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Challenges of the Articles of Confederation: lesson overview

AP.GOPO:
CON‑1 (EU)
,
CON‑1.B (LO)
A high-level overview of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, which led states to call for a convention to revise or replace them.
The Articles of Confederation formed the first governing system of the United States of America, which linked the states during the turbulent years of the American Revolution. Under the Articles of Confederation, which linked the states in a ‘loose league of friendship,’ the central government had no power to tax or to compel individual states to abide by its decisions.
Image of the title page of the Articles of Confederation.
The Articles of Confederation. Image credit: Library of Congress
After the Revolutionary War, a series of problems, including economic problems, disputes between states, and an armed rebellion, made it clear that the United States needed a stronger central government to address its challenges.

Key terms

TermDefinition
Articles of ConfederationThe first government system of the United States, which lasted from 1776 until 1789. The Articles placed most power in the hands of state governments. Government under the Articles lacked an executive or a judicial branch.
Confederation CongressThe central government under the Articles of Confederation, composed of delegates chosen by state governments. Each state had one vote in the Congress, regardless of its population. The Congress had difficulty legislating as the Articles required nine of the thirteen states to vote to approve any measure, and a unanimous vote in order to amend the Articles themselves.
Shays’s RebellionAn uprising of Revolutionary War veterans in Massachusetts, who had not been paid for their military service as the federal government lacked the power to raise funds through taxation. Led by veteran Daniel Shays, the rebellion demonstrated the weaknesses of the federal government under the Articles, as it could neither raise the money to pay the veterans nor raise an army to put down the uprising.

Problems of the Articles of Confederation

ProblemConsequence
The national government could not tax citizens directly, only request money from the states.The states rarely contributed money, meaning the national government could not pay its debts or fund initiatives.
The national government could not regulate international or interstate trade.The national government could not stop states from undermining it by making their own trade agreements with foreign nations.
The national government could not raise an army, only request that the states send soldiers.States could refuse to send soldiers, making it difficult to defend the nation.
Each state only had one vote in Congress, regardless of its population.The citizens of small states had proportionally more political power than the citizens of large states.
The national government had no executive branch.The national government had no way of implementing or enforcing its legislative decisions.
The national government had no judicial branch.There was no effective way to resolve disputes between states, such as competing claims to the same territory.
Passing laws required the approval of nine states, and amending the Articles required the approval of all thirteen states.It was difficult to get enough consensus to make laws and nearly impossible to fix the Articles themselves.

Key takeaways from this lesson

The first draft of a constitutional government: The Articles of Confederation were the first national constitution, which outlined the structure, functions, and limitations of the US government. This “first draft” of a constitution demonstrated that the new United States government would be both a republic (a government of elected representatives) and a limited government (restricted by laws).
The weak central government established in the Articles made a lot of sense during the American Revolution, when it brought together a group of former colonies to coordinate a war against the government of Great Britain, which the American patriots perceived as far too powerful. Although the Articles ultimately proved unequal to the task of governing the country after the Revolution, they were an important first step toward the current US Constitution.
Balancing state and national power: The Articles of Confederation created a national governing system that placed most power in the hands of the states. The Founders feared giving too much power to a central government, which might become tyrannical. But they overdid it, leaving a central government that could not fund itself, resolve disputes between its component states, or defend the country.
In the Constitutional Convention, delegates from the states would attempt to address these weaknesses while still limiting the power of government.

Review questions

Name three major problems of the Articles of Confederation, and explain the implications of those problems.
In what ways was the governmental system established in the Articles of Confederation similar to US government today? In what ways was it different?

Want to join the conversation?

  • leafers seed style avatar for user Lu
    What are the strengths of the Articles of Confederation?
    (12 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user leahmarquez
      From the author:The Articles of Confederation had a couple of strengths. For one, it established a government that was able to sign treaties with France and Britain and organized the end of the Revolutionary War. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress was incredibly powerful and could settle disputes between states and solve territorial issues by passing legislation like the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

      Even with those strengths though, the federal government wasn't strong enough to solve the problems of the new nation. That's why several of the Framers proposed replacing the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution!
      (24 votes)
  • mr pants green style avatar for user schaeferingbrian21
    How long did it take to spread the word of a new laws back then?
    (8 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user JOHN does CODE
      An excellent question to which there is no specific answer. Here's an answer, though: Most people living in civilizations would get a newspaper back then, and most other people wouldn't have anyone around to enforce the laws anyway.
      I hope this helps to answer your question.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Christiane159
    So what about intra-state disputes. Did the government under the articled of confederation have the power to get involved?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user brianna.brooks
    How did the lack of executive and judicial branches weaken the national government under the Articles of Confederation?
    (2 votes)
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    • sneak peak blue style avatar for user 🅻🅸🅶🅷🆃BENDER
      Congress had all federal power. With no judicial and executive branches, there was no one to interpret or execute the laws. Not that that mattered. Since the Articles Of Confederation gave most of the power to the individual states, there was not much of a unifying factor except that they were American. Congress could not print money, raise taxes, etc.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user martcalh14
    Why were the Articles of Confederation written to give states more power?
    (2 votes)
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    • sneak peak blue style avatar for user 🅻🅸🅶🅷🆃BENDER
      The United States had gained independence from a monarchy, Britain. The reason the started the war for independence was because they thought they had no representation. Moreover, they didn't like the monarchy, where all power came from a single person (and his puppets), so they gave a great deal of power to each state to reduce the power in a single person's hand.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user richardrubye
    I still don't understand.
    What did the government have no power to do what?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user aemmanuel
    What are the strengths of the Articles of Confederation?
    (1 vote)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Hecretary Bird
      The Articles of Confederation, while largely ineffective in establishing a strong federal government, had some merits. The congress could still engage in foreign policy and deal with Native Americans. The Northwest Ordinance is regarded as one of the few great achievements of the Articles of Confederation. It created a method for admitting new states to the Union and gave rights to the new territories, including the abolishment of slavery (plus a mini fugitive slave act). It also established that soon-to-be-states had to have public education, among other things.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Aliza
    Why were states given only one vote each regardless of their population in the Articles of confederation?
    (1 vote)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user 207520
      The reason they had thought that was because it goes back to the idea of no one having more power than the other. So they had given each other one vote in order to keep every state on the same level, and so no state had a greater say than another state. Basically a checks and balances type of idea.
      (5 votes)
  • hopper cool style avatar for user mbuchkowski
    what was wrong with the powers of congress?
    (1 vote)
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  • starky seed style avatar for user vandell . ratcliff
    What were the main strengths and weaknesses of the AOC ?
    (1 vote)
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