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The Articles of Confederation

KC‑3.2.II.B (KC)
PCE (Theme)
Unit 3: Learning Objective H
Before the United States had the Constitution, it had the Articles of Confederation, a much weaker government that lasted from 1777 to 1789. In this video, Kim and Leah discuss the pros and cons of the Articles, and the reasons they were discarded in favor of a new Constitution.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] Hey, this is Kim and I'm here with Leah, Khan Academy's US Government and Politics Fellow. Welcome Leah. - [Leah] How's it going? - [Kim] Alright, so we're talking about the Articles of Confederation, which I think many people don't realize was the first constitution of the United States before the one that we have now since 1789. So could you take us through a little bit what the Articles of Confederation were and the context in which we first brought them on as a governmental system? - [Leah] Sure, so I think the most important thing to understand about the Articles of Confederation and why we would talk about this is because one of the biggest debates that we have in our history is about the balance of power between the federal government and state governments. When the Articles of Confederation were first created, it was in the middle of the American Revolution. They were created in 1777, and so the question becomes, well, how can we run a government that looks as different from monarchy as possible? - [Kim] Right, so they're trying to run away from the past that they're getting away from in the Revolutionary War and trying to create a separate government that doesn't have any of those abuses that they are rebelling against. - [Leah] If they're running away from a monarchy, what they're running towards is what we would call limited government. - [Kim] OK. - [Leah] So their central government, which is synonymous with a federal government, the central government is actually really, really, really small. - [Kim] OK. - [Leah] They don't have an executive branch. They only have Congress. They don't even have a judicial branch. So Congress is made up of all 13 states. Every state had one representative. - [Kim] OK. - [Leah] In order to change the Articles of Confederation, if they wanted to pass an amendment, they had to get unanimous consent from all 13 states. - [Kim] OK, so they're trying to make sure that all of the states are represented equally, but that also sounds like it would have a lot of hurdles to overcome when it comes to getting consensus. - [Leah] Yeah, for laws, you had to get nine out of 13 states to actually pass a law. So if you can imagine, if you're in a room of 13 people and you all have to agree on one pizza topping for the rest of your lives. (Kim laughs) It would be almost impossible, right? - [Kim] Wow, OK, alright, so it sounds like there are some problems with the Articles of Confederation, but did they do anything good for us in this early period? - [Leah] Yeah, so the biggest thing is that it unites all 13 colonies who are now states under one government. - [Kim] OK. - [Leah] This government is able to pass a really favorable treaty with Britain and end the Revolutionary War in 1783, the Treaty of Paris. - [Kim] OK, so this is kind of the government that gets us through the revolutionary war and is with us when we first start in the 1780s. - [Leah] Yeah, and one another specific law that they pass is the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and this Northwest Ordinance kinda tells us how we are going to expand as we move west and what are we going to do with that land, and that's a really important idea when we're moving forward with our country. The only problem is with the Articles of Confederation is there is a lot of things that we still have to figure out as we're growing, there's a lot of growing pains. - [Kim] So what led the early government of the United States to realize that they wanted to abandon these Articles of Confederation in favor of a different constitution? - [Leah] So the inciting incident is Shays' Rebellion. It happens in Massachusets, and it's a group of farmers led by this guy named Daniel Shays. What's happening is that we had just gotten out of the Revolutionary War, and a lot of of the people who had fought in the Revolutionary War still hadn't gotten payment for their duty. They also were experiencing really high state taxes, so Daniel Shays and these farmers are very upset, obviously, in their wanting their money and so they started rebelling, but the problem is, with the way that the central government that was built, first, Congress had no ability to levy or collect taxes. If they couldn't collect taxes, they had no ability to actually pay back their farmers. Along with that, they didn't have any money to create a military, so each state had their own militia, but the United States as a whole as a country did not have a military to suppress this rebellion. So on both ends, we are in a really bad situation politically. - [Kim] Wow, so, there's this moment where you find armed rebellion against the United States for a lack of money and the US government finds that it can't raise money and it can't raise an army to put down this rebellion. - [Leah] Exactly, and so there is this fear immediately. And what we see is a lot of the founding fathers that we know and really respect today like George Washington and Ben Franklin and Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, they get together and they say this is a problem, we need to change what we have, and this leads to the Constitutional Convention in which we draft our second constitution. - [Kim] Right, yeah, so in 1787, the leaders of the United States get together and say, alright, the Articles of Confederation aren't working. We're gonna need a stronger central government, even though we were trying to get away from the monarchy and now let's think of something that's going to work a little bit better for us.