The Articles of Confederation American political leaders, fearful of a powerful central government like Britain’s, created a weak national system of government. Significant powers given to the states ultimately made the national government ineffective.
The Articles of Confederation:
Provided for a weak national government
Gave Congress no power to tax or regulate commerce among the states
Provided for no common currency
Gave each state one vote regardless of size or population
Provided for no executive or judicial branch
Ultimately was replaced with a stronger central government through the formation of the Constitution of the United States.
Document: Northwest Ordinance, 1787
Sec. 13. And… to provide also for the establishment of States, and permanent government therein, and
for their admission to a share in the federal councils on an equal footing with the original States, at as
early periods as may be consistent with the general interest:
Art. 5. There shall be formed in the said territory, not less than three nor more than five
States; and the boundaries of the States, as soon as Virginia shall alter her act of cession, and consent to
the same, shall become fixed and established…And, whenever any of the said States shall have sixty
thousand free inhabitants therein, such State shall be admitted, by its delegates, into the Congress of the
United States, on an equal footing with the original States in all respects whatever, and shall be at liberty
to form a permanent constitution and State government: Provided, the constitution and government so to
be formed, shall be republican, and in conformity to the principles contained in these articles; and, so far
as it can be consistent with the general interest of the confederacy, such admission shall be allowed at an
earlier period, and when there may be a less number of free inhabitants in the State than sixty thousand.
Art. 6. There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory…
Done by the United States, in Congress assembled, the 13th day of July, in the year of our Lord 1787,
and of their sovereignty and independence the twelfth.
1 From “The Avalon Project: Northwest Ordinance; July 13,
1787.” Last visited January 28, 2007.
Document: Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison – January 30, 1787
Excerpt of a letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison1
January 30, 1787
Paris, January 30th, 1787
My last to you was of the 16th of December; since which, I have received yours of November 25 and
December 4, which afforded me, as your letters always do, a treat on matters public, individual, and
economical. I am impatient to learn your sentiments on the late troubles in the Eastern states. So far as I
have yet seen, they do not appear to threaten serious consequences. Those states have suffered by the
stoppage of the channels of their commerce, which have not yet found other issues. This must render
money scarce and make the people uneasy. This uneasiness has produced acts absolutely unjustifiable;
but I hope they will provoke no severities from their governments…
I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as
storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the
rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest
republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is a
medicine necessary for the sound health of government.
If these transactions give me no uneasiness, I feel very differently at another piece of intelligence, to wit,
the possibility that the navigation of the Mississippi may be abandoned to Spain…the act which abandons
the navigation of the Mississippi is an act of separation between the Eastern and Western country.
…I should predict that the inhabitants of the United States would force their rulers to take the affirmative
of that question. I wish I may be mistaken in all these opinions.
1 From “A Little Rebellion Now and Then is a Good
Thing” – The Early America Review, Summer 1996. Page last visited January 28, 2007.
The need for reforming the Articles of Confederation
Meeting in Philadelphia
Click above for Mr. Betts
Key leaders of the Constitutional Convention
George Washington, president of the Convention
o Washington presided at the Convention and, although seldom participating in the debates, lent his enormous prestige to the proceedings.
James Madison, “Father of the Constitution”
o Madison, a Virginian and a brilliant political philosopher, often led the debate and kept copious notes of the proceedings—the best record historians have of what transpired at the Constitutional Convention.
o At the Convention, he authored the Virginia Plan, which proposed a federal government of three separate branches (legislative, executive, judicial) and became the foundation for the structure of the new government.
o He later authored much of the Bill of Rights.
Key issues and their resolutions before ratifying a constitution:
Made federal law the supreme law of the land when constitutional, but otherwise gave the states considerable leeway to govern themselves
Balanced power between large and small states by creating a Senate, where each state has two senators, and a House of Representatives, where membership is based on population as stated in the Great Compromise
Appeased the Southern states by counting slaves as three-fifths of the population when determining representation in the United States House of Representatives
Avoided a too-powerful central government by establishing three co-equal branches (legislative, executive, judicial) with numerous checks and balances among them providing for separation of powers Limited the powers of the federal government to those identified in the Constitution
Debates over the ratification of the U.S. Constitution
George Washington and the Federalists supported ratification because they advocated the importance of a strong central government, especially to promote economic development and public improvements. Anti-Federalists, including Patrick Henry, George Mason, and Thomas Jefferson, were opposed to the ratification of the Constitution because they feared an overly powerful central government destructive of the rights of individuals and states, leading to their demand for the incorporation of the United States Bill of Rights.
Issues leading to the formation of political parties Controversy over the Federalists’ support for Hamilton’s financial plan, especially the Bank of the United States; Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality including the Jay Treaty; and the undeclared war on France during the John Adams administration contributed to the emergence of an organized opposition party, the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Formation of political parties The Federalists, led by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, typically believed in a strong national government and commercial economy. They were supported by bankers and business interests in the Northeast. The Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, believed in a weak national government and an agricultural economy. They were supported by farmers, artisans, and frontier settlers in the South. The presidential election of 1800, won by Thomas Jefferson, was the first American presidential election in which power was peacefully transferred from one political party to another.
Document: Articles of Confederation
To all to whom these Presents shall come, we the undersigned Delegates of the States affixed to our
Names send greeting.
Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the [original thirteen] states…
II. Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and
right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress
III. The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their
common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves
to assist each other…
IX. The United States … shall…regulat[e] the alloy and value of coin struck by their own authority, or by
that of the respective States -- fixing the standards of weights and measures throughout the United States
-- regulating the trade and managing all affairs with the Indians…
The United States in Congress assembled shall never engage in a war, … nor enter into any treaties or
alliances, nor coin money, nor regulate the value…nor borrow money on the credit of the United
States…nor appoint a commander in chief of the army or navy, unless nine States assent to the same:
XIII. Every State shall abide by the determination of the United States in Congress assembled, on all
questions which by this confederation are submitted to them. And the Articles of this Confederation shall
be inviolably observed by every State, and the Union shall be perpetual; nor shall any alteration at any
time hereafter be made in any of them; unless such alteration be agreed to in a Congress of the United
States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State.
In Witness whereof we have hereunto set our hands in Congress. Done at Philadelphia in the State of
Pennsylvania the ninth day of July in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy-Eight…
Virginia Declaration of Rights (George Mason)
Stated that governments should not violate the people’s natural rights
Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (Thomas Jefferson)
Supported freedom of religious exercise and separation of church and state
The United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights James Madison consulted the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom when drafting the amendments that eventually became the United States Bill of Rights.