Congress under the Articles…was not a representative assembly. It was a diplomatic assembly. —John Adams
Under the Articles of Confederation (1777–1781), the United States of America consisted of ‘a firm league of friendship’ which upheld state sovereigntythe authority of a state to govern itself or another state; it was states that came together in an alliance with no real central authority to make or enforce a decision. There were many reasons for abandoning the Articles instead of amending them (the original plan). These changes resulted in the Constitution that we know today. One of the most important issues the Articles faced was Congressional Procedures. Within Congressional Procedure the problem can be divided into three simple subtopics: problems with representation (equal vote and unanimity), lack of executive power (and why Congress did not have it), and lastly, it was unclear what authority each state should be granted and what should be left to the federal government.
OVERVIEW OF THE PROBLEM
THE PROBLEM OF REPRESENTATION
Equal Vote It should have been clear from the beginning that voting in Congress would be difficult. When the Articles of Confederation were established, each state, regardless of size, was allowed one vote. This meant that population was not taken into account. Any state, whether it was Delaware-sized or Pennsylvania-sized had an equal say in all matters. While this system of voting kept the smaller states happy, the larger states were unsatisfied; the larger states wanted the voting to be based on population. If a state had more people, they should have more of a say in decisions that affected all the states.
On an individual level, states had a great deal of power; “in the ONE-STATE, ONE-VOTE RULE, state sovereignty was given a primary place even within the national government.”1 Each state had two to seven representatives, which gave states flexibility and some liberty to choose how they would be represented in Congress. This meant their individual interests would be addressed over the needs of the nation as a whole. In voting, smaller states had an advantage with the one-state, one-vote rule. Fortunately for larger states, the system set in place today is partially based on the Virginia Plan—an idea formed in solution to the one-state-one-vote problem. Under the Virginia Plan, voting would be based on population rather than by state. In the end, the system used today, consists of voting based both on population AND equal voting per state. The Senate represents states as individuals and the House of Representatives is based on population.
Unanimity Passing a law under the Articles required a nine-thirteenth majority in Congress. Over 69% (9/13 in percentage) of representatives had to agree in order to pass a law. If we think today it is difficult to get Congress to pass a law with a 51% majority, imagine what it must have been like back then—a time when representatives identified more with their state than their nation because the states were practically independent sovereign-ties. To further the dilemma, in order to make amendments to the Articles, a unanimous vote was required. UNANIMOUS(of an opinion, decision, or vote) held or carried by everyone involved, meaning all states, with representatives with various backgrounds and interests had to agree on a decision—by no means an easy task to accomplish.
LACK OF EXECUTIVE POWER
Even if Congress agreed on laws, enforcing them was yet another daunting task. The nation feared an executive powerthe part of the government with sole authority— the states feared tyranny or returning to a form of government resembling that which they had recently overthrown (see Anti-Federalist Papers). It was evident in tax collecting that an executive power was necessary. The war left Congress with the burden to allocate funds (i.e. taxes) for these debts2 In theory, Congress was supposed to be able to collect taxes to alleviate the debt the war had left.3 In reality with no executive power, Congress could do little to enforce tax payments even though the central government had run out of money.
Executive power was not only necessary for collecting taxes, it was also important for the nation as a whole. They needed a leader to unite the states; they needed someone to command authority in order to make decisions. Although many people feared this person could become a tyrant, the failure of the Articles of Confederation showed just how much the country needed an executive power.
The Articles made it difficult for Congress to exert power because authority was too ambiguous. A perfect example of unclear authority is foreign affairs. Congress had little control over negotiations between each state and other countries. “Virginia was a state as France was a state…Virginia was so active in foreign affairs that she established a clerkship of foreign correspondence;” people identified with their state far more than with America as a whole. Defense and security were seen as a local responsibility and some state constitutions, such as South Carolina, permitted states to “make wars, conclude peace, enter treaties, lay embargoes, and maintain an army and navy.” The Articles of Confederation merely created an alliance between the states because Congress did not have a say in foreign affairs. Each state gave itself the authority to conduct its own foreign affairs. This issue and why there should be a centralized power to deal with foreign affairs is further discussed in a primary source by Hamilton and Madison in the Federalist Papers No. 20. Congress alone could not control the states in respect to foreign policies. The Articles of Confederation failed to define roles and relationships between local and national governments.4
The Articles of Confederation were doomed from the beginning because there was no central government to make executive decisions. The only form of centralized government they had, Congress, was flawed. States were allowed to conduct foreign affairs independently, while Congress struggled to collect taxes and vote on national issues—according to John Adams, “Congress under the Articles…was not a representative assembly. It was a diplomatic assembly.” Although “the original Federalists wanted a weak central government [because] they were united by their hatred of the tyranny for British public administration, strong patriotic feelings for individual states, distrust of politicians and rulers generally…” In the end, it became obvious that a non-existent executive power was a great disservice to the new nation. Instead of amending the Articles of Confederation, after a strenuous amount of debate and compromise, the Articles of Confederation were abandoned and thus was born the Constitution—the new supreme law of the land.5
- How did the failure of the Articles of Confederation help shape the Constitution?
- Prediction: What would have happened without an executive branch? Would the U.S. have survived? Why or Why not?