The Articles of the Confederation (1781-1789) preceded the New Constitution of the US ratified in 1789. Although the two documents have some commonalities, they differ in many respects. One significant similarity was that both documents sought to establish a democracy, not a monarchy or aristocracy (Goldfield et al., 2013). Further, they both espoused that foreign policy was a preserve of the federal government, only Congress would declare war and regulate currency, and citizens in all states were equal (Totten, 2012).
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The dissimilarities between the two documents are many and diverse. Under the Articles, the “states were sovereign entities”, while in the Constitution, the sovereignty rests with the people and is exercised by the states and federal government (Totten, 2012, p. 67). Further, the Articles did not provide for independent executive or federal courts. All these provisions exist in the Constitution. Concerning Congressional authority, the power to impose taxes and regulate interstate or international trade that are enshrined in the Constitution were lacking in the Articles (Totten, 2012). Approval by three-quarters of the states and a unanimous vote were required to amend the Constitution and the Articles, respectively. The two documents also differed on specific Congressional powers, unicameral versus bicameral Congress, state versus national armed forces, voting in Congress, etc.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Multiple strengths and weaknesses were inherent in the two documents. Totten (2012) writes that the Articles conferred too much power to the states, resulting in a weak federal government. The weaknesses of the Articles were mostly to do with Congressional powers. While this document gave Congress the mandate of declaring war and creating armed forces, it did not allow this legislative body to draft soldiers. Further, under the Articles, Congress could sign bilateral peace treaties; however, it had no power to enforce them (Lim, 2014). It was mandated to borrow money, but could not collect taxes to service the public loans. The other main weaknesses included no national currency, federal courts, or interstate commerce regulation in the Articles (Lim, 2014).
The Articles had inherent strengths. Under this document, Congress successfully adjudicated over the western problem, i.e., the conflict over former British territories to the west of the Appalachians, in 1787 (Totten, 2012). The Congress passed the North West Ordinance that gave a framework for dividing these regions amongst the states. These Ordinances helped resolve later boundary disputes. The Congress established under the Articles was able to create the “Federal Court of Appeals to resolve prize cases”, laying the ground for the current Federal court system (Totten, 2012, p. 74).
The Constitution’s strengths lie in the inbuilt and restricted mechanism of ratifying amendments to resolve identified flaws (e.g., the 13th Amendment), a clear separation of powers, popular sovereignty, limited government, and federalism (Totten, 2012). In particular, checks and balances that include the judiciary and a bicameral legislature help avoid an imperial executive. Some of its earlier weaknesses included male-only suffrage, no term limits, and the Electoral College that undermines the popular vote.
The Drafting of the Constitution
Some critical events constituted the impetus for the drafting of the 1789 Constitution. First, the 1786 Shay’s Rebellion challenged the founders to establish a stronger federal government (Goldfield et al., 2013). Second, the Annapolis Convention held to negotiate on internal trade issues resolved to organize a constitutional convention to review the provisions of the Articles. The states pursued sectional interests in the matters of slavery and representation during the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, but concessions were made. According to Goldfield et al. (2013), initially, two proposals were put on the table: the Virginia plan that favored a bicameral legislative body based on population and a powerful federal government and the New Jersey plan that pushed for a unicameral legislature based on equal state representation. To resolve this stalemate, the ‘Great Compromise’ was proposed by Roger Sherman; it involved a bicameral legislature – US House (seats allocated according to state population) and Senate (equal representation) (Goldfield et al., 2013).
The free (northern) states favored abolitionism, a move the southern (slave) states opposed. In 1808, the two factions arrived at a compromise after two decades following the abolition of slavery through a Congressional legislation (Lim, 2014). In addition, the slaveholding states held that the indentured population should count when allocating seats in the US House. Finally, the ‘three-fifths compromise’ was reached, where a slave was counted as 3/5 of a person in this formula. The east-west split was about giving the western territories political equality. The ultimate settlement was that newly admitted states in the west would at par with eastern ones (Lim, 2014).
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Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists Debate
The debate for the ratification of the constitution pitted federalists against anti-federalists. Many federalists like James Madison were proponents of a stronger federal government as enshrined in the law (Goldfield et al., 2013). In contrast, the anti-federalist led by John Hancock opposed the Constitution and supported powerful states. The proponents, through a series of federalist papers, sought to convince the opposing figures to vote to ratify the draft document (Taylor, 2013).
For example, in Federalist paper 39, Madison attempts to “lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty” (Taylor, 2013, p. 144). He advocates for the three arms of government and shared power between the central government and the states. In contrast, anti-federalists opposed the ratification of the constitution, arguing that the powers given to Congress to “lay and collect taxes and duties” would deprive the ordinary people of their property rights (Taylor, 2013, p. 144). On this basis, they viewed the Constitution as an undemocratic document that takes power from the states and the common person.
The differences between the two factions are evident in the bill of rights debate. While the opponents argued that the preamble of the Constitution should contain a bill of rights, proponents held that it espoused all rights (Lim, 2014). The anti-federalists rejected the federalist argument that the document is in itself a bill of rights. They wondered why fundamental freedoms of religion, expression, and a fair trial were missing in the Constitution (Lim, 2014). They further viewed the Federalist support for a powerful Congress and congressional laws that are superior to state statutes as inconsistent with the bill of rights. However, the anti-federalist agenda was to limit federal influence on the states.
Ultimately, the balance between the national and state interests came in the form of the 10 Amendments. The First Congress amended the Constitution to include religious and free expression freedoms and liberty to assemble (Lim, 2014). The other amendments included right to gun ownership, fair trial, petition, etc. Thus, the bill of rights was enacted with the balance of powers of the federal government and the states left intact.
Goldfield, D., Abbott, C., Anderson, V. D., Argersinger, J. E., Argersinger, P. H., & Barney, W. M. (2013). The American journey: A history of the United States, volume 1 (to 1877) (7th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.
Lim, E. (2014). The lover’s quarrel: The two foundings & American political development. Oxford, MS: Oxford University Press.
Taylor, J. (2013). Politics on a human scale: The American tradition of decentralization. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Totten, R. J. (2012). Security, two diplomacies, and the formation of the U.S. constitution: Review, interpretation, and new directions for the study of the early American period. Diplomatic History, 36(2), 77-117. Web.