Lessons Learned: The Articles of Confederation

Uploaded by cfr on 28.02.2012

Do you think it is easy to write a constitution for a country? Did you ever wonder why the
United States has a constitution that has lasted for more than two centuries while other
countries have failed to find one that works?
I’m Jim Lindsay, and this is Lessons Learned. Our topic today is the Articles of Confederation,
which went into effect on March 1, 1781, when Maryland became the 13th and final colony
to ratify it.
Most of us know all about the major battles and events of the American Revolution. April
19, 1775 saw Paul Revere’s midnight ride and the battles at Lexington and Concord.
July 4,, 1776 saw the Declaration of Independence. The winter of 1777 saw the hardships of Valley
Forge. October 19, 1781 saw the colonists defeat the Redcoats at Yorktown, effectively
ending the war.
What typically gets forgotten in story of the American Revolution, however, is the constitution
the Founding Fathers wrote to govern the new country: the Articles of Confederation. The
Second Continental Congress approved it in November 1777, after more than a year of debate.
The Articles of Confederation reflected the same deep distrust of national government
that had prompted the colonists to rebel in the first place. The individual colonies largely
retained their sovereignty, or power, over events within their own borders. The one major
task they gave the national government was the duty to manage the country’s foreign
Other than that the national government had few powers. It could not impose taxes. Nor
could it regulate economic relations between states or with other countries. The Articles
of Confederation didn’t even create an executive branch. Congress exercised all the powers
of the national government.
The Articles of Confederation no doubt looked sensible on paper. In practice, it was a disaster.
In keeping the national government from becoming too powerful, the Articles made it too weak.
The states, ever jealous of their sovereignty, squabbled among themselves. They negotiated
their own trade deals with Europe. They protected their own industries at the expense of industries
in other states. And they frequently ignored foreign affairs. The Treaty of Paris, which
ended the Revolutionary War, languished for months because so many state delegations failed
to show up for sessions of Congress.
Dissatisfaction with the Articles of Confederation grew over the course of the 1780s. In the
summer of 1787 delegates from all thirteen states, except for Rhode Island, met in Philadelphia
to discuss how to fix the Articles. They quickly decided the smartest move was to dump it entirely.
They ended up writing what became the U.S. Constitution.
So what it is the lesson of the Articles of Confederation? Just this: It is easy to write
a constitution. What is hard is to write a constitution that works. America’s Framers,
a smart and capable bunch, didn’t get it right the first time. Their second effort
has lasted for more than two centuries, but even then it has been formally amended more
than two dozen times.
The difficulty of crafting a constitution that works is worth keeping in mind as we
watch countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Myanmar, and South Sudan struggle to create effective
and legitimate systems of government. Revolutions, political openings, and independence bids
can create opportunities to build democracies and establish the rule of law. But success
is by no means guaranteed.
Here’s a question to consider: what makes for a durable and effective constitution?
I encourage you to weigh in on my blog, The Water’s Edge, which you can find it at CFR.org.
I’m Jim Lindsay. Thank you for watching this installment of Lessons Learned.