Whether the Constitution of the United States represented an improvement upon the earlier Articles of Confederation depended entirely upon one's perspective. As students of American history know, the debate over where to draw the line between centralized and distributed powers was of great significance in the shaping of the country....
Whether the Constitution of the United States represented an improvement upon the earlier Articles of Confederation depended entirely upon one's perspective. As students of American history know, the debate over where to draw the line between centralized and distributed powers was of great significance in the shaping of the country. Ultimately, the issue would be resolved following years of bloody warfare between the Northern and Southern states. The Civil War was fought by the North to prevent the secession of the South, the Confederacy, which wanted far greater powers given to the individual states. At its inception, the United States of America had been unable to definitively resolve the debate. The replacement of the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution represented a temporary resolution of the conflict between those wanting a strong centralized federation and those supporting a looser confederation of individual states.
Accepting that the Constitution of the United States was a vast improvement over the Articles of Confederation, which it inarguably was, then the reason that it represented an improvement was obvious in the tenuous nature of the country that would have existed under the Articles of Confederation. Again, under the Articles, political power would have devolved to the individual 13 states at the expense of the unifying influence of a Congress and Chief Executive. Alexander Hamilton wrote regarding the deficiencies of the Articles with respect to the ability of a central or federal government to function in support and defense of the whole:
But the confederation itself is defective and requires to be altered. It is neither fit for war nor peace. The idea of an uncontrollable sovereignty [autonomy] in each state over its internal police [militia] will defeat the other powers given to Congress and make our union feeble and precarious [endangered].
George Washington echoed the theme of the dangers of an anemic Congress should the Articles of Confederation remain the guiding document of the newly-emerging nation:
certain I am that unless adequate Powers are given to Congress for the general purposes of the Federal Union that we shall soon molder [decay] into dust and become contemptible in the Eyes of Europe, if we are not made the sport [joke] of their Politics. To suppose that the general concern of this Country can be directed by thirteen heads, or one head without competent powers, is a solecism [mistake], the bad effects of which every Man who has had the practical knowledge to judge from, that I have, is fully convinced of, tho’ none perhaps has felt them in so forcible and distressing a degree.
The authors of the Constitution understood that for the United States to survive as a political entity capable of governing and defending itself, the federal structure reflected in the Constitution had to become the law of the land. There had to be a certain consistency with regard to the fundamental principles that underlaid the American Revolution across the entirety of the nation and there had to be singular control over the instruments of war and international commerce. To expect that a loose confederation of 13 states would be capable of formulating and implementing national policy would have been foolhardy. The Constitution was a major improvement over the Articles of Confederation because the latter document would have enshrined as the law of the land a governing structure too feeble to survive the challenges that were certain to come.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the states were controlled loosely by a national legislature. This national legislature could not tax. There was no chief executive. The national government could only request taxation from the states--each state only wanted to pay its own debt. There was also no national currency.
The Constitution made federal law over state law. In Article I of the Constitution, Congress can regulate interstate commerce. It is also responsible for coinage and only Congress can regulate tariffs; in the early days of the national government, it was largely funded through land sales, excise taxes, and tariffs. Article II gave the national government a chief executive whose job it was to execute the laws. He had veto power over Congress, but Congress could override his veto or even vote to impeach him in extreme cases. To ensure that Congress would not go against the Constitution, the Founders even put in a Supreme Court to ensure that the laws were constitutional. All of this was done in order to have a functional national government which would act as a cohesive financial unit and pay down the national debts as well as safeguard the civil liberties of the people.
There were several weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. One weakness was that the government under the Articles of Confederation couldn’t levy taxes. In the Constitution, the government had the power to levy taxes. There also were financial problems with the Articles of Confederation. Both the state governments and the federal government were able to print money. Under the Constitution, only the federal government could print money.
There were other weaknesses that existed. Under the Articles of Confederation, the government couldn’t control trade. With the Constitution, the government could control interstate trade. With the Articles of Confederation, there was no President. Instead, a weak three-person committee ran the government. This was done because people were afraid one person might abuse his power like the King had done. With the Constitution, there was a person, called the President, who had power and ran the government. However, the President could be impeached if he broke the law or abused his power.