The Articles of Confederation: Why They Failed

The American Revolution officially ended on September 3, 1783, when Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Paris. Although the fighting had ended with the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia in October, 1781, the Crown was reluctant to give up the lucrative colonies, and the war “officially” dragged on for two more years.

Once the fighting ceased, Congress’ task turned to governing the Confederacy. Immediately, the states began causing problems for Congress.

Benjamin West painting titled "American C...

What was wrong with the Articles? What was wrong with the United States? How could a young nation that had just won its independence from the most powerful nation in the world (at that time) collapse on itself?

Many of the Founding Fathers thought about these problems, and put their thoughts to paper.

This is not what we are taught in school. We are taught that the Articles were weak, but we are never taught why, or what the Founders actually thought of them.

Alexander Hamilton, the future first Secretary of the Treasury, and founder of the Federalist Party, considered the Articles to be neither fit for war nor peace. He felt that they were failing for three reasons:

  • an excess of the spirit of liberty which has made the particular states show a jealousy of all power not in their own hands, and this jealousy has led them to exercise a right of judging in the last resort of the measures recommended by Congress, and of acting according to their own opinions of their propriety or necessity; 

  • a diffidence in Congress of their own powers, by which they have been timid and indecisive in their resolutions, constantly making concessions to the states till they have scarcely left themselves the shadow of power; 

  • a want of sufficient means at their disposal to answer the public exigencies  and of vigor to draw forth those means, which have occasioned them to depend on the states individually to fulfill their engagements with the army, and the consequence of which has been to ruin their influence and credit with the army, to establish its dependence on each state separately rather than on them, that is, rather than the whole collectively.

From James Madison’s point of view (written May 7, 1787 just days before the Constitutional Convention), there were several reasons why the country was failing.

  1.  The states were failing to comply with the “Constitutional” requisitions of the government.
    • The states were failing to pay taxes to the central government to pay for the debts incurred during the war.
  2. The states were encroaching on Federal authority
    • Georgia was having wars and separate treaties with the Indians
    • Virginia and Maryland signed unlicensed compacts
    • Pennsylvania and New Jersey also had unlicensed compacts
    • Massachusetts was raising and maintaining troops.
  3. The states were violating the Laws of Nations and of Treaties
    • The individual actions of the states were an embarrassment to the central government on the national stage.
    • The peace treaty ending the Revolution was constantly being violated by individual states
    • States violated the treaty with France
    • States violated the treaty with The Netherlands
    • While France and Holland didn’t push the central government too much on the issue, Madison feared that at some point they would.
  4. The states were trespassing on each others rights
    • Maryland would give harbor priority to ships owned by Maryland citizens over all others
    • New York did the same
    • Virginia was restricting foreign ships from certain ports
    • Each state was printing its own money. Some states recognized other states money, while others did not.
    • The Federal “Continental” was worthless, because there was nothing behind it, and they were unable to collect taxes from the states.
  5. There was no cooperation between the states in matters that required it
    • Laws were not uniform across the states
  6. The Federal government did not guarantee each state’s constitution, and had no laws against violence, force and intimidation for a minority to get its way
    • The central government did not require that each state have a republican government, and made no guarantees that mobs rule would not be the order of the day. The threat of the minority using violence and intimidation was very real
  7. The lack of sanctions in law and the coercion of government
    • The central government lacked the ability to punish states for disobeying the articles, like not paying their taxes.
  8. Sovereignty of the states creates problems for the nation as a whole,
    • Federal law does not supersede state laws
    • If one state decides not to pay attention to some part of the Articles, does that not void the Articles and dissolve the Union?
  9. There were too many laws in each state
    • State laws were too numerous, and often contradicted other state laws.
  10. The laws of the states were constantly changing, or being superseded by new laws before a trial could determine their validity
    • Laws would change so quickly that citizens in the more remote regions would often not even know of them, let alone foreigners when it came to trade regulations
  11. The number and mutability of the state laws made for injustice
    • the sheer number of, and constant changing of laws creates injustice for all

Robert Morris was the Superintendent of Finance of the United States from 1781 to 1784. He has been misidentified at times as the first Secretary of the Treasury.

By mid-1781, the United States was broke. The Revolution was on the verge of collapse. In September of 1781, Morris moved George Washington’s army from New York to Yorktown, Virginia out of his own pockets. If he had not done so, General Cornwallis would have never been trapped and forced to surrender. He felt the Articles were lacking because Congress had no power to compel the states to pay their taxes.

The United States have call’d for eight Million of Dollars early in November last, of which the first quarterly Payment was to have been made on the first Day of April next. But I cannot find that a single State has laid the Taxes.
. . .
. . . let the several States be ever so negligent, the Confederation has given no Power to compel. While it confers on Congress the Privilege of asking everything, it has secured to each State the Prerogative of granting nothing. Since then, the Congress cannot compel the States to make a grant of Money, they must at least take Care to prevent the States for making an unnecessary Expenditure of those Moneys which are in our Possession.

George Washington agreed that Congress had not been granted enough power.

. . . It now rests with the Confederated Powers, by the line of conduct they mean to adopt, to make this Country great, happy, and respectable, or to sink it into littleness — worse perhaps, into Anarchy and Confusion — for certain I am that unless adequate Powers are given to Congress for the general purposes of the Federal Union that we shall soon molder into dust and become contemptible in the Eyes of Europe, if we are not made the sport  of their Politics. To suppose that the general concern of this Country can be directed by thirteen heads, or one head without competent powers, is a solecism, the bad effects of which every Man who has had the practical knowledge to judge from, that I have, is fully convinced of, tho’ none perhaps has felt them in so forcible and distressing a degree.

Benjamin Franklin, while in Paris lamented in a letter to Robert Morris about the states unwillingness to pay taxes to pay for the common debts.

The Remissness of our People in Paying Taxes is highly blamable, the Unwillingness to pay them is still more so. I see in some Resolutions of Town Meetings a Remonstrance against giving Congress a Power to take, as they call it, the People’s Money out of their Pockets tho’ only to pay the Interest and Principal of Debts duly contracted [for the war]. They seem
to mistake the Point. Money justly due from the People is their Creditors’ Money and no longer the Money of the People who, if they withhold it, should be compell’d to pay by some Law.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Monroe:

It will be said there is no money in the treasury. There never will be money in the treasury till the confederacy shows its teeth. The states must see the rod — perhaps it must be felt by some one of them. I am persuaded all of them would rejoice to see every one obliged to furnish its contributions. 

The great weakness of the Articles of Confederation was that, while Congress had granted themselves certain powers, they failed to provide any mechanisms to back that up. Once the war began winding down, the states began to celebrate their newly won freedom by misbehaving.

Today, we are free, but that freedom means that we must still bear a certain amount of responsibility for our actions. Like children, they ran in different directions and did their own thing, despite their parents admonishing them. They left the young nation bankrupt and destitute, and on the verge of collapse.

We are fortunate that this nation had such a group of thinkers as we did to alter the course of this nation when they did. They could have just given up and left the states to their fates, but they didn’t. They saw something bigger, the potential for greatness that this nation had in it, if we could bring the many and transform them into one.


The Founders on the Defects of the Articles of Confederation

Thomas Jefferson’s Autobiogaraphy 1743-1790

James Madison: The Vices of the Political System of the U. States


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