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The Articles of Confederation: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:02 The Beginning
  • 1:16 The Articles of Confederation
  • 4:37 The Problems
  • 6:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

In this lesson, we will discuss the background leading to the Articles of Confederation. We will then summarize the different articles contained in the document and analyze their importance.

The Beginning

In 1776, the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Great Britain and became a new country, the United States of America. This declaration of independence was a long road with too much taxation, too many internal conflicts and battles, being declared a state of rebellion, and the invasion of the British Army. By the time that the United States was formed, the last thing the new country wanted was big government. There was a new fear of the government having too much power, and each state wanted to be responsible for itself. However, the country was at war, and something had to be done to be sure that there were a set of rules that the country followed, especially with foreign relationships.

With this in mind, the country drafted its first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. In June of 1776, the Continental Congress voted to form a committee to write a constitution for the new country. The Articles of Confederation established the United States as a confederation of sovereign states. However, the Articles of Confederation were far from perfect and actually established a weak central government.

Let's now look at the Articles of Confederation and the problems with the acts proposed.

The Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation contained thirteen different articles, all of which were very straightforward.

Article I established the name of the new country, stating, The title of this confederacy shall be the United States of America.

Article II reassured the new states that they would maintain their power, except for the powers given to the central government. It states, Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated. Remember that the new country was very worried about a large, powerful federal government. This act promised the states and country that the national government would not be bigger than the individual states.

Article III defines exactly what the new country would be. It would not be a nation, but rather individual states that enter into a ...firm league of friendship with each other. The states would work together for protection of liberties, defense, and would assist each other ...against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them.

At this point, you are probably thinking that the Articles of Confederation established isolation. The writers just wrote two articles promising state powers and just a friendship status. However, in Article IV, they do emphasize the idea that the United States is a country. The article promises that people could move freely between the states. All people were allowed to travel, no matter their social status. This article also promised that if a criminal fled from one state to another, the new state would return the guilty person.

Article V gives one vote in the Congress of the Confederation to each state.

In Article VI, the focus of these Articles changes to what the federal government will be responsible for. This article states that only central government can ...conduct foreign political or commercial relations. In addition, only the central government can declare war. The states were not allowed to accept foreign gifts, declare any nobility, or form sub-nationality groups. Although no state could engage in war by itself, they were required to keep a well-regulated militia. This would include trained individuals and equipment.

Article VII gives the power to name the officers in the army to state legislatures.

Article VIII discusses how expenses would be paid by the United States. Funds would be collected by state legislations and the federal government would give to the states as needed.

Article IX establishes the role of Congress. Congress would be responsible for federal relationships, including determining war, entering into treaties, making money, and serving as court between states.

Article X, though, resumes the idea of making sure the states know that their power will not be taken from them. In this article, the writers give the power of Congress back to the states if Congress is not in session.

The last three Articles do not focus on federal or state power, but rather some last rules of the new country. First, if the Province of Quebec wanted to join the new country, it could. Second, the war debt that was incurred before the writing of the Articles would be considered the country's war debt. Finally, the Articles of Confederation were final and would only be changed by Congress.

The Problems

The Articles of Confederation only lasted eight years. Why? Why did these articles not last? There are a number of reasons that the Articles of Confederation failed.

First, there was a lack of central leadership. In fact, the Articles worked against national government. The Articles were written to guarantee state powers. Each state was looked at as independently as possible. Because of this, the national government was rather weak. Its only responsibility was to monitor common defense, securing liberties, and general welfare. There was not a court system that was put in place. As a result, states often overturned national acts. Although the Articles granted Congress the right to declare war or peace, there was no power to establish an army. The United States was dependent on state armies, which was very confusing and left them open to threats. Finally, there was no one in charge of foreign relationships. In fact, there was no president. Because of this, America lacked any real diplomacy.

Second, there were economic concerns. The government had no power to regulate trade. Each state entered their own trade agreements, which led to confusion. Next there was no consistent currency. Each state began to print its own money, so there was no economic stability. This made it even more difficult to trade between states and other countries because there was not a uniform currency. Finally, the national government had no power of taxation. Not only did states often argue among themselves but they often refused to financially support the national government and little could be done to make this happen. When the states did not help support the new country, America had to rely on loans from other countries, putting the new country into debt.

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