The Articles of Confederation

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Why did the Articles of Confederation fail?

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The Articles of Confederation failed because they did not grant the federal government enough power to govern the nation effectively. They did not allow the federal government to draft troops, levy taxes to repay the country's debts, or regulate commerce. The Articles also did not establish federal courts. They were abandoned after Shays' Rebellion.

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The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, often shortened in common usage to the Articles of Confederation, was the first constitution of the fledgling United States of America. It was approved by Congress on November 15, 1777, and after ratification by all thirteen states, it finally came into force on March 1, 1781. It established a government and promoted free travel and trade. However, its inherent weaknesses made it necessary to draft and adopt a new and stronger US Constitution, which replaced the Articles of Confederation in early 1789.

There are several reasons why the Articles of Confederation failed. One of the main difficulties under the Articles of Confederation was the inability of the federal government to levy taxes. The United States had incurred substantial debt during the Revolutionary War, but without a system of federal taxation, the country was unable to pay back its creditors. The federal government had to request money from the states, and there was no system of enforcement to compel the states to honor their financial obligations to the government. To make up for the shortfall, Congress printed more money, causing the value of the currency to depreciate. Additionally, Congress did not have the authority to regulate commerce, which caused chaos as each state implemented individual trade policies.

The Articles allowed Congress to maintain a Continental Army in times of need, but it did not provide Congress with the authority to compel the states to supply troops, funds, and supplies. The states each maintained individual armies and navies, but this system made it difficult to unify in the face of a national threat.

The other major failure in the Articles of Confederation was the document's limited vision of what form the federal government would take. Under the Articles, Congress was the only federal institution, so there was no balance of power. The newer, stronger US Constitution provided for three branches of government: the executive branch (the president), the legislative branch (Congress), and the judicial branch (the Supreme Court and other federal courts). These three branches formed a system of checks and balances so that no single branch of government would become too powerful.

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There were several reasons why the government created by the Articles of Confederation failed. This plan of government was designed to create a weak federal government. This caused many problems.

There were financial problems. Because the federal government did not have the power to tax, it had trouble raising money. As a result, the US had difficulty repaying its debts. When too much paper money was printed, inflation occurred.

The US also had difficulty dealing with the aggressive actions of other countries toward it. Great Britain would not leave the western lands. Additionally, countries such as Spain and Great Britain interfered with trade. Since the government could not force people to join the military, the military was very small. With little money available for supplies, the military was poorly equipped. As a result, the US was in no position to fight against these countries that were causing problems for it.

The government created by the Articles of Confederation had other issues. Because there were no federal courts, the states had no place where they could resolve disputes. Additionally, it took nine of the thirteen states to pass a law and thirteen of the thirteen states to change the Articles of Confederation. Finally, Shays’ Rebellion showed that, at times, the federal government had trouble keeping order.

Eventually, a decision was made to attempt to write a new plan of government. The Constitution was eventually created and adopted.

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The Articles of Confederation failed because they did not give Congress and the national government enough power. The new United States had just fought a war to end what they considered tyrannical rule by a strong government that overpowered local government, and the leaders of the US feared a powerful central government. Because of this, they did not give the central government the power it needed to rule effectively. The Articles did not give Congress the power to tax, so the government ended up printing money, which caused inflation. The Articles did not give Congress the power to draft troops, so the US military was small, leaving the US weak. Congress did not have the power to control interstate commerce or stop states from printing their own money, causing economic chaos within the US. The Articles did not give Congress the power to place tariffs on foreign goods, hurting American businesses that could not compete with cheaper British goods. The US government had no chief executive, so there was no one to enforce the laws that were passed. The list can go on. With the rebellion led by Daniel Shays in Massachusetts, the leaders of the US realized the Articles were not working, which led to the Constitutional Convention, where the Articles were abandoned and the new US Constitution was written, which addressed many of the problems found with the Articles.

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They failed because they did not manage to convince the elites of society that their interests would be protected by the sorts of governments that sprang up under the Articles.

During the time that the US was under the Articles, there were various kinds of economic problems. The state governments' responses to the problems (spurred by the demands of the common people who were being hurt most by the problems) hurt the interests of the elites. They also convinced the elites that the nation would not be able to prosper economically under the sorts of governments that would take those steps.

So, the Articles failed because the elites who took the most interest in government felt that the governments were acting in ways that were bad for a) the interests of the elites and b) the long-term interests of the country as a whole.

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Why were the Articles of Confederation a failure as our first constitution?

First, we have to realize that it is not objectively true to say that the Articles of Confederation were a failure.  This is more of an opinion than a fact.  After all, the Articles were in force as the US won the Revolutionary War and kept the country together for another eight years after that.  This at least makes it possible to say they were a success.

If we do say the Articles were a failure, it was because they did not give the federal government enough power.  The Articles were written at a time when the Americans were trying to break away from England, which had a strong central government.  Therefore, the Articles created a very weak central government in response.  The government was not able to tax the people.  It was not able to require the states to do anything.  It was not even able to regulate trade between the states.  It did not have a president and it did not have a judicial branch.

Because of these things, the US had some problems.  One of the problems was that states came into conflict with one another.  They had trade wars with one another, harming the overall economy.  The inability to tax made it impossible for the US to create any sort of a strong military.  These sorts of problems led some in the United States to feel that the Articles had failed and to call for a new constitution.

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How did elements of the Articles of Confederation lead to failures in the United States first government?

The greatest failure of the Articles of Confederation was that it played on the fear and distrust of government that came as a result of the tyrannical abuses of King George III and the British Parliament during the revolutionary era.  The Americans obviously needed a government, but were very concerned about losing the freedom they had just won to a corrupt national government.  

The first failure was the lack of a true leader.  The American fear of tyranny led them to appoint an executive committee instead of having a singular executive.  The national government was granted the power to pass laws, but it did not have the ability to enforce those same laws.  In effect, there were national suggestions, not laws.  Along the same lines, the national government could request funds from the states but it did not have the power to levy taxes.  The new nation's fear of abuse led them to create a government that would soon be a rudderless and broke, resulting in a weak nation incapable of sustaining itself without significant political change.

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