In its early years, the United States faced a lot of problems, and our leaders were to blame. They were so suspicious of a strong central government that they created an impotent, inefficient one that became a problem for all Americans
The Articles of Confederation was our first form of government. It lasted seven years (1781-1788) and seemed more like an endurance test of how long the new country could put up with economic chaos before erupting into rebellion.
Thanks to England’s policies of excessive taxation and rights violations, Americans were not about to be pushed around again. The resulting sentiment in the new United States was that individual citizens and states should have as much sovereignty as possible and not be subjected to the limitations that powerful central governments can impose.
So, the leaders of the US decided to build a weak central government. The problem was that it was too weak. The Articles of Confederation created a congress but no executive or judicial branches, it couldn’t tax, it couldn’t regulate trade, it didn’t create a uniform currency, and it couldn’t unify the original 13 states. Because of that, it turned out to be a failure.
Of the many problems in the Articles, one was that the US government had no way of generating revenue. By design, the US government had no power to tax the states or citizens. Instead, there was a “common treasury,’’ stated in Article VIII of the document, which explains how each of the states must supply the government with money based on “the value of all land within each state.’’ It’s obvious that fears of England’s tax policy was still fresh in the minds of American leaders. States rarely contributed to the treasury.
International trade was another problem. The Articles of Confederation didn’t give the US the power to regulate trade with foreign countries. While countries like England, Spain, and France placed tariffs on American exports, the US was unable to place similar taxes on imports. By not protecting American-made goods, consumers chose cheaper foreign-made goods. Our goods were more expensive because our manufacturing base was more primitive and costly.
At the same time, there were no rules in the Articles regulating trade between the states. States placed tariffs on goods from other states which led to boycotts and trade wars between certain states.
Interstate trade also was stifled by the money issue. There were too many kinds of it circulating. The Articles gave the US the power to regulate the value of money, but didn’t create a specific currency. States printed their own money, which had to be converted from one currency to another.
With no money in its treasury, no power to enforce laws, and the states conducting themselves like independent countries, the US came close to falling apart.
In one state, rebellion broke out. Massachusetts raised property taxes to the point where farmers had so much difficulty paying that state courts began foreclosing on farms. Daniel Shays, an American Revolution war vet, led a revolt to shut down the courts in Western Massachusetts. The impotence of the US government was glaring as it was unable to put the rebellion down because it didn’t have the power to create an army.
The Articles allowed the US to declare war, but it put the responsibility of raising militias on the states. Shay’s Rebellion was put down by the Massachusetts militia in February, 1787.
With persistent economic problems and Shay’s Rebellion scaring the populace, everyone realized how weak the Articles of Confederation were.
There were two positive legislative efforts that came from the Articles of Confederation, however: the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. These laws parceled what was then the Northwest US (the present-day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin) into manageable 6-square mile townships for local governments; and subdivided the land further for individual family farms. Each township had land set aside for schools and slavery was illegal.
But that was just one ray of light. Overall, the Articles of Confederation were a failure because American leaders didn’t want to repeat England’s mistakes. By choosing to create a confederation, however, there wasn’t enough power at the top. The Articles of Confederation gave the 13 American states too much power while the central government had very little power and gave no guidance. It was a government with no capital and no way to enforce its laws.