The Articles of Confederation was the first constitution of the United States. The Articles took place from March 1, 1781 to June 21, 1788. At the time of the American Revolution, the Articles were written by a committee of the Second Continental Congress. John Dickson was the head of the committee. He presented a report on the proposed articles to the Congress on July 12, 1776. He wanted a strong central government, control over the western lands, equal representation for the states, and the power to levy taxes.
A powerful central government was feared by the thirteen states. John Dickson's articles were drastically changed before they sent them to all the states for ratification. The Continental Congress had been careful to give the states as much independence as possible and to specify the limited functions of the federal government. Many years passed before the states ratified the articles. Disagreements were made over boundary lines.
Decisions were made by state courts, on differing tariff laws, and trade restrictions between the states. The small states wanted equal representation with the large states in Congress, and the large states were afraid they would have to pay an excessive amount of money to support the federal government. The states continued to disagree over control of the western territories. The states wanted the government to control the sale of these territories so that all the states profited. The bordering states wanted to control as much land as they could. The states eventually agreed to give control of all western lands to the federal government, paving the way for final ratification of the articles on March 1, 1781.
The articles created a loose confederation of independent states that gave limited powers to a central government. The national government consisted of a single house of Congress, where each state would have to vote. Out of thirteen states, three would have to give consent so the Congress could borrow money as well as declare war and enter into treaties and alliances with foreign nations. The federal government had no judicial authority and Congress only had the judicial authority to arbitrate between states. The Congress denied the power to levy taxes. The new federal government was financed by donations from the states based on the value of each state's lands.
Any amendment to the articles required the unanimous approval of all 13 states. The Second Continental Congress wanted to limit the power of the central government so they created one without sufficient power to govern effectively. This led to serious national and international problems. The greatest weakness of the federal government under the Articles of Confederation was its inability to regulate trade and levy taxes. The states sometimes refused to give the government the money it needed, and they engaged in tariff wars with one another.
The government could not pay off the debts it had incurred during the revolution, including paying soldiers who had fought in the war and citizens who had provided supplies to the cause. Congress could not pass needed measures because they lacked the nine-state majority required to become the laws. The states largely ignored Congress and they were unable to carry out their duties. They could not enforce cooperation. The Congress could not force the states to adhere to the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1783 ending the American Revolution. This was humiliating to the new government, especially when some states started their own negotiations with foreign countries.
The new nation was unable to defend its borders from the British and Spanish because it could not pay for an army when the states would not contribute the necessary funds. Alexander Hamilton of New York and James Madison of Virginia criticized the limits placed on the central government, and General George Washington is said to have complained. The Congress called for a Constitutional Convention to be held in May to revise the articles. The convention wrote the present Constitution of the United States, which gained some of the features of the Articles of Confederation but gave considerably more power to the federal government.
It provided for an executive branch and allowed the government to tax its citizens. Congress also went from one house to two houses- the Senate and House of Representatives.