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Challenges of the Articles of Confederation: lesson overview

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

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

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?

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