The Articles of Confederation

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Why were the Articles of Confederation a failure, and how did the Constitutional Convention address the problems under the Articles?

The Articles of Confederation were a failure because they did not grant enough power to the federal government, and the Constitutional Convention addressed the problems under the Articles in ways such as establishing executive and judiciary branches and giving Congress the power to tax and draft troops.

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The Articles of Confederation were the basis for America's first national government during the Revolutionary War (1775–1783). Its powers were limited to conducting diplomacy, printing money, managing disagreements between states, and fighting the war against England. After England's defeat in 1783, it quickly became obvious that the Articles would not suffice.

The national government under the Articles had too many weaknesses. First, there was no executive. Second, there was no judiciary. There was only a unicameral legislature. All the states had a single vote in the legislature, and nine of the thirteen states had to agree for a measure to pass. Finally, the government lacked the power to regulate the nation's finances.

There was also a rebellion in Massachusetts. Daniel Shays led a revolt by indebted farmers. This event and the structural weaknesses of the country's national government led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787; the Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia in 1787. They decided to scrap the Articles of Confederation and replace it with a new document: the Constitution.

America's new government would have a chief executive: the President of the United States. The Founding Fathers knew that the first one would be George Washington. They also established the Electoral College, which mediated the process of popular vote to select presidents.

The Supreme Court was created to act as America's to judicial body. It would be equal to the executive and legislative branches. The Court's members would be chosen by the President and approved by the Senate.

The legislature would be bicameral. Each state has equal representation in the Senate, but in the House of Representatives each state had representation in proportion to its population. It was also established that congress would manage the country's finances.

The Constitution fixed many of the problems that had plagued America's first government. Although it remains in effect today, parts of it are outdated, and the country's government often does not work very well.

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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 just fought a war to end what they considered tyrannical rule of a strong government that overpowered local government and the leaders of the U.S. feared a powerful central government.  Because of this, they did not give the central government the power it needed to rule effectively.  It did not give Congress the power to tax, so the government ended up printing money which caused inflation. It did not give Congress the power to draft troops, so the U.S. military was small leaving the U.S. weak.  Congress did not have the power to control interstate commerce or stop states from printing their own money, causing economic chaos within the U.S. 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 U.S. 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...

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led by Daniel Shays in Massachusetts, the leaders of the U.S. realized the Articles were not working which led to the Constitutional Convention where the Articles were abandoned and the new U.S. Constitution was written.

The Constitution addressed many of the problems created by the Articles by creating a federal system of government with a much more powerful national government. It gave the national government the power to tax, draft troops, control interstate commerce, etc.   It also created an executive branch and a federal court system, both of which were lacking under the Articles of Confederation.  The greatest argument against the new Constitution was that it gave the national government too much power.  This argument was addressed by the framers by creating a system of checks and balances, creating a system with three branches, each with its own separate powers (separation of powers), and creating a federal system where powers were divided between the federal government and state governments, with some powers delegated to the federal government, some reserved to the states and some shared by both.

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The politicians responsible for framing the Constitution argued that the Articles of Confederation failed, essentially, because of the lack of a strong central government. The unicameral legislature under the Articles had no power to tax, no ability to regulate interstate commerce, and structurally was set up so as to be difficult to amend. The Constitution addressed these deficiencies by establishing a system of federalism in which the federal government was supreme. They gave Congress the power to tax and to regulate interstate commerce. They also created a strong executive, which the government under the Articles lacked. While many, described by their opponents as "anti-Federalists," thought the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had overcorrected, giving too much power to the central government, I'd argue that the Constitution is perhaps best understood historically by thinking of the problems under the Articles that it was designed to address.

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