Home Articles of Confederation A Full Explanation of the Articles of Confederation

A Full Explanation of the Articles of Confederation

A Full Explanation of the Articles of Confederation

A Full Explanation of the Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation, adopted by the Continental Congress in 1777 and ratified by the states in 1781, served as the first constitution of the United States. This foundational document played a crucial role in shaping the early American government but also revealed significant limitations that ultimately led to its replacement by the U.S. Constitution in 1787. In this comprehensive explanation, we will delve into the key features, structure, strengths, and weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.

Background and Context

During the American Revolutionary War, the Thirteen Colonies sought independence from British rule. As they declared their independence in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Continental Congress recognized the need for a framework of governance to unite the newly formed states. This led to the drafting and eventual adoption of the Articles of Confederation.

Key Features of the Articles of Confederation

1. A Loose Confederation: The Articles established a loose confederation of independent states. Each state retained its sovereignty, which meant they operated as separate entities with their own governments.

2. Limited Central Authority: The central government created by the Articles was intentionally weak. It consisted of a unicameral legislature, the Continental Congress, which had limited powers, primarily related to foreign affairs and national defense. It lacked the authority to tax or regulate commerce effectively.

3. Equal Representation: In Congress, each state had one vote, regardless of its size or population. This equal representation aimed to prevent larger states from dominating smaller ones.

4. No Executive or Judiciary: The Articles did not establish an executive branch or a federal judiciary. There was no president or federal courts to enforce laws or settle disputes between states.

5. Amendment Process: Making amendments to the Articles required unanimous consent from all thirteen states, making it exceptionally challenging to make any changes.

Strengths of the Articles of Confederation

1. Revolutionary War and Treaty of Paris: The Articles were in effect during the Revolutionary War and played a role in securing military and financial support from France and other nations. They also provided the legal framework for the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which officially recognized American independence.

2. Land Ordinances: The Articles facilitated the passage of important ordinances, such as the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. These laws helped establish a system for the orderly division and sale of western lands and provided a framework for the admission of new states.

Weaknesses and Limitations

1. Lack of Central Authority: The central government had limited power and struggled to enforce its laws and decisions. It relied on voluntary contributions from states to fund its operations, often resulting in financial instability.

2. Inability to Tax: The inability to levy taxes at the federal level left the government unable to raise revenue to cover its expenses, leading to a mountain of war debt.

3. Economic Challenges: The lack of a national currency and the absence of a unified trade policy between states created economic problems and trade disputes.

4. Shays’ Rebellion: In 1786, Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts highlighted the government’s inability to maintain order and raised concerns about the effectiveness of the Articles.


The Articles of Confederation represented the first attempt to establish a unified government for the newly independent United States. While they provided important functions, such as securing foreign alliances and setting the stage for western expansion, their weaknesses, particularly regarding central authority and financial stability, ultimately led to their replacement by the U.S. Constitution. The lessons learned from the Articles of Confederation played a vital role in shaping the stronger federal government and more balanced system of governance established by the Constitution in 1787.


The Articles of Confederation was the first implemented national policy after the establishment of the United States of America as a result of their independence from England. The citizens of the new nation were so scarred as a result of their existence under the monarchy of King George II that the authors of the Articles of Confederation opted to remove all control that a governing body could potentially exercise over the individual 13 states.

Though the central Government could control the military, postal service, currency, and foreign policy, it was powerless to influence any of the actions of the sovereign 13 states. However, the dysfunctions of the Articles of Confederation made way for the ratification of the Constitution, which successfully fused the presence of a central government with an innate focus on the interest of its citizens

Inherent Weaknesses

Amongst the critics of the Articles of Confederation, few were more vocal than the Federalists; a political group headed by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, passionate about uniting the 13 states rather than granting them sovereignty. The Federalists warned that without the presence of a central government to create and enforce laws on a national level, unity could not exist.

As a result of the lack of power that the central Government had over the 13 states, it could only request payment from the respective states, as well as merely suggest that laws be followed. The Federalists illustrated a paradox that plagued the Articles of Confederation: Though the central Government could establish laws, they were unable to enforce them. As a result, each State was granted sovereignty. This proved to add a dangerous dynamic to the newly-formed nation – it was foregoing the autonomy that it had fought to regain.

Lacking Executive Power

The Articles of Confederation were penned in order to prevent a totalitarian government, yet its contents were regarded as both extremist and reactionary by the Federalists. One of the primary criticisms brought forth by the Federalists in regards to the Articles of Confederation was the presumption that its authors had simply exchanged one unsatisfactory situation for another. By disallowing the central Government to retain any control over any of the individual 13 states, who at the time considered themselves to be sovereign entities, it created a situation in which the existence of any nationalized policy was impossible.

Though the Articles of Confederation allowed the central government control over the military, postal service, and the creation of currency, the states could only be asked to make monetary donations in lieu of mandatory taxation. As a result, the central government found itself in financial disarray as a result of its necessity to create currency without stable financial backing. The Articles of Confederation required that the passing of a new law involve the approval of at least 9 of the 13 states, and the establishment of an amendment required the unanimous approval. This made legislation impossible.

Varying State Governmental Bodies

Without an ability to control, oversee, or regulate the actions of each individual State, the central Government could only look on as each of the 13 states both managed and maintained their respective policies. The Articles of Confederation forbid the central Government to exercise any control over the 13 states. As a result, each State was able to establish individual spending policies and trade regulations. In addition, each State was given the right to choose whether or not they wished to uphold certain laws.

The Articles of Confederation also allowed each State to establish individual trade regulations and tariffs, which allowed for excessive, and sometimes unfair, commercial dealings. The establishment of a nationalized foreign policy became impossible because each of the 13 states maintained 13 different foreign policies which affected not only diplomacy but foreign relations as well. The instability of the United States of America’s foreign policy coupled with a collapsing military service proved to be one of the many flaws in the Articles of Confederation, which were vocalized by the Federalists.