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Challenges of the Articles of Confederation

The first governing system of the United States, the Articles of Confederation, placed most government power in the hands of the states. The weaknesses of this system led states to call for a new Constitution. 

Key points

  • The Articles of Confederation comprised the United States’ first constitution, lasting from 1776 until 1789. The Articles established a weak central government and placed most powers in the hands of the states.
  • Under the Articles, the US economy faltered, since the central government lacked the power to enforce tax laws or regulate commerce.
  • Shays’s Rebellion, an uprising of Revolutionary War veterans in Massachusetts that both the state and national governments struggled to address due to a lack of centralized military power, illustrated the need to create a stronger governing system.

America: the teenage years

The United States’ transition from a ragtag group of colonies to a successful independent nation was a little like the transition period from childhood to adulthood. As the colonies matured, American colonists grew to despise being treated as the children of Great Britain. Like rebellious teens, they vowed that when they won their independence, their government would be nothing like that of the mother country.
It’s no surprise that when the leaders of the former colonies finally did get the chance to set up their own government as the new United States, they were mostly focused on trying to avoid what they had perceived as abuses wrought by an overly-powerful government. Their first constitution was called the Articles of Confederation. It bound the states together in a loose “league of friendship” that permitted the states to retain nearly all government power.
The Articles of Confederation held the new United States together long enough for it to prevail in the Revolutionary War, but once the war was over the league of friends quickly became a league of impoverished quibblers. The Founders had been so concerned with making sure the central government couldn’t become too powerful that they neglected to make it powerful enough to solve the issues facing a new nation.
In this article, you’ll learn about the structure of government under the Articles of Confederation, and about the series of economic and military crises that demonstrated the need for a stronger government.

The US government under the Articles of Confederation

The American states evolved from separate colonies, with unique histories and societies. In the years before and during the Revolution, they learned to find common cause with each other, but they hardly saw themselves as a unified nation.
The Articles of Confederation exemplified this mindset. The document created a confederacy, in which states considered themselves independent entities linked together for limited purposes, such as national defense. State governments had the sovereignty to rule within their own territories. The national government had few powers. It could coin money, direct the post office, and negotiate with foreign powers, including Native American tribes. To raise money or soldiers, it could only request that the states provide what was needed.
First page of the Articles of Confederation, published 1777. Image credit: Library of Congress
The national government had only one branch, the Confederation Congress, in which each state had one vote. Populous Virginia had no more political power than tiny Delaware. The requirements for passing measures were quite high: nine of the thirteen states had to approve a measure for it to pass. Amending the Articles themselves was even harder: all thirteen had to vote in favor of a change.
What could go wrong?

Economic problems under the Articles

One of the biggest problems was that the national government had no power to impose taxes. To avoid any perception of “taxation without representation,” the Articles of Confederation allowed only state governments to levy taxes. To pay for its expenses, the national government had to request money from the states. The states, however, were often negligent in this duty, and so the national government was underfunded.
Without money, the US government could not pay debts owed from the Revolution or easily secure new funds. Foreign governments were reluctant to loan money to a nation that might never repay it. The fiscal problems of the central government meant that the currency it issued, called the Continental, was largely worthless.
The country’s economic woes were made worse by the fact that the central government also lacked the power to impose tariffs on foreign imports or regulate interstate commerce. Thus, it couldn’t protect American producers from foreign competitors. Compounding the problem, states often imposed tariffs on items produced by other states and otherwise interfered with their neighbors’ trade.

Shays’s Rebellion

The national government under the Articles also lacked the power to raise an army or navy. Fears of a standing army in the employ of a tyrannical government had led the writers of the Articles of Confederation to leave defense largely to the states. Although the central government could declare war and agree to peace, it had to depend upon the states to provide soldiers. If state governors chose not to honor the national government’s request, the country would lack an adequate defense.
The weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation became apparent to all as a result of an uprising of Massachusetts farmers known as Shays’s Rebellion.
In the summer of 1786, farmers in western Massachusetts were heavily in debt, facing imprisonment and the loss of their lands. Many of them were veterans, who owed taxes that had gone unpaid while they were away fighting the British during the Revolution. The Continental Congress had promised to pay them for their service, but the national government did not have sufficient money. Moreover, the farmers were unable to meet the onerous new tax burden Massachusetts imposed in order to pay its own debts from the Revolution.
1786 engraving depicting Daniel Shays, left, and Job Shattuck, another leader in the rebellion. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Led by Daniel Shays, the heavily indebted farmers marched to a local courthouse demanding relief. Faced with the refusal of many Massachusetts militiamen to arrest the rebels, with whom they sympathized, the governor of Massachusetts called upon the national government for aid, but none was forthcoming. The uprising was finally brought to an end the following year by a privately funded militia.
Shays’s Rebellion brought home the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. The US government had both failed to pay its veterans and failed to raise a militia in order to put down a rebellion. It had become clear the US government’s inability to impose taxes, regulate commerce, or raise an army hindered its ability to defend the nation or pay its debts.
To find a solution, members of Congress called for a revision of the Articles of Confederation. In 1787, delegates from 12 of the 13 states met in Philadelphia to craft a new Constitution.

Food for thought

Why did the Founders give so little power to the central government when they established the Articles of Confederation?
How did Shays’s Rebellion reveal the weaknesses of government under the Articles of Confederation?

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