What were the Articles of Confederation and why did they fail?

The Articles of Confederation were the first attempt at a Constitution between the 13 colonies that had broken away from Great Britain.


The Articles of Confederation were agreed by the Continental Congress and ratified by the states.

The Articles of Confederation began to be drafted at the same time as the Declaration of Independence.  The Thirteen Colonies (now called States) were already beginning to consider their joint future in anticipation of winning the American Revolutionary War. The Articles of Confederation were approved by the States in July 1777, one year after the Declaration of Independence.

The Government was a deliberately loose confederation between the thirteen states. Each state would retain its own sovereignty. Some of the particular elements of the Confederation were:

  • Citizens were allowed to move freely between each of the thirteen states.
  • A Congress of Confederation would be established in which each State had one vote and would send a delegation of between two and seven members.
  • The Congress of Confederation would be the final court for any disputes between the States.
  • A President of Congress may be appointed.
  • The Central Government would have responsibility for Foreign Policy and the Congress of Confederation was the only institution that could declare war. The individual states would not be able to have their unilateral relations with other countries.
  • National expenditure would be paid with funds given to the national government by the States.


Provision was made for Canada to join the United States, however, it remained part of the British Empire until 1867.

Interestingly, in addition to these main clauses, provision was made for Canada to join the confederation if it wanted to.

The framers of the Articles of Confederation were trying to strike a careful balance between the autonomy of individual states and creating a Ccnfederation that could sustain the United States given the external threats that it faced.

However, the Articles of Confederation only lasted seven years. There were a number of reasons for this:

  •  The national government had no power to raise taxes. This was deliberate, as a key reason for the American Revolution were disputes over taxation. To pay for its operation the government had to request money from the states, however, often the states did not want to pay.
  •  Without a secure tax-base the national government was unable to borrow money from abroad. This was because foreign governments believed there was a chance it might not be repaid.
  •  Without a secure tax-base the currency of the confederation (‘the continental’) was largely worthless. The individual states retained their own currencies and national currency never became established.
  •  The central government could not impose tariffs on goods. This meant that it was often cheaper for the states to import goods from abroad than to trade with other states.
  • Major decisions, like passing legislation, needed the agreement of nine of the thirteen states. This was a very hard hurdle to overcome, particularly when the states were so diverse and had their own interests to  protect.
  •  Amending the Articles of Confederation needed the unanimous agreement of the States. This was an almost impossible thing to achieve.


    Shay’s Rebellion was a trigger for a constitutional convention.

The problems faced under the articles came to a head in 1786 when a rebellion known as ‘Shay’s Rebellion’ was launched in Massachusetts. This event was a trigger for the constitutional convention which was convened to amend the Articles of Confederation, but instead framed the US Constitution instead.

The Articles of Confederation were undoubtedly a failure. However, they played an important role in the birth of the United States of America. The Framers of the US Constitution learned some key lessons from the Articles of Confederation:

  1. The US Constitution achieved a better balance of power between the Federal Government and the States. Sovereignty was shared between the States and National Government meaning that they provided a check on each other.
  2. The US Constitution, through the Supreme Court, provided for an independent way to solve government disputes and particularly those between the States and the Federal Government.
  3. The US Constitution created an executive to enforce the Constitution. This has not existed under the Articles of Confederation which had relied on the goodwill of the States.
  4. The system of Checks and Balances made people feel there was real control over the different parts of Government.

In essence, without the Articles of Confederation, the US Constitution would not exist as it does today.

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