What are the differences between the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution?

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Created in 1777 and finally ratified on March 1, 1781, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was the first constitution of the fledgling country of the United States of America. However, its inherent weaknesses caused the writing of a new Constitution of the United States, which was created in...

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Created in 1777 and finally ratified on March 1, 1781, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was the first constitution of the fledgling country of the United States of America. However, its inherent weaknesses caused the writing of a new Constitution of the United States, which was created in 1787 and ratified on June 21, 1788.

The Articles of Confederation went through six drafts before it was finalized. The first draft was written by Benjamin Franklin, but this bore little similarity to the final approved version. The final three drafts were written by John Dickson and revised by Congressional committees. The writing of the final draft of the US Constitution is accredited to Gouvernour Morris, one of the members of the drafting committee.

One of the main differences between the Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution was in their depictions of the federal government. Under the Articles of Confederation, the nation was governed solely by Congress. There was no executive branch comprised of the president and his cabinet and no judicial branch comprised of the federal court system—and, therefore, no system of checks and balances of power. The Constitution alleviated this oversight by delineating the three branches of the federal government that exist today.

The Articles of Confederation were also mainly concerned with establishing the sovereignty and freedom of the individual states and so did not give enough authority to the federal government. For instance, there was no provision in the Articles that allowed the federal government to raise taxes. Only state governments could tax citizens, and so the national government relied on the state governments for funding, but the state governments were often negligent in performing this duty. Additionally, under the Articles, Congress could declare war but had no power to raise a national army. The states were responsible for their own defense, and they did not always honor requests for troops from the federal government. The writers of the US Constitution corrected these weaknesses and gave more power to the federal government.

Under the Articles, there was a unicameral system of governance in Congress. This means that Congress had only one branch. The Constitution allowed for two branches of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives. This also enabled fairer representation in government. Under the Articles, each state, regardless of population, had one vote, while under the Constitution, the number of delegates in the House of Representatives is determined by the population of the states, and each representative is given a vote.

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The main difference between the Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution lies in the style of government detailed in each document—the difference is between a centralized and a decentralized style of government. The Articles of Confederation were created to support a decentralized style of government, where government power was exercised largely through states rather than through federal government. Under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government was a weak form of government that had very little power over the sovereign states of the country. The federal government largely existed as a system in which state representatives met to make decisions.

In contrast, the US Constitution is a document that describes a union of states under a centralized federal government. This style of government allows for less sovereign power among states. The federal government can create and enforce laws and make decisions that affect all fifty states, such as levying federal taxes.

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The primary differences are the structure and type of the government created and the powers given to that government.

A confederation by its very nature consists of a loose organization of states joined by a weak central government. This is the government created by the Articles. It was intended that each state should remain sovereign, in fact, the Articles state:

Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.

The Articles further stated their purpose was that :

The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.

The Confederation had no power to tax, and had no chief executive. All work was done in the Congress where voting was conducted by states. A two thirds majority was required to pass legislation and unanimous consent of all states to amend. The Congress could raise money only by requesting it from the several states which could, and often did refuse to comply. There was no judicial branch, and Congress normally did its work by Committees of the States. It is no small wonder that the Articles were in force for a very small time; there was the need to create a "more perfect union."

The Constitution of the United States, by its very wording is a union of the people of the United States. The nature of the relationship of the states to the federal government has been challenged from time to time, most famously during the civil war, but there can be no question that the Federal government is supreme and sovereign within its sphere of control, and that the union if of the people of the U.S. as the preamble recites. Unlike the Confederation, the Constitution gives the U.S. government the power to tax among others denied under the Articles, and creates a chief executive responsible for enforcing the laws of the U.S. It further creates the Supreme Court, and gives Congress the power to create courts inferior to the Supreme Court. Notably, the Congress is bicameral, consisting of two houses, whereas the Confederation Congress consisted of only one house. There are a number of other differences which are more fully described in the last link noted below.

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