The Articles of Confederation, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

During the American Revolution it was necessary for the colonies to adopt a temporary constitution that would provide for basic domestic concerns, diplomatic relations and foreign policy, and the prosecution of the war. The Articles of Confederation were drafted by the Continental Congress in 1776-1777. The ideas and specific provisions that are contained in this document indicate the underlying principles of government and ethical philosophy that helped to generate the United States Constitution. The Articles of Confederation are also important from a cultural perspective. This is because the Articles indicate important, fundamental aspects of American character identity. The most important of these characteristics are: a belief in individual liberty, a distrust of centralized government, and a conviction in providing for a strong national defense.

The preoccupation with limiting the power of the federal government is obvious from the very opening of the Articles. In fact, article 2 states: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” 1Although this provision would seem to deal exclusively with the issue of state’s rights, it is also an indication of how strongly individual rights were valued by the framers of the Articles. The following clause reinforces the notion that the federal government is merely a framework for the most basic provisions of defense, and the preservation of rights. The states are not seen in any way as being bound to a central government. Instead, article 3 specifies that: “The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare…”2  There is no mention of the notion of federal law or jurisdiction taking precedence over state’s rights.

The above considerations how, clearly, that part of the underlying philosophical framework for the Articles of Confederation was a deep distrust of centralized power. Obviously, because centralized power presents a threat not only to state power, but to individual liberty, the articles that pertain to state’s rights also pertain to individual rights. From this, we can draw the conclusion that two characteristics are woven into the earliest fabric of the American identity: a distrust of centralized power and a fierce defense of individual freedom. This is not merely a philosophical topic. It relates pragmatically to the actualization of what would later evolve as American democracy. It does so because the conviction that democracy in many ways resided in the people rather than in the institutions of government was a fundamental principle of the American Constitution.

Because the original political philosophy that informed the Articles of Confederacy and the Constitution was a form of social contract theory, both documents provided for the idea that the people, rather than the government, held the true power over the nation. This belief is in fact what made the founding of America possible because the framers of the Constitution understood that no single form of government could withstand corruption forever. Therefore, the right was reserved to the people to overthrow or disband the government if it exceeded its lawful power. The emphatic reservation of all rights not expressly granted to the federal government by the Articles shows that, for the original framers of American democracy, the central government were viewed as, at best, a necessary evil.

One of the powers specified as being held by the federal government was the power to raise money national defense. Article 8 describes the economic authority of the central government as it pertains to the raising of funds for defense and for carrying out war.   The article reads:  “All charges of war, and all other expenses that shall be incurred for the common defense or general welfare, and allowed by the United States in Congress assembled, shall be defrayed out of a common treasury,”3 and this treasury would, of course, be presided over by the federal government. This single power is an enormous one because it allows the federal government to gather massive amounts of funds from the individual states. However, the fund raising authority was reserved for congress, which under the Articles of Confederation allowed one vote per state.   In other words, there was no executive branch that could raise money by Presidential (or other) decree.

The Articles of Confederation also reserved the power to declare war to the congress. This is an extremely important power because it, alone, could influence the disposition of any given state toward foreign powers, and international affairs. Article 9 states that “The United States in Congress assembled, shall have the sole and exclusive right and power of determining on peace and war.”4 While this may seem to be a profound concession to the idea of a powerful central government, the truth of the matter is, the war-powers granted to the federal government under the Articles of Confederation are actually as restrictive as they are expansive. The explanation for this claim takes a moment to clarify. First, by enumerating the powers that are granted to the central government, the Articles are basically defining the federal government as an instrument of the war-making power of the collective states. Second, because the congress must vote unanimously to declare war, any declaration of war should reasonably be expected to reflect the collective will of the confederated states.

What the above considerations mean is that the Articles of Confederation granted only those powers that were necessary to the federal government. It makes no sense to allow states to individually declare war and each state would be placed in a greater state of weakness under such an arrangement. By allowing for a common defense, the individual freedom and liberty of each state is enhanced, rather than restricted. Therefore, it is not that the war-making authority granted to the congress was too-powerful; to the contrary, the war-making powers helped define the limitations of the central government. While a King could unilaterally declare war on an enemy, thereby jeopardizing all of his territories, in America, each state had to give consent for the central government to declare war. Again, like the previously discussed policies of state’s rights and economic power, the articles governing war-making ultimately are rooted in the preservation of individual liberty.

While the Articles of Confederation cannot be said to be the only influence on the creation of the Constitution of the United States, they are probably its most direct and most important influence. Similarly, while the Articles of Confederation are all but forgotten in the popular mind, the characteristics of American identity that are part of the document endure to tis very day. It is in the fabric of the American identity that individual liberty is valued above the perpetuation of government.  While each day we see the expanse of federal power and authority we also see a rise is dissatisfaction with government and distrust of government institutions. It is easy to make a case that American democracy encourages the development of social programs, federal regulations, a tax code, and the expansion of executive power.  However, these realities are not true to the American identity as it was expressed in the earliest political and philosophical documents of our nation’s heritage.

The American identity is steeped in three fundamental principles, all of which are represented throughout the Articles of Confederation and all of which are an integral part of the United States Constitution. These three principles are: a belief in state’s rights, the conviction that individual liberty is more important than government, and the idea that government should provide for a strong national defense. As Americans, we understand almost at an instinctive level that we have entered into a social contract with our government and that its purpose is to protect and preserve our liberties and Constitutional rights. As is evident in the Articles of Confederation, these three principals were viewed as the core of what government was tasked with preserving.

Notes

1-5.  Articles of Confederation : March 1, 1781. Avalon.yale..edu; accessed 11-11-13.;            http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/artconf.asp.

Reference

Articles of Confederation : March 1, 1781. Avalon.yale..edu; accessed 11-11-13.;             http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/artconf.asp

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