Study Guide

Articles of Confederation Compare and Contrast

By The Second Continental Congress, John Dickinson

  • Thomas Jefferson

    Like Dickinson and Franklin, Jefferson was one of the big talking heads in the room when the Continental Congress created the Articles of Confederation.

    A plantation owner and slave-owner, he was at the center of a debate between Southern and Northern states. Congress had determined that larger and wealthier states should have to pay more taxes than small ones—but should slaves count as part of a state's population or part of its wealth?

    Jefferson believed that since slaves were property, they should be counted like livestock, as an economic resource. (Yes. This insanely evil logic raced through the mind of one of our founding papas.)

    Debates over slavery and the distribution of powers between wealthy and small states would continue to put pressure on the young government of the United States, and contribute to the shift toward the Constitution.

    After the Constitution was drafted, Jefferson would represent the Democratic-Republican party as the nation's third President. He believed the government's powers should remain limited and envisioned a nation of small-time, independent farmers settling the lands to the West. (Source)

    A self-educated intellectual, passionate about individual rights, Jefferson was the voice of his generation—just call him the Bob Dylan of the 1770s. (You know: if Bob Dylan had been a slave-owner.)

  • James Madison

    Madison was the spearhead of the Federalist movement, along with Alexander Hamilton. Many of his ideas became the basis for the U.S. Constitution, which replaced the Articles of Confederation in 1787. (Source).

    The basic principle of Federalist philosophy was that the national government should balance out the power of the states. Under the Articles, Madison and his Federalist homies thought, states had too much power, making the nation hardly a nation at all. John Dickinson, the main author of the Articles, came to agree with him, saying the government should be "like that of the solar system. Let the general government be like the sun and the states the planets." (Source)

    So really, Madison's ideas were the inspiration for both the United States and the United Federation of Planets from Star Trek. His brainchild the Constitution truly did live long and prosper.

  • Patrick Henry

    And now for something completely different…

    History is chock-full of people who criticized the Articles of Confederation. To Patrick Henry, they were right as rain. A Virginian orator who famously declared the metal-as-*%$# catchphrase "give me liberty or give me death," Henry was more scared of powerful government than a smalltime criminal encountering Batman for the first time.

    Henry supported keeping the Articles of Confederation in place while other patriots moved toward the Constitution in the late 1780s. During the Constitutional debates, he asked "Who authorized them [the framers] to speak the language of We, the people, instead of, We, the states?"

    Even though he lost out in the debates, and the Federalists eventually convinced enough Anti-Federalists to support the Constitution, Henry stuck to his guns.

  • George Washington

    Washington was a general before he was a politician, so he was used to being in a system with a strong central authority. After he defeated the British with a little help from the French, the soon-to-be father of the nation resigned his position as commander-in-chief.

    But Washington didn't stay out of politics for long. After Shays' Rebellion, he became a strong critic of the Articles of Confederation. In a letter to James Warren, G.W. referred to the Confederation Congress as a "nugatory" body, which essentially meant that he thought it was useless. (Source)

    And the dude went on to chair the Constitutional Convention.

    At the time, many Anti-Federalists, including Patrick Henry, feared that the chief executive of the United States (that's the President, Shmoopers) would attempt to seize too much power. So when Washington returned to his Virginia farm at the end of his presidency, it set a precedent for future leaders. This whole thing wasn't going to turn into Britain 2.0.

  • John Adams

    Though he had a reputation for a personality that was pricklier than a hedgehog wearing hairgel, Adams' career in early American politics spanned decades. Along with Thomas Jefferson, he was one of two signers of the Declaration of Independence (1776) who went on to become President. He also helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris, along with his travel-buddies, Benjamin Franklin and John Jay.

    Like Washington, Adams became a critic of the Articles of Confederation government. He served as an ambassador starting during the Revolutionary War, but later came to believe that the government was too weak to give America firm footing on the world stage.

    In other words, Adams was one of the first people to recognize that the Confederation system was holding back America in a serious way—in a letter to John Jay, he even expressed fear that the system left the nation vulnerable to attack from the outside. (Source)

    Ironically, Adams still had to fight off the British as President in the War of 1812. The guy just couldn't catch a break.

  • The Constitution

    You know the story by now. The nation dipped out on the Articles and adopted a Federalist system under the Constitution. Here's the gist, Shmoopers: under the Articles, states had almost all the power to enforce laws; the Constitution provided for a balance of state and federal powers.

    The biggest difference? The framers (a.k.a. the dudes who came up with the Constitution) created two new branches of government. The executive branch consisted of the President, Vice President, and their Cabinet, or advisors. They were in charge of enforcing the laws Congress came up with. The judicial branch was made up of a Supreme Court, which mediated disputes about national and state law.

    Actually, why are we saying "was" and "were?" The Constitution is still around today…and it definitely looks like it's going to stick around for a while.

  • The Bill of Rights

    It wasn't all ice cream sundaes and cherry pies when the framers were creating the Constitution. A lot of people, especially Anti-Federalists, were attached to the Articles system because they feared that a more robust federal government would abuse its power. To win over the haters, the framers came up with a Bill of Rights, a series of amendments designed to prevent federal government overreach and protect the rights of citizens.

    It was a complicated process. Some people felt that if a Bill of Rights were included, the government would think that people only had the rights that were written down. So they came up with Amendment 9, which owes a lot to the Articles.

    It states that people get to reserve rights not listed in the Constitution and the Amendments…like drinking Mountain Dew in the morning or putting parmesan cheese on popcorn. You know: the stuff that makes American great.