For many modern states, including the USA, studies of the historical course of formation of federative relations are of unique scientific value. The U.S. path to independence was not straightforward: British colonies were able to win the right to self-government only during the American Revolution of 1775-1783. The result of liberation was the creation and ratification in 1787 of the primary law of the state, the Constitution of the USA. However, even before that, numerous attempts were made to create a legal instrument that could record the complex relations between the states existing at that time. One such effort was the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, in 1781. This essay pursues to compare and contrast these documents in terms of their approach to public administration.
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Articles of Confederation
The Articles of Confederation were the first successful attempt to organize and mobilize the original thirteen colonies. Before the adoption of this document, any legislative activity or political initiative was considered to have undermined the British crown. As early as May 10, 1776, the Second Continental Congress had accepted a resolution authorizing the colonies to establish their governments that could best ensure the security of the population. Thus, state administrations began to adopt their Constitutions that governed the foundational relationship between the individual, society, and the state, establishing fundamental human rights and the structure of the supreme authority of the state. The situation changed in June 1776, when the Second Continental Congress established a committee to draft the Articles of Confederation, the first Constitution adopted by Congress on November 15, 1777 (Maggs, p. 404). However, it did not enter into force until three years of ratification by thirteen states on March 1, 1781. Legally, an alliance of independent confederate states, bearing the U.S. name, was consolidated.
The Confederation was not a state in its sense, but an alliance of sovereign states united for the joint solution of foreign policy tasks, mainly the successful fight against Great Britain. Therefore, the Articles of the Confederation were not a constitution of a single state, but an interstate treaty of union and cooperation. This legal act created the sphere of exclusive powers of the union state and preserved the sovereignty.
Nevertheless, general state affairs were resolved through a unicameral Congress convened annually. Each state had one vote, although the number of state delegates, depending on the population, could reach seven. At the same time, the powers of the separate governments were quite broad. First, the subjects of the Confederation comprised foreign policy issues, including the declaration of war, the conclusion of peace, the appointment of ambassadors, and international treaties. Second, the governments could manage the organization of the army, appoint commanders, and spend military funds. In addition, state powers included minting coins, postal affairs, and examining possible interstate conflicts.
The confederative form of government, due to the weakness of central power, was not able to overcome the economic chaos of the post-war period and prevent the threat of civil war caused by the dissatisfaction of the masses. The key points where the Articles of Confederation were losing out included the absence of a general executive and judicial power (“The Constitution”). In addition, there was no taxing authority, hence the money could not be raised to pay off military expenses and debts.
Only the reform of the Confederation and the centralization of state power capable of guaranteeing the rights of owners could stop the revolution from developing further. Adopted on September 17, 1787, the U.S. Constitution was transferred to the Continental Congress, which forwarded it to the legislative bodies on September 28, where it was further ratified by their conventions (“The Constitution”). Ratification was required in most states for it to enter into force. The first to approve it on December 7, 1787, was the State of Delaware, and the ninth was New Hampshire, whose ratification brought the Constitution into force.
The new fundamental republican law substantially updated the previous document, improving the shortcomings of The Articles of the Confederation. In particular, the Constitution created a bicameral system of Congress, where each of the two senators had one vote. The U.S. Constitution provided for the creation of a strong executive power, which was entrusted to a president elected for four years by indirect election. Compared to the Articles of the Confederation, unanimous approval by all states was not required for ratification decisions – nine was sufficient.
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According to the U.S. Constitution, the federal bodies had the right to declare war, conclude peace treaties, conduct foreign policy, regulate foreign trade and trade between states, mint coins, manage the army and navy. At the same time, the document did not contain a list of rights reserved for the states, stating only what the states are not entitled to do. The supremacy of the rights of the federation concerning the rights of states was stressed: thus, the principle of federal-state structure based on the recognition of a high degree of autonomy of states was enshrined.
In conclusion, the U.S. Constitution succeeded the Articles of Confederation, mostly updating potentially weak and conflicting points. The Articles of Confederation defined significant state power, and there was no universal governing body. The Confederation with a weak government did not meet the needs of capitalism, which needed a persuasive central authority capable of overcoming the political and economic divisions of individual states. The U.S. Constitution changed this by building a republican form of government. The establishment of such a government was also dictated by foreign policy considerations – the need to enhance the international standing of the new state.
- Maggs, Gregory E. “A Concise Guide to the Articles of Confederation as a Source for Determining the Original Meaning of the Constitution.” The George Washington International Law Review, vol. 85, no. 1, 2017, 397-420.
- “The Constitution: How Did it Happen.” National Archives, 2019.