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What was the Articles of Confederation?

The Articles of Confederation, America's first governing document, allowed states to act like independent islands, leading to chaos. Problems included inconsistent currency and difficulties in trade negotiations. The Constitution replaced it, balancing centralized control with state liberties, and introducing a presidency. Over time, the balance has shifted towards federal power.

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Video transcript

- So, John. People are always talking about the Constitution. But, the Constitution was not the first founding document of the United States. What were the Articles of Confederation, and why did they need to get replaced? - Well, the Articles of Confederation were the first loose set of rules to govern these 13 states, but they were a mess. Essentially, they allowed the states to be kind of their own little sovereign islands. So, it was not a united nation. It was like an Archipelago of islands. And, the reason they were a mess. There's a couple of things. One, when they tried to repay the Revolutionary War soldiers, Congress and Washington with very little power, had to go to the states and say, please give us some money so we can repay the soldiers. A lot of the states said, no thank you. We're not going to do that. Then if you had a river that rolled through several different states, and you wanted to have a trade agreement with the Spanish, for example, to use that river and trade along it, then the government didn't have one way to negotiate with the Spanish. Individual states had to do it, and individual states had different interests. Some wanted to trade with the Spanish. Some didn't want to trade at all. And so, how do you get those states to agree on something? There was also not universal coinage. The states all made their own money and differently. Well, states might print a bunch of money in order to payoff some debts, and then the money in one state is worth less than the money in another, who regulates all of that? So, commerce, and industry, and self-defense. There was no way to raise an army an pay for it. So, the nation was crumbling before they got to Philadelphia in 1787. - And to your point, in most countries the parts of the country are called things like provinces, but ours are states, because they view themselves as individual countries. - Absolutely, and because of course, the Articles of Confederation had been formed in the wake of this fear, and the experience of the fear of a monarchy. So, they wanted personal liberty, and get the monarchy and national control, throw it all away, because they believe that once you consolidate control, in a national government of any kind, that it would trample liberty. And so, after having fought a revolution for the purposes of liberating the people, you're not gonna design a government that then stomps down on that liberty. So, they created something that gave the states lots of flexibility, and then that flexibility allowed everybody to go off in their different directions. - So, Articles of Confederation, maybe too much independence for the individual states. So, it seems like there was a consensus to fix it. What was the central debate when they decided to fix it? - Well, there was a consensus it had to be fixed, but when they got to Philadelphia. First of all, Rhode Island was invited and said no thank you, so 12 of the 13 states showed up. And, they knew they wanted to centralize things. But, what did that mean? And, did it mean one president, or a council of presidents? Did it mean a strong Congress? How strong? Could they tell states what to do? Well, if they did that then they were acting just like George III had acted. So, they had to iron out all of these issues to bring enough central control, and enough quick movement of government, that it could address national problems, but not so much that it trampled and stomped on that liberty. And, that was the constant debate. Constantly trying to figure out how to keep the balance between giving enough national power, but enough liberty. And that, some of the biggest fights included fights over slavery, North versus South, fights over big states versus small states. Who has representation in this national government, and how do you figure that out? And then of course, the question of do we want a president? Will it be a single person, and how the dickens do we elect that person? Which led us to the Electoral College, which has had some bumpy history. - And, where do you think we ended up? If on a scale of zero to 10. If was zero was a complete, you know, independent states, and 10 is a federal government that just controls everything. Where do you think the US Constitution ended up relative to the Articles of Confederation? - Well, in September of 1787, when it gets September 17th, 1787. When the new Constitution gets voted on, it is a stronger national document that has basically three main parts. One, the people are at the heart and center of it. It is the people who are the representatives, or at the center of the republican government. The second thing is that the national government can tell states what to do in some instances. Those instances are circumscribed, but it can happen. The states have to fall in line. That was very new, and there is this thing called a presidency which is created. Single person, created really in the mold of George Washington. So, it is a nationalized government, but with a strong attention to this question of protecting liberty through a balance of power system, so that both the national government has checks and balances, and also the relationship between the federal government and the state government has a number of checks and balances. So, even though they went in a more centralized direction, they were constantly attentive to this idea of liberty, keeping it free in the states, and not messing with them too much in their effort to get some kind of centralized control. - So, it sounds like they might have gone from a one or a two with the Articles of Confederation, to maybe a seven? Six? - Well, they went, I think they went from a one or two to maybe a five or a six, which has now moved. - Over time. - Over time, closer to maybe an eight or nine. - Fascinating.