The Articles of Confederation was the first constitution that was approved in the United States. The Continental Congress adopted the articles on November 15, 1777, but complete ratification of the constitution did not occur until March of 1791. This allowed the colonial states to band together officially during a time of war, creating a centralized government that would be able to work with the 13 states.
The primary advantage that the Articles of Confederation provided was its ability to maintain the independence and sovereignty of each state within the union. At the same time, the states could use the articles to band together, send ambassadors to other nations overseas, and handle territory issues.
As the young United States began to grow, the primary disadvantages of the Articles of Confederation began to be seen. The centralized government was made purposefully weak to limit its powers. Delegates of the government discovered these limitations made it difficult to handle economic problems, trade disputes, and other state-based issues because every state had so much independence.
Here are some more of the pros and cons of the Articles of Confederation to think about and discuss.
What Were the Pros of the Articles of Confederation?
1. It offered the first chance to experience unity.
Although the various colonies had come together in a mutual fight against the British for independence, the US was hardly a united nation. There were many loyalists that had been part of the colony population during the Revolutionary War as well. The Articles of Confederation became the first major attempt to bring everyone together under an umbrella of unity, no matter what their individual perspectives happened to be.
2. It gave the colonies a chance to go global.
Many of the world’s governments may have supported the cause of the colonies leading up to the Revolutionary war, but they couldn’t officially support them. Without a centralized government, there was no way to communicate globally at the highest levels. The Articles of Confederation let the rest of the world know that the colonies were ready to be taken seriously.
3. It allows for colonists to still experience free movement.
There was no need to carry papers or apply for a visa when traveling throughout the United States thanks to the Articles of Confederation. This constitution helped to establish borders and honor each state’s sovereignty at that level, but also declared that the colonists were Americans, free to go to whichever colony or state whenever they wished.
4. It encouraged trade.
With the Articles of Confederation created a confederacy of states, trade and other financial opportunities were encouraged internally. Instead of looking internationally for needed goods or services, this constitution encouraged the various states to work with one another so that everyone could benefit from the transaction. This fostered even more unity, eventually leading the US to develop a personality at the national level.
5. It required complete agreement to make changes to it.
Maryland was the last state to ratify the Articles of Confederation, nearly 2 years later than any other state. To make any changes to the articles, all 13 states would be required to ratify the change. That made it difficult to change the constitution, which was attempted twice, providing a level of governing consistency that everyone could rely upon.
What Were the Cons of the Articles of Confederation?
1. It took a long time for it to be fully implemented.
There were numerous weaknesses with the Articles of Confederation because there was such an emphasis on being “different” than Britain. For starters, there wasn’t really an executive branch under that constitution in an effort to avoid having a king. The national government had no ability to impose laws on states. Leadership from Congress had little influence. As time went by, it was clear that this first constitution wouldn’t be able to fully unify the colonies as everyone wanted.
2. It had no authority to regulate commerce.
This authority was delegated to the states. Even though the articles gave the US the power to negotiate international treaties and perform other tasks, there was no centralized authority for commerce. That meant an international government could negotiate a treaty with the US, but any trade opportunities had to be independently negotiated with each state. That difficulty limited many of the available trade opportunities at the time.
3. It had not authority to levy taxes.
A government requires funds to operate. The Articles of Confederation provided no authority to levy taxes on the population, a holdover likely from the taxation without representation protests that had occurred in the months and years prior to the writing of the constitution. They could coin money and maintain an armed force, but relied on the states to provide the financial means to do so. These issues would eventually spell the end of the Articles of Confederation as a governing document.
4. It provided too much independence.
Because of the lack of commerce regulation built into the Articles of Confederation, each state acted as its own small “nation” and treated other states like they were an alliance instead of a fellow patriot. At one point in the 1780s, each state was even issuing its own currency. This led to high levels of inflation, which reduced the economic powers of each state. It became clear that the only solution would be to centralize these needs instead of enjoying complete independence.
5. It placed value on slavery.
One of the sticking points of the Articles of Confederation was taxation assignment. The southern states wanted only white citizens to be counted for taxation purposes. The northern states wanted every person, except Native Americans, to be counted for taxing purposes. Eventually, a compromise was reached that based taxation on land and improvements. Since slaves were often listed as property, their value was actually taxed by the new government structures.
6. It restricted the ability to act in an emergency.
After the Treaty of Paris, territories in the west beyond the original colonies were declared to be US territories. Despite this agreement, the British continued to occupy posts in the Old Northwest. Merchants from the US were barred from entering the British West Indies. Despite efforts to amend the articles so these issues could be addressed, a decision could not be reached. Ultimately, the failure to find a path forward led to the Articles of Confederation being removed as a governing guideline.
The pros and cons of the Articles of Confederation helped to shape the United States into the country it is today. This early constitution may have been far from perfect, but it did encourage dialogue and foster state-to-state relationships that would provide a cornerstone for what would eventually become the Constitution.