When discussing the U.S. constitutions, people usually talk about the one which came into effect in 1789 and ignores the fact that it was significantly influenced by the Articles of Confederation, which nevertheless were rejected. Both of the documents have certain similarities, especially their stress on republicanism, which implied that America would be governed by the citizens (Shi 248). Yet, despite its considerable strengths, the Confederation of states stipulated in the Articles of Confederation soon was replaced by the constitutional form of government. There are many reasons why this change occurred, yet, the most important ones are the federal government’s single-body system and its inability to raise revenue, enforce laws, and effectively protect the country from foreign attacks.
Essentially, all of the key issues of the Confederation stemmed from the weak federal government, which did not possess any significant authority and could not exercise control over individual states. The single-body system was one of the factors responsible for the government’s lack of authority. Specifically, the country had a government that consisted only of the Confederation Congress, which entailed the absence of the court system which would be independent (Abernathy 116).
The single-body system also was not subject to any agency which would control the government and determine whether its decisions complied with the Articles of Confederation. This was later resolved by the establishment of the Supreme Court, which was introduced with the new constitution. A considerable degree of independence granted to the states under the Articles of Confederation also led to a situation when the government could not enforce its laws. Technically, every state was obliged by the document to follow the laws passed by the government, yet quite often, they refused to do it, and no mechanism existed to force them. Therefore, many states simply ignored many of the government acts.
Another issue produced by the government’s weakness and generally limited authority was its inability to raise revenues and pay for its expenses. According to the Articles of Confederation, the budget of the government had to be replenished by the voluntary contributions of states which, once again, could not be enforced. This resulted in occasions when the Confederation did not receive enough funding; for example, in 1782, it asked for $8 million and received less than five hundred thousand dollars (Shi 281). The government experienced annual budget deficits for several years and had to print more money called Continentals, the value of which over time became extremely low.
The accumulated debt of the Confederation, which significantly grew over the years of war, had to be addressed by implementing new policies in the sphere of taxation. According to the new constitution, the federal government now had the authority to lay and collect taxes which had to be spent on paying the debts and ensuring the security of the country (Abernathy 866). Compared to the Articles of Confederation, the constitution made it possible for Congress to avoid the need to ask individual states for their contributions. Moreover, the government did not require the states’ participation in the collection of taxes at all. Instead, Congress itself could impose monetary payments on the citizens. Nevertheless, all states retained their right to set local taxes and collect them, including income tax, property, and sales taxes.
Finally, the government, which was established based on the Articles of Confederation, could not maintain its army and had to ask states to supply their militias. During the war, some states could not provide their troops and thus contribute to the nation’s effort since they also needed them (Abernathy 116). Moreover, soldiers often starved and did not receive any payments since the government lacked resources.
As a response to the imperfections of the Articles of Confederation, a clause was added to the new constitution, which stipulated the rules governing the nation’s army. According to the document, Congress was the only government body that possessed the capacity to declare war and raise armed forces, as well as collect taxes to pay for it. The decision to provide Congress with the right to employ an army was largely influenced by the American Revolution events. Even though France was a major ally of the U.S. during the Revolutionary war, there was a risk of possible tensions between the two countries. In 1894, the U.S. and Britain signed Jay’s Treaty, which angered the French authorities (Shi 284). Such events might provoke a war between former allies, and therefore, the U.S. required a functioning army.
The transition from Confederation to a constitutional form of government as a result of shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation, namely, the single-body system and the federal government’s weakness. The single-body government did not have the power to enforce its laws and was not overseen by any agency which could judge the validity of its decisions. The government also could not raise enough funds to cover all of the Confederation’s expenses since the states were not willing to contribute their fair share. Similarly, the government was not able to maintain a single army which jeopardized national security. Thus, a decision was made to adopt a constitution and reject Confederation while keeping federalism.
Abernathy, Scott F. American Government: Stories of a Nation, Brief Edition. 1st ed., CQ Press, 2018.
Shi, David E. America: A Narrative History. Vol 1. 11th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.