After the Revolutionary War, the consensus in the new nation was that it was necessary for the new government to be much weaker than the tyrannical British monarchy had been. The result was the limited Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles of Confederation, the only concrete power the national government had was to unite the new states into a nation. The new federal government couldn’t levy taxes, enforce laws, or regulate trade. It had no supreme power for emergencies, such as war. Also, according to the Articles themselves, it was nearly impossible to amend them.
A New Direction
In order to amend the many problems that were present in the United States, the only option was a completely new government, since the Articles were impossible to amend [citation]. To allow the new nation to move forward, it was essential to radically change the structure of the federal government and to grant it more powers.
The new Constitution attempted to preserve the states’ rights. The Senate was created so that each state would be represented equally, regardless of size. In addition, the Constitution further protected states’ rights with the 10th amendment, which allowed states to retain self-governing power. The Northwest Ordinance and other land policies were retained under the Constitution because they had proved to be sound legislation.
After the Constitution was ratified, the economy slowly recovered as the new United States government paid debts, established friendly trade relations, protected American businesses, and brought stability to the exchange of currency. The Constitution saved the United States from separating into individual states with little in common.
The new Constitution also created an executive branch with the power to raise a military. The United States could now easily negotiate with foreign nations, and ensure that treaties would be followed. And when the Whiskey Rebellion occurred in Pennsylvania and mob rule threatened again, President Washington was able to step in with a national army to make sure the federal law was enforced.
At first, the fledging states liked operating under this very limited structure. And this structure did have its advantages. For example, it allowed the state democracies to flourish, and the states were able to develop their own lands. However, after less than a decade, it was obvious that the limitations of the government were holding the new nation back. Inflation was rampant and foreign nations bullied the United States. In order to secure the new nation, the creation of a new government was imperative. This led to the drafting of the Constitution. The Constitution preserved the successes of the Articles of Confederation, such as states’ rights and the land policies, it completely changed the national government’s economic powers. More importantly, it added an executive branch to the government that had the power to raise a military.
Because the spark that ignited the Revolution was the taxes imposed by the British without representation, the authors of the Articles of Confederation were careful to restrict the economic powers of the new government. That had proved unsuccessful, resulting that in an economic depression. Also, because the government had no power to levy taxes, it was unable to pay the national debt owed to foreign countries. The federal government was unable to introduce tariffs that would protect American businesses. This inability to regulate trade created unfavorable trading atmospheres overseas, allowing the British to “dump” on American markets, further deepening the depression. In addition, most of the currency in the United State lost value because each state produced its own currency and there was no central exchange.
Lack of Protection
On top of economic issues, under the Articles of Confederation, the nation had no military power and therefore was unable to enforce its sovereignty or protect its citizens. Foreign nations were free to bully the United States. For example, the British refused to leave their western forts, and the Spanish blocked merchants in the United States from using the Mississippi River Delta to transport their goods to Europe.
The government was also unable to respond to internal pressures. For example, in response to economic troubles, farmers in Massachusetts seized control of the local government [citation]. The state of Massachusetts had trouble regaining control, and when they asked for help from the federal government, there was no assistance to offer.
Negotiations with foreign nations were impossible, because with no established leader of the United States, leaders of other nations had to attempt to negotiate with each and every state. Foreign governments weren’t always willing to spend the time to get individual agreements from each state. Also, problems arose when states had conflicting views or positions to protect their own interests.
States’ Rights Concerns
The Articles of Confederation had left enormous room for state government power to grow and expand. Each of the states developed functioning democracies, complete with their own Bills of Rights. The Articles also gave each current and future state an equal voice in the federal government. All decisions made at a national level required a super majority, where each state held one vote [citation]. The Northwest Ordinance, passed while the Articles were the law of the land, ensured that when a territory grew to a certain size, it could petition to become a state, and if this was granted, the new state would have the same rights as the other established states.
The Constitution retained the successful parts of the Articles of Confederation by maintaining strong states’ rights and the successful land policies; however it completely changed that overall structure of the national government by giving it economic powers and an executive branch. By creating a mechanism to allow it to change as the nation grew, the nation would be protected in the future.