The Articles of Confederation served as the constitution of the United States from March 1, 1781, to March 4, 1789.
That the Articles of Confederation is more often remembered for its weaknesses than its strengths shouldn't come as a surprise, considering that they paved the way for the new US Constitution―the one that is followed as the supreme law of the United States today. That, however, doesn't mean that the Articles was devoid of any positive attributes. By 1780, all the thirteen original states had their written constitution in place, and yet, they needed something that could hold them together. That 'something' came in the form of the Articles of Confederation.
An Introduction to the Articles of Confederation
Simply referred to as the Articles at times, the Articles of Confederation was a written agreement containing a set of rules for the functioning of the national government of the United States. It was drafted by a committee comprising delegates from all the thirteen states―appointed by the Second Continental Congress―in 1777 and ratified in 1781. The agreement centralized power in the hands of state governments and left the national government with very little or no authority. In fact, the national government was totally dependent on states for most of its operations. The end result was chaos in both, the national and international affairs of the United States, and thus, the Congress was forced to take the decision to revise it.
Strengths of the Articles of Confederation
Despite its drawbacks, one cannot deny the fact that the Articles of Confederation was the first constitution of the United States, and its biggest strength was its ability to bring all the thirteen original states together in order to establish a common legislature. Each of these states, which were more often at the loggerheads before the implementation of the Articles, were expected to respect the laws of other states.
The fact that most powers rested in the hands of state governments might have turned out to be its biggest drawback in the long run. However, when it was being drafted, this centralization of power in the favor of states was deemed essential to eliminate the chances of oppressive form of government, such as monarchy, at the center. It was a true form of democracy wherein people were a part of the government, which most people thought was a welcome change after years under King George.
The Articles also gave the national government power to deal with foreign nations and sign treaties with them. The government used these powers to accelerate the development of the nation and solve several problems affecting the nation as a whole. The Treaty of Alliance with France (1778) and the Peace Treaty with England (1783) are among the best examples of treaties under the Articles of Confederation.
Other than the foreign affairs department, various Congressional departments, including the Native Indian affairs, postal service, and the treasury, were formed as a part of this agreement. It also had the power to raise an army, and even to wage a war or make peace. The latter was perhaps the most important for a country which was otherwise divided into thirteen individual entities.
The Articles of Confederation also had a provision for creation of new states, whereby those regions with population of 60,000 or more could qualify as a state. Furthermore, it also kept the doors open for Canada―the Province of Quebec―to declare its independence and join the Confederation.
Though the Articles of Confederation could last only for a few years, the national government did pass some of the most important acts of the American history during this period.
For instance, the Land Ordinance Act (1785) was passed to develop the neglected western lands. It split the land and put it up for sale, and the money that came from it was used to pay off national debts. Similarly, the Northwest Ordinance (1787) was passed to ensure effective governance of the newly created townships.
As time elapsed, the problems with the Articles started to surface one after the other, resulting in severe criticism of the document on various fronts. When the committee comprising delegates from the thirteen states, including the Founding Fathers of the United States, met at the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787 to revise it, they came to a mutual agreement that it was better to draft a new constitution instead of revising the existing agreement. Eventually, the Articles of Confederation was replaced by the US Constitution as the supreme law of the land in 1789.