What were the limitations of the national government under the Articles of Confederation?

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The essential problem with the Articles of Confederation was that it was a very weak system of government. The Americans had just overthrown what they saw as the tyranny of centralized British rule and the last thing they wanted was to see it reestablished on American soil by way of...

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The essential problem with the Articles of Confederation was that it was a very weak system of government. The Americans had just overthrown what they saw as the tyranny of centralized British rule and the last thing they wanted was to see it reestablished on American soil by way of a strong Federal government. So they put in place a loose confederation in which ultimate sovereignty resided with the states, where power was as radically decentralized as possible.

The shortcomings of such a system soon became clear as the new nation began to take its first tentative steps on the international stage. Without a strong central government, the United States was unable to pay off the enormous debts it had accrued during the Revolutionary War. This greatly diminished America's credibility as an international trading partner.

To make matters worse, without a centralized government the United States was unable to develop a coherent foreign policy. Among other things, this meant that territorial disputes with other countries such as Spain could never be satisfactorily resolved as Congress needed to rely on the individual states to settle any outstanding matters.

Congress also needed to rely on the states for the maintenance of domestic law and order. All too often, however, states proved unwilling or unable to do this, with the result that serious disturbances often crossed state lines, undermining the stability of the country as a whole. It was one such disturbance, Shay's Rebellion, that provided the catalyst for the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which would draw up a new Constitution, one that would give much greater power to the Federal government in relation to both domestic and foreign policy.

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Under the Articles of Confederation, the national government of the United States was limited both because of its structure and because of the powers that were denied to it by the constitution.

First, the national government was limited because it had no executive branch.  The national government consisted only of Congress.  This meant that the national government could enact laws, but had no way of carrying them out.  This is a major structural limitation for a national government.

Second, the national government was not given many powers.  It was not given the power to tax.  It was not given the power to force states to contribute any money to the government at all.  The national government was not given the power to issue a national currency.  This meant that it could not prevent states from each having their own kind of money.  Finally, the national government could not prevent the states from imposing tariffs or other trade barriers against other states.  This meant that states could, in essence, treat one another like foreign countries when it came to trade and the national government could not do anything about it.

The national government was severely limited in these ways because the people were not really ready for a strong national government.  The people of the various colonies/states did not feel much of a connection to the country as a whole.  They felt that each of their colonies/states could and should be practically independent and sovereign.  Therefore, they created a very loose confederation in which the national government was very limited.

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