Why We Needed the Constitution Despite Already Having the Articles of Confederation

Artist's depiction of the Founding Fathers

While everyone today knows the US Constitution’s role in American history, few are aware of the Articles of Confederation or exactly why the former replaced the latter in guiding America’s governmental structure. 

America’s Two Different Governments

If you ask most people about America’s founding, they’ll likely tell you about its secession from Great Britain, the ensuing Revolutionary War, the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, and ultimately the implementation of the Bill of Rights and the United States Constitution.

Artist's depiction of the Founding Fathers

What most people will fail to mention, however, is the earlier introduction of the Articles of Confederation. What exactly are the Articles of Confederation, how do they differ from the US Constitution, and most importantly, why did the Articles need to be entirely replaced? Below, we’ll go over all of this and show just how impressive the Founding Fathers indeed were in terms of their foresight for the country as a whole. 

What Are the Articles of Confederation?

Before we can understand why the United States Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation, we must understand what the Articles were exactly and what their overall purpose originally was.

Initially drafted on November 15th, 1777, the Articles of Confederation represented a governmental plan created by the Continental Congress. This plan sought to unify the original 13 colonies while establishing a relatively decentralized governmental structure for the country. The goal was to allow the majority of power to exist within each state’s hands, with the remaining going to a national legislature.

Understanding the dangers of allowing too much power in a centralized body, the Articles of Confederation were written without establishing an executive branch. The court judges saw a similar level of restriction of powers. Even Congress itself was largely circumscribed, only having powers “expressly delegated” to them by their respective individual states. This included the authority to request money, make appropriations, regulate the military, appoint a civil servant, or even declare war. 

What Is the US Constitution? 

Considered the more readily known and accessible of the two, the US Constitution was first drafted on September 17th, 1787, a little under 10 years after the Articles of Confederation. It was ratified on June 21st of the following year and was officially recognized on March 4th, 1789.

Photo of a vintage copy of the US Constitution
The Constitution was written less than a decade after the Articles of Confederation came into effect.

The US Constitution was created to remedy many of the observed weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation while still ensuring a level of state-wide sovereignty that many of the country’s citizens desired after seceding from England. It followed the similar understanding that power should be as decentralized as possible as the Articles, creating the three branches of government: the executive, judicial, and legislative.

Unlike the Articles, the Constitution required the federal government to play a more prominent role in the country’s development and thus took some of the power away from individual states. It also allowed the introduction of several amendments, including the first ten (also known collectively as the Bill of Rights), which offered specific protections of an individual’s civil liberties while also working to restrain the newly empowered government from potential overreach. 

How do the Articles of Confederation Compare to the Constitution?

While there are many similarities between the Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution, there are just as many (if not more) differences between the two governmental structures. 

Governmental Branches & the Federal Powers

One of the biggest differences between the two governmental bodies is their respective branches.

Photo of the Capitol Dome in Washington DC
The Constitution introduced 3 separate branches of government.

Whereas the Articles of Confederation only had a legislative branch appointed by each state legislature, the US Constitution broke its power up into three separate branches of central government: the executive, judicial, and legislative.

The Articles of Confederation, attempting to restrain the federal government as much as possible, gave nearly all of its power to the state government. Conversely, the US Constitution was considered “the law of the land.” This meant that, while the states did hold some level of individual sovereignty, many of the country’s federal laws were sweeping and affected every state equally. 

The Legislative Branch

Not only did both governments differ in the number of branches, but both also had differing views of their respective legislative bodies and how they acted and functioned.

Whereas the Articles of Confederation sought only to create a singular legislative body, the US Constitution instead developed a bicameral legislature in the Senate and the House of Representatives. These dual bodies also functioned very differently, with only the Senate having members appointed by state legislatures, while the House of Representatives got their members via popular vote.

Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress granted each state a single vote. In contrast, under the Constitution, every member of both the House and the Senate was given a vote under Congress. This allowed for the will of voters (by way of the House members) to have a say over governmental politics more so than simply through the individual States’ votes.

Under the Articles, Congress members would serve only one-year terms, while under the Constitution, members of the House would serve two years, whereas Senators would serve six. In addition, while Congress under the Articles would require term limits, that same stipulation was not in place for those under the following Constitution. 

Taxation and Money Powers

Another huge area of contention between the Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution is their overall views surrounding federal powers regarding money and the ability to tax the American people.

Photo of tax documents
Taxation is another area where the Constitution and Articles of Confederation differ greatly.

While the Articles largely gave all powers regarding money to the individual states, the Constitution retained much of those powers. This allowed them greater control over interstate commerce while establishing a universal currency across all states. In particular, the Constitution’s allowance for the federal government to tax the country’s people greatly changed the two bodies’ operating methods.

The Articles, fresh from the Revolutionary War, only sought to request money from the states while not having any ability to enforce or require that the states comply. Conversely, the Constitution’s power to tax citizens allowed them the ability to reliably pay off debts, raise a military, pay Congressional staff, and fund the government’s many other necessary functions and requirements. 

Amenability 

Finally, arguably the most significant difference between the two governmental bodies is their overall view of flexibility and ability to amend and adapt to an ever-changing nation. The Articles of Confederation were seen as hard-lined laws that were essentially set in stone and relatively difficult to change. 

In contrast, while similarly considered definitive, the Constitution’s laws did allow for amendments, alternative interpretations, and a less stringent upholding of certain rules as the country changed over time. 

Why the Articles of Confederation Were Replaced by the US Constitution 

While there are a number of reasons for the replacement of the Articles of Confederation, it namely came down to three major factors: 

  1. An Incredibly Weak Federal Government
  2. No Separation of Powers
  3. Virtually Impossible to Pass Laws or Create Amendments

Reason #1. Weak Federal Government

Probably the main reason for the Constitution’s ratification and replacement of the Articles was due to the former governmental structure being relatively weak and toothless. Under the Articles of Confederation, while technically an entity, the US federal government had no ability to enforce sweeping laws over its respective individual states.

The federal government was unable to tax its citizens, raise money to pay off debts, or establish a military. It could not regulate interstate trade or prevent states from creating their own unique money and currency. 

These issues actively worked against the nation as a whole, as they were less a unified country and more a group of disparate states loosely held together by a semblance of a committee. 

Reason #2. No Separation of Powers

In addition, the Articles of Confederation led to a fairly weak federal government. It actually ran somewhat counter to its overall goal of limiting centralized power.

Not only was much of the power centralized among each individual state, the Articles (ironically enough) enacted a single governing body to oversee everything pertaining to federal decisions (i.e., the legislative body). This meant minimal separation or actual “decentralization” of powers actually happening.

The Constitution altered that by creating the three branches of the national government. In addition, it also took much (not all) of the state’s power and gave it to the federal bodies. This allowed the US federal government to make vital decisions without the express consent of individual states while also ensuring that the national government itself would never grow so powerful as to abuse this ability. 

This was done to perpetually create checks and balances, both among the federal branches and the states themselves. 

Reason #3. Almost Impossible to Pass or Amend Laws

The third main reason was just how tough passing and amending laws at the central government level was while under the Articles. At that time, Congress was only made up of one legislative body – the Senate – and only had 13 members (one per state).

In order to pass any law at the time, it was required that there be a majority of at least nine of the 13 members in favor of the motion. This was even more difficult in terms of creating an Amendment, as there needed to be a sweeping unanimous vote among all 13 members before an Amendment was approved.

By contrast, the Constitution opened the legislative body up and expanded it, now creating a bicameral legislature with the introduction of the House of Representatives. In addition to the Senate members, which were largely appointed by the state legislation, House members were brought in as a voice of the people due to being voted in by way of the popular vote in their respective states. 

This doubled the number of members while also altering the requirements for passing or amending a law. Under the Constitution, the House and Senate only needed a majority vote for either group to pass or amend a law. 

The Right Decision For the Country

While the US Constitution is by no means a perfect document, and there are many admirable aspects put into place with the Articles of Confederation, the simple fact of the matter is that they were a product of their time.

The Articles of Confederation were created as a strong knee-jerk reaction to the oppressive rule of the British monarchy and government. The Continental Congress sought to create a new governmental body that stymied as much governmental control as possible while giving each individual state as much power and sovereignty over their respective land and people as possible. Indeed, a noble aspiration and not something to look down on.

The challenge was largely because, by giving so much power to the individual states, the overarching government was incapable of enacting or enforcing beneficial changes or helping foster interstate commerce between each state. Rather than helping the people by dispersing so much power to individual states, the government was hurting its people in the long term by giving them an inflexible government that was largely ineffectual.

The US Constitution is such an exceptional document because it foresaw exactly what it was giving up by trading power from the states to the federal government. Its authors understood that, while in the short term, it may seem like a dangerous back-step into potential tyranny, by enacting numerous checks and balances, retaining a major portion of states powers to each individual state, and creating the ability to more easily amend laws to help the common man, people would understand that their lives would be much more positively improved under the stronger federal government that could defend them than a largely ineffective one.

This is why, to this day, the American Constitution, while going through several amendments and slight alterations over the centuries, is still holding firm. The Articles of Confederation were simply unable to do even a decade out from its initial draft and creation. 

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