the need for consistency in external politics. Thus no state was allowed to conduct its own foreign policy out of line with the interests of the U.S.A. Interestingly, the states were also required to maintain military forces for their own individual defense, yet in times of peace the exact number of those forces was to be the subject of Congress. The states then did not have autonomy in times of peace to build a military that could possibly be aggressive. There are many ways to interpret this.

Considering the vast power individual states retained, the decision to allow their respective military strength to be decided by the consent of all, is unusual. It is possible that this was written to protect small states which might have harbored fears about the sincerity of the friendship offered to them by larger states. It may also have been a cautionary measure designed to simply keep the nation from creating a strong standing army, a condition which often leads to war and the expansion of federal power. States were also barred from fighting any war which was not defensive in nature or acceptable to the union. Article Seven does however grant state autonomy in commanding state militias, even in times of war.

The cost of wars fought by the union were to be paid by every state in accordance with the land value of the respective state, a clause which further made war less attractive to larger states. The catch to this was that the federal government had no real mechanism for accumulating these funds, but rather had to rest on the word of the states to have the money by the time agreed upon. The money was to be raised in the manner in which the individual state chose. Without a federal tax, the states were free to choose how they wanted to raise the money, which was good for them individually, but made the nation very weak.

The bulk of the powers enumerated to the federal government do not actually appear until Article Nine, which is the largest of any other article, yet incredibly small for its purpose. Article Nine starts by re-affirming the war powers of the federal government over the several states. It continues through the rules by which the federal government may make treaties with foreign nations, ensuring that national treaties may not distinctly interfere with state’s rights. Interestingly, Article Nine denies the federal Congress the right of eminent domain over the states, citing that “no state may be deprived of territory for the benefit of the U.S.A.” Inter-state disputes were obviously to be decided by Congress. Without such a condition, it would be impossible to maintain theUnion.

During times of congressional recess, the federal government would be run by a “Committee of the States.” Whereas states were free to send more than two representatives to Congress, the committee would consist of only one representative from each state. There was a president appointed who was chiefly responsible for leading what may be considered an early bureaucracy. The purpose of the committee was essentially to perform the everyday tasks of government, such as collecting revenue, and raising and maintaining a national defensive force. In order to perform its duties however, the Congress required nine votes from the states. This is more than a mere majority, and reflects the belief that anything the federal government did should be urgent and important enough to garner a super-majority vote. It also made it nearly impossible to get things done efficiently or timely. Because the government consisted of a single legislature, in times of recess, any nine states could enact the powers of Congress if they agreed.

The final three articles of the document are very short, and to the point. Article Eleven allowed Canada to enter the union if they agreed to the governing scheme. Article Twelve bound the new government to pay the debt of the several states accumulated through the Revolution. While this was controversial and difficult for the large states to stomach, it is again a very primitive step towards national identity. Article Thirteen is the most important of the final propositions. Article Thirteen bound the states to adhere to democratic rule. The decisions made by Congress had to be adhered to, and the union was to be perpetual. There was no autonomy of any state to ignore Congress, nor walk out on democracy. In order to amend the Articles of Confederation, Congress had to agree, and then the State Legislatures had to agree, unanimously. This meant growth in federal power was possible, but not probable.

In the modern sense of the word, the Articles of Confederation seems to only create a “nation” in times of war. Revolutionary Americans were American mostly in their unity against Britain. At heart however, most considered themselves to be citizens of their particular state. This translated into America’s first government, which sought to maintain state power in nearly all matters outside of defense and world affairs. Early Americans feared the centralization of power, the ability of a government to tax and create large armies, to rule all without regard to state identity. The Articles of Confederation well represented those concerns.

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