In Defense of the Articles of Confederation - Joseph Domitrovich, History/Humanities Instructor, Truckee Meadows Community College
The Articles of Confederation have received a raw deal. Generations of historians and political scientists
have told their readers that the Articles were a failure. They established a central government that was
too weak. It did not have the power to tax. It did not have the power to regulate foreign and interstate
commerce. It had no executive branch. It had no national court system. It was almost impossible to
amend it. When I was in college in the late 1960s, no History or Political Science professor had anything
good to say about it. All the readings they assigned condemned it. Those historians and political
scientists wrote that the Articles were responsible for most, if not all, of the problems of the new nation.
Maybe historians have looked at the Articles from the wrong angle. In 1778 when the Articles were
written, and even in 1787, had the Articles or something similar to the Articles not been written, it
would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to get the Constitution as it was written.
The Continental Congress wrote the Articles the way they did because of their experience with the
British, especially in the period after the French and Indian War. It wanted to keep the power to tax in
the hands of the state legislatures…the body closest to the people. Because of the experience with the
British Trade and Navigation Laws, Congress did not want to give a central government the power to
There was no Chief Executive in the Articles because of the Americans’ experience with George III. There
was a fear that a Chief Executive could become a king or tyrant. Americans tended to identify their
grievances against Great Britain with the King. To them, it was the King who forbad them to settle west
of the Appalachians. It was the King who put restrictions on their trade with other nations. It was the
King who placed a Stamp Tax on them. It was the King who annulled acts of colonial legislatures. It was
the King who appointed judges who were answerable to him. It was the King who stationed soldiers in
the colonies and forced the colonials to provide for them. It was the King who granted monopolies to
companies such as the British East India Tea Company. To some, it was the King who fastened slavery on
To the colonials, the King was the one who took rights granted by the Magna Carta and the English Bill of
Rights away from them. One can see the colonials’ grievances against George III in the Declaration of
Independence. True, the grievances were against one particular King, but to the colonials, history
showed that the tendency was for kings to become tyrants. This is why each of the new state
constitutions written during the Revolution severely limited the power of state governors. The framers
of the Pennsylvania State Constitution did not even create a governor.
One of the colonists’ biggest grievances was the King’s annulling acts of colonial legislatures. None of the
new state constitutions gave their governors the power to veto acts of the state legislatures. Several of
of them had the state legislatures appoint the governor.
There was no national court system in the Articles because of the colonists’ experience with colonial
judges appointed by the king. It seemed to the colonists that the King’s Courts usually ruled against the
colonists. This prejudiced the colonists against “national” court systems. Keep the courts local.
The Articles of Confederation did not give the Confederation Congress the power to tax. This, too, was
because of the colonists’ experience with British taxation. The colonists did not want a central
government to have the power to tax them. They wanted to follow the English tradition that what
touches all must be approved by all. The Americans believed that the King and Parliament had not
extended that tradition to them.
The Americans wanted to keep the power of taxation with the level of government that was closest to
the people. That would be the government of each state, not the central government.
A “weakness” of the Articles that historians have always pointed out has been the failure of the Articles
to regulate foreign and interstate commerce. This, also, goes back to the experience with the British.
The colonists bitterly resented and opposed the many British Navigation and Trade Laws. These laws
limited with whom the Americans could trade and ships on which goods could be transported. It was
the British central government that did these things. The authors of the Articles were determined that
their central government would not have that power. Hence, under the Articles, states regulated their
own foreign and interstate trade. This resulted in states putting tariffs on goods coming in from other
states as well as from foreign countries.
With Twenty-twenty hindsight or Monday Morning Quaterbacking, it is easy to see the failures and
weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. How could these men not have seen the weaknesses that
would cause so many problems? It seems so obvious today. How could the coach have called the pass
play that resulted in a pick-six? At the time, because of their experience with the British central
government, the members of the Continental Congress were determined to keep power in the hands of
state legislatures. The framers of the Articles did not have the benefit of hindsight.
The Articles of Confederation were necessary to be able to have something like the Constitution. It was
necessary to show the need for a stronger central government. If anyone would have suggested a
central government with a chief executive and a national court system in the period between 1778 and
1787, very few would have supported it. There would have been little support for a national legislature
with the power to tax and the power to regulate foreign and interstate commerce. There is certainly no
way that there would have been much support for a Constitution that would be the “supreme law of the
land”! Something like the Articles needed to “fail” to show the need for a stronger central government..
Children do not go from lying flat on their backs to walking. They have to go through a crawling phase
first. When they start to walk, they fall many times. They learn from their falling. Eventually, they learn
balance and walk without falling and then run. The Articles of Confederation were the crawling and
falling phases for the young country.
The Articles showed that a change was necessary. They came at a time when the people would not have
approved a strong central government. They were a necessity and their failure was necessary to get the
The Articles deserve an apology from generations of historians and political scientists. This historian is
pleased to offer that long overdue apology.