The Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation were adopted by the Second Continental Congress on November 15, 1777, but did not become effective until March 1, 1781, when they were finally approved by all 13 states. Under the Articles, the national government consisted of a unicameral (one-house) legislature (often called the Confederation Congress); there was no national executive or judiciary. Delegates to Congress were appointed by the state legislatures, and each state had one vote. Congress had the authority to declare war, develop foreign policy, coin money, regulate Native American affairs in the territories, run the post office, borrow money, and appoint army and navy officers. Quite significantly, however, all powers not specifically delegated to Congress belonged to the states.

Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation

Congress did not have the direct power to tax or to regulate interstate and foreign trade. It could only ask the states for money with no means to compel payment, and the states had the right to impose their own duties on imports, which caused havoc with commerce. Congress had no authority to raise an army on its own and had to requisition troops from the states. All major policy issues — war and peace, treaties, the appropriation of funds — required the approval of nine states. The Articles reflected the nation's concern about executive power; however, the lack of an executive meant there was no effective leadership. A unanimous vote of the states, acting through their legislatures, was necessary to amend the Articles.

Calls to strengthen the national government

The need for a stronger national government was aired by the representatives of five states, including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, at the Annapolis Convention (September 1786). The inability of Congress to deal with Shay's Rebellion (winter of 1786–1787), a revolt of debtor farmers in western Massachusetts, made the shortcomings of the Articles clear. In February 1787, Congress agreed to hold another meeting "for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation."