The Littlest Government

  • Revolutionary War struggle against Britain made Americans wary of strong executives and powerful governments
  • Articles of Confederation deliberately created a weak American government
  • Confederation government had no executive or judiciary

Imagine that it's 1783. (Yes, that means that you're wearing imaginary clothes that probably look pretty ridiculous—deal with it. Two hundred years from now, your ancestors will probably be laughing at your skinny jeans, too.) You've just fought, and won, the Revolutionary War. For many years leading up to the war, you resented—no, loathed—the British Crown and its mounting efforts to control every aspect of your life and the lives of your fellow Americans. New taxes, blockades to western migration, freeloading British soldiers, even rumors of religious tyranny? You'd had enough. Luckily for you and other colonial leaders, the Revolution ended with victory. Your beloved America has won its freedom at last, but now you're faced with the real work of creating a new, independent government.

Irony of ironies! The entire Revolution was fought in opposition to the evils of government…but now you and your compadres need to create one, because an infant nation with no government whatsoever isn't really a nation at all. For the new United States of America to survive and prosper, some kind of government will be necessary.

But what kind of government?

Trying to answer that question, you and your fellow Patriots began discussing a new form of government even as the war's battles still raged, eventually creating the Articles of Confederation—the first written constitution of the United States. The Articles provided the nation's first blueprint for a federal government, and, boy, was that government small. Tiny, really; it consisted, in its entirety, of a one-house Congress in which each state had the right to cast a single vote—and only on a limited number of issues (including declarations of war, foreign relations, and treaties). This government could not, under any circumstances, levy taxes (a sore spot, to say the least, for those former British subjects). That's right: the Articles of Confederation called for a government consisting entirely of Congress; there was no president or executive, no judiciary, no bureaucracy. That is one tiny government, unlikely to assert itself in ways that would cause problems like those that had led to the Revolutionary War. And to be sure that that government stayed tiny, no amendments to the Articles could be passed without unanimous approval from all thirteen states. To you and your Patriot kin, still bitter over the whole taxation-without-representation thing and suspicious of all government power, this Confederation government would have seemed too good to be true.

It was.

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