The United States operates under a document called the “Constitution.” It, along with the Bill of Rights, have become a cornerstone for the American definition of freedom.
What many may not realize is that the Constitution was not actually the first governing document for the U.S. government. When the United States declared independence and began the process of forming a “more perfect union” in 1777, the Continental Congress adopted a different governing document. It was called the Articles of Confederation.
The adoption of the Articles of Confederation allowed each of the original 13 colonies to form into one governing unit when interacting with the rest of the world. In both politics and war, they were seen as a new nation.
The documents were fully ratified by 1781. It served the United States until March 4, 1789, when the Constitution was implemented. Here are the biggest pros and cons to consider for the Articles of Confederation.
List of the Pros of the Articles of Confederation
1. The United States could maintain independence.
Even though the 13 colonies were brought together underneath one governing banner with the Articles of Confederation, they were able to maintain their colonial sovereignty at the same time. It provided a common bond without destroying the independence of the state government. Under the articles, the states were even allowed to nominate their own ambassadors or handle territorial issues that fell within their borders without ceding to a centralized government.
2. It allowed Americans to move freely about their country.
Because each state was part of a union, the need for identification papers or visas to travel within the United States was abolished. What the Articles of Confederation allowed for was a defined border for each state and a defined border for the United States at the same time. That structure allowed individuals the luxury of traveling to any colony they wished, at any time they wished it.
3. Each state could have its preferred level of global influence.
Some states preferred to maintain independent relationships. Other states preferred to band together with each other to present a unified front on the global stage. With the Articles of Confederation, all states could work together to create more influence and leverage when negotiating with international governments. One of the biggest political struggles of the Revolutionary War era for the global community was a lack of high-level access to the American colonies. There was no unified leadership. The articles helped to provide it.
4. It eliminated the threat of political polarization.
One of the biggest benefits of the Articles of Confederation was that it required absolute agreement for any of it to be changed. The goal was to make it difficult, but not impossible, for the governing documents to be altered. It is this structure that caused the ratification process to take so long in the first place. It took Maryland over 20 months longer than any other state to ratify the articles. In return, governing consistency could be achieved and all voices could be heard.
5. Domestic and foreign trade was encouraged.
The Articles of Confederacy encouraged trade between the different states. It also encouraged international trade with other nations since the states could band together to obtain and share resources equally. The goal was to make sure that every state, every American, could have access to the same opportunities. Although there were challenges to the implementation of this idea, the overall process helped to create the unity that was necessary to ratify the Constitution in the years to come.
6. It created chances for people to resolve their differences.
In the years preceding the Articles of Confederation, people saw themselves in many different ways. There were Loyalists that did not want the colonies to become an independent country. There were the Patriots, which had been protesting British authority as early as 1765 with the Stamp Act Congress. Some groups, like the Quakers, preferred to speak out for neutrality, but were attacked by the Patriots because they kept doing business with the British. The articles were a way to help the United States begin to heal.
7. It offered a system of government that was similar to tribal government.
One of the biggest threats that the colonies faced during the Revolution era was domestically based. Local tribes were not big fans of European settlers coming in to take land that had been historically theirs. Tribal attacks were frequent. When added to European threats, the need to centralize the government became apparent. Benjamin Franklin is believed to have examined the Iroquois Confederacy and based the idea of the United States off of that governing concept. It would create a system of government that was familiar locally, which offered the potential of finding some common ground to prevent ongoing warfare.
List of the Cons of the Articles of Confederation
1. The central government was extremely limited.
The goal of the original colonies was to ensure that a governing structure like that of England was not present in the United States. That was why the Articles of Confederation were drafted as they were. The centralized government was left intentionally weak because the colonists were fearful of what may happen if one American politician were able to obtain enough power. Because the government was weak, its ability to respond to national-level issues or emergencies was also weak. International governments still found themselves dealing with individual states as well, which frustrated everyone.
2. There was no regulatory authority for commerce.
The Articles of Confederation delegated the authority to regulate commerce to each state instead of keeping it at the national level. That gave the central government treaty negotiation power. It also forced every nation that wanted to do business with the United States to negotiate with each state on their own. France helped the U.S. win the Revolutionary War. Then they had to negotiate 13 new trade deals to work with each state. That made many governments hesitate to do business with the new country.
3. Governing was extremely slow.
There was not an executive branch within the Articles of Confederation. The goal was to be different from the British, which meant avoiding anything that resembled a “king.” The limited structure of the nationalized government had no authority to impose laws on any of the states. Those in a political position could do very little to affect the course the new country would take. It did not take long for the states to realize that the structure, though it encouraged individualized freedoms, was also not going to really unify the country as they thought it would while the articles were being crafted.
4. It was given no way to raise money.
The new government, under the Articles of Confederation, did not have the power to levy taxes either. That meant any funds that were sent to the new government for operational needs came from decisions made at the state level. If the states did not feel like contributing to the new government, then the articles could not force them to do so. Richer states began to feel like they were going to be expected to pay for national armed forces, minting coins, and other tasks that were permitted by the new government.
5. Slavery was seen as a commodity.
During the initial debates for the Articles of Confederation, there was a schism already present between the North and the South. In the North, the states wanted every person of any color, with the exception of the tribal populations, to be counted for taxes. In the South, the states wanted only white people and freed persons to be counted, which would mean slaves would be excluded. The articles compromised by basing a unified taxation structure at the state level on land and property ownership. That meant slaves became a commodity, since they were often treated as property.
6. It created extreme levels of bureaucracy.
In the 1780s, when the Articles of Confederation were active, each state eventually began to mint its own currency. There were also U.S.-based currencies that were accepted as well. That meant some families were forced to manage 14 different currencies just to conduct business with one another in the United States. Foreign governments were stuck with this issue as well, since trade was delegated to each state. The extreme levels of bureaucracy created instantly high inflation rates, which reduced the economic impact that each state could contribute. It is because of this one key negative that the states decided to centralize their government instead of retaining the high levels of independence.
7. The British took advantage of its structure.
The Treaty of Paris officially declared that designated territories to the west of the original 13 colonies would become U.S. responsibilities. The Articles of Confederation, since it required absolute unity, made it possible for the British to remain in those territories for an extended time period. Some states tried to make amendments to the articles, so the British could be confronted, but the 100% agreement clause bogged down every effort. It would not be until the articles were removed that action could be taken to firm up national security within territorial lands.
8. It prevented the United States from handling its debt.
After the Revolutionary War, the U.S. had numerous international creditors that were calling in their markers. Spain, France, and the Dutch all made loans to the colonies so that the British could be fought. After the war, those countries wanted their loan payments made. The debt situation in the U.S. was so dire after the war, in fact, that many soldiers weren’t receiving their promised pay for their service either.
9. Land claims almost led to civil wars.
Because each colony was acting as its own “nation,” while banding together with other states simultaneously to for the United States, there were numerous land claims made in the 20 years after the Articles of Confederation were introduced. At one point, Virginia and Connecticut almost went to war over their land claims. Before the Revolutionary War, Pennsylvania had already declared war on Connecticut and Maryland over land claims. It became clear that a different structure of government would be required.
10. It created a patchwork system of laws.
The Articles of Confederation failed to create a national judiciary system. Any cases that were deemed to be capital offenses were handled by Congressional committees. Each state had their own interpretation of how laws should be applied or what punishments should be handed out. Without a system of universal interpretation, it became impossible to predict what might happen if someone were simply accused of a crime.
The biggest pros and cons of the Articles of Confederation show a new country attempting to find its voice. There was a great desire to avoid the mistakes of the British, though the colonists went to the other end of the governing spectrum with the articles to do so. The lessons learned from this brief period of U.S. history helped the country begin to move forward and fight for individual equality – a fight that continues to happen through this day.