Study Guide

Articles of Confederation Themes

By The Second Continental Congress, John Dickinson

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  • Politics

    Politics is the art of distributing power through compromise…and what gives rise to basically all great satire.

    But only one of those key points is important in terms of the Articles of Confederation.

    The Articles of Confederation, one of the nation's first political documents, attempted this unsuccessfully. Crafted by a group of elected representatives, the Articles were the first stab at creating a political entity comprised of all the former British colonies. In order to make "the United States" a reality, the document needed to make each state happy enough to sign on.

    That required creating a very weak central government, and that makes sense under the circumstances. The American patriots who wrote and ratified the Articles were throwing off a tyrannical, faraway government, and didn't want to risk creating a new government that would be the next Britain.

    Questions About Politics

    1. Why do you think the Articles of Confederation didn't include an executive branch of government?
    2. After reading the Articles of Confederation, do you think that this system sounds better or worse than the current laws of the Constitution? Why?
    3. If you were alive during the mid-1780s, what would be some of the advantages and disadvantages of living under the Articles of Confederation government?
    4. What problems with the Articles of Confederation would have most bothered Federalists and nationalists, like Hamilton and Madison?

    Chew on This

    The Articles of Confederation put all power in the hands of the nation's elected legislature, Congress. This reflects tone of the main concerns of the Revolutionary period: the fact that Britain could levy taxes on Americans without giving them representatives in Parliament.

    The last states to ratify the Articles of Confederation, Virginia and Maryland, joined the union only after being convinced that the new government would allow them to expand their land claims in the west, which the British government had prohibited them from doing.

  • State's Rights

    Everybody can agree to get along when it benefits them. But when you have to start making sacrifices…let's just say that's when singers go solo.

    The delegates of the Continental Congress needed a way to keep the states united during the Revolutionary War, and the Articles of Confederation at least provided something. But different states had different interests in the soon-to-be union.

    Some wanted to settle and conquer all the land they could. Some wanted to have a bigger say in national politics than others. Others feared that the national government would hurt them by regulating trade.

    And oh, yeah—what about the whole slavery thing? Some states relied on slave economies, while others didn't. What the United States ended up with was a loose system that left almost all domestic rights and responsibilities to the individual states.

    Questions About State's Rights

    1. What are some of the differences between state and federal powers? For example, what are some laws that differ from state-to-state?
    2. Do you think it was fair for every state to get the same number of votes (one) in the Confederation Congress? Why or why not?
    3. If the Articles of Confederation were reinstituted today, what laws or practices might change in your home state?
    4. Choose two states from the original thirteen. Compare and contrast how the Articles of Confederation affected, or might have affected, each state.

    Chew on This

    The final version of the Articles of Confederation ended up favoring small states, because they got to have just as much sway over federal policy as large states.

    By failing to address slavery in any way, the Articles of Confederation laid the foundation for future tensions between the Northern and Southern states.

  • Majority vs. Minority

    The Greek philosopher Plato once said that democracy often turns into "the tyranny of the majority." And this cynical opinion is exactly what Patrick Henry and other Anti-Federalists had on their minds.

    Many decisions left to Congress under the Articles had to be approved by a unanimous vote of the states (Source). It would have been impossible for the majority to abuse the minority under this system. After all, a state with one million residents would get the same amount of power in Congress as a state with ten million. If a minority of states disagreed with a federal tax, they were effectively able to ignore it by "forgetting" to send tax revenue to the Congress.

    In terms of nation building, it was the equivalent of free-for-all laser tag.

    Questions About Majority vs. Minority

    1. In the Confederation Congress, states with large populations got more delegates but still only had one vote. Why was the system designed this way?
    2. Taking into account the historical context of the American Revolution, why did the Articles of Confederation make it difficult for Congress to collect taxes?
    3. Should wealthier states, which paid more in taxes, have received a greater share of votes? Why or why not?
    4. Why might a democratic system turn into "the tyranny of the majority?" Come up with and explain one example of a majority abusing its power.

    Chew on This

    The Constitution balanced power between small and large states better than the Articles of Confederation by creating two chambers of Congress—one with representation by population (the House), one with equal representation (the Senate).

    Under the Articles of Confederation, a minority of states could easily prevent the majority from taking action on a number of fronts, including war and foreign treaties.

  • Power

    American states declared independence in order to have their own government, but they weren't about to let that government turn into a roadblock against personal liberty. Influential thinkers of the time like Thomas Jefferson believed that too much power concentrated in a single place would always turn despotic. "One hundred seventy three despots would surely be as oppressive as one," Jefferson believed. (Source)

    That's why the Articles of Confederation took such care in spreading power out. Even though the national government only had one branch (the legislative), reserving almost all powers for the states ensured that no one group, however broad, was really "in charge."

    Questions About Power

    1. The Articles of Confederation left all unlisted responsibilities to the states. What were the pros and cons of giving such broad powers to the states?
    2. The Articles of Confederation Congress had legislative, judicial, executive, and military authority. Name and explain three reasons it still remained relatively weak.
    3. In today's United States, are some states more powerful than others? Why or why not? Compare and contrast the relative powers of today's states with the states during the Articles of Confederation.
    4. Is the legislative branch of the Constitution more or less powerful than the Confederation Congress under the Articles?

    Chew on This

    The Confederation Congress retained a lot of power in theory—from making war to raising taxes—but was not able to exercise its authority in practice.

    The states under the Articles acted like independent countries in a league, similar to the modern European Union.

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