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Essays about the Articles of Confederation

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DBQ: “From 1781 to 1789 the Articles of Confederation provided the United States with an effective government.” Using the documents and your knowledge of the period, evaluate this statement.

Sample Essay 1: Excellent (score of 9)

Some historians consider the confederation period of American history, from 1781 to 1789, the most critical era in the nation’s development. Having rebelled against royal authority, the collection of American colonies, now become a collection of American states, had to develop a new government. This government was the Articles of Confederation, a basic constitution, which was ratified by all the states in 1781 before the Revolutionary War ended. But from their conception in 1781 to their abandonment in 1789, the Articles were totally inadequate, providing the U.S. with an ineffective government. Perhaps the greatest contribution the Articles made was to show the people that a strong central government was needed.

In basic structure, the Articles of Confederation were relatively simple. Since US statesmen had little trust in the arbitrary judges and monarchs of Britain, the Articles provided for no judiciary or executive branch. The body of government was the Congress, comprising delegates from the thirteen states. Congress was a weak body, again reflecting the US’s fear of monarchs as well as the independent heritage possessed by the separate colonies. Amendments could be made only by unanimous consent of all thirteen states–a rather rare phenomenon–and even national laws required a two-thirds majority, also somewhat improbable. Thus, from 1781 to 1789 the U.S. possessed a very weak control government with individual states finding it easy to obstruct legislation.

In examining the foreign and domestic policy of the Articles, one sees their total inadequacy as a constitution. Since individual states held their own interest above that of the new nation, they sought to block much legislation that did not favor them directly. Only in one area did the Congress coax a unified policy from the states, the area of land reform. The major landholding states–Virginia, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts–did cede their western lands to the Congress. Further, in 1785 and 1787 legislation, the Congress provided for public education and prohibition of slavery in these lands, as well as for their admission to the Union as new states. The farsightedness and value of this legislation can hardly be overstated, but it is one of the few examples on Congress’ achievements. In most other domestic policy matters, Congress was thwarted at every turn.

The letter from the Rhode Island Assembly to Congress (Nov. 30, 1782) indicates one major problem of the Confederation government–it could not institute a uniform tariff. Because no tariff would be favorable to 2/3 of the states, as this one was opposed by Rhode Island and probably the other state centers of commerce, it was virtually impossible to enact a national tariff. The Rhode Island letter also reveals a distrust in the appointed officers of Congress and a disinclination to surrender any power to Congress. These attitudes were common to each of the states, and explain why much proposed Congressional legislation was never enacted.

Further, Congress did not have the power to tax the individual states, as indicated in the letter from Virginian Joseph Jones to George Washington (Feb. 27, 1783). Congress could ask for but not demand money–it could coax and cajole but not coerce. This weakness had severe ramifications. It meant that public creditors of Congress could not be paid, reducing the public’s faith in the central government. Further, Congress did not have the money to set up an effective army and to pay its soldiers, looking ill for the defense of the young nation.

The weakness of the army and the disunity of the individual states kept the Confederation government from making any notable successes in foreign policy. Foreign nations had no motive to respect Congress’ demands since there was neither a unified country or a strong army backing these demands.

In 1785, John Jay instructed the US minister to Great Britain to demand “in a respectful but firm manner” the return of frontier posts on US territory controlled by the British and the end of British restrictions on US trade. Neither would come under the Confederation government (US trade with the British West Indies was not reopened until the 1830’s). With Spain, two problems confronted Congress, as related by John Jay in 1786: Spain asked the US to relinquish navigation rights on the Mississippi and to give up its claims to certain western lands. Although navigation rights were important to US farmers, Jay was forced to concede them in his negotiations with a Spanish minister. Rights were not secured until after the Confederation government ended (in Pinckney’s Treaty, 1794), and the friction over land claims was only settled by force in the early 19th century. Thus, the Articles of Confederation government proved completely ineffective in attaining foreign policy objectives.

The combined weaknesses of the government had grave consequences. In 1787, a western Massachusetts farmer, Daniel Shays, led a rebellion against the central authority which was crushed only with difficulty. Discontent was not limited to the popular masses. A letter from John Jay to George Washington–both were wealthy aristocrats–expressed the fear that “the better kind of people [the aristocracy or patrician class] will be led by . . . insecurity. . . and the loss of confidence in their rulers . . . [to] prepare. . . for almost any change that may promise . . . security.” Thus, there was much discontent with the Confederation government, suggesting its ineffectiveness.

Jay’s “change that may promise security” came in 1789 when US statesmen met in Philadelphia to scrap the Confederation and write a Constitution, creating a different government, one stronger and more centralized. The Articles had failed to raise money through taxation or tariff, to maintain a strong army, to enforce US rights in regards to other countries, and to maintain security and order. But they did serve a purpose in that they pointed out the need for a strong central government, and served as a transition from the disunity of the colonial period to the creation of a United States of America. More as a symbol than as an effective constitution, the Articles were of some value in a critical period in the nation’s history. * * *

Sample Essay 2: Excellent (score of 8)

The period in American History from 1781 to 1789, during which the United States was organized under the Articles of Confederation, was not characterized by a strong and effective government, but instead provided the framework upon which a more effective government could be built. The Articles of Confederation, since they prevented a strong central government from having power over states’ rights, tended to create problems for a government that wished to rule with any amount of authority. This was particularly evident in the areas of foreign relations, internal discontent over tariffs, and political party struggles.

While the United States was attempting to establish itself in diplomatic affairs, this became increasingly difficult to do since the federal government had little power when it came to tariffs and import duties, and also because it had no way of enforcing any agreement which it made with other countries. John Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain proposed measures which would improve relations between Great Britain and the U.S., but because the U.S. was not a strong military power, it lacked the means to enforce the agreements of Jay’s Treaty. A similar type of situation occurred when the U.S. tried to negotiate with Spain over the right to navigate on the Mississippi River. Because of the weakness of the government under the Articles of Confederation, the United States did not reach a peaceful settlement concerning the Mississippi River until the Pinckney Treaty of the 1790’s.

Political party struggles (or struggles between the beginnings of political parties) also tended to bring about disunity in the early government, thereby weakening its effectiveness. Rawlin Lowndes reflected the attitudes of the pre-Constitutional era in his speech to the South Carolina House of Representatives, when he stated that, rather than tear down the existing government and adopt a constitution, attempts should be made to improve the existing structure. Further conflicts over the nature of the Constitution occurred between federalists, who supported a Constitution with provisions for a strong central government, and anti-federalists, who favored supremacy of states’ rights. These conflicts added to the existing troubles of the government under the Articles of Confederation, thus making it even more difficult to rule effectively.

Internal problems also existed in the area of land distribution, although these were solved fairly effectively by the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The manner in which new lands acquired from Great Britain had been redistributed also caused an increase in the faith of the government between 1781 and 1789. However, internal struggles continued to exist. Tariffs that were passed between states caused internal friction for the new country and the lack of a unified monetary system brought additional problems. Since the government under the Articles was not given power to set up a sound currency system, or to establish a national bank, even greater disorganization prevailed.

The founding fathers realized this need for a stronger central government and eventually organized at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to discuss the problem. Although they recognized the present government’s weaknesses, they also saw that the basic structure of it was based on a sound principle and should not be done away with completely. Although problems continued to exist over questions like whether to have a national bank, the Founding Fathers eventually agreed that a Constitution and a strong central government would be needed if the government of the U.S. was to rule effectively. * * *

Sample Essay 3: Satisfactory (score of 5)

Following the American Revolution, a new nation, The United States of America, was conceived. The governing policies adopted by this nation were known as the Articles of Confederation. The Articles were used to govern the United States from the period of 1781-1789. They were based upon the belief that the states should possess more power than the federal government. The Articles of Confederation however, soon proved to be ineffective and measures were taken to alter them.

The Articles of Confederation provided for a government wherein the states would possess more power than the federal government. In other words, the parts that made up the whole, would be greater than the whole itself. The Americans did not want one man or one branch, to have complete control of the government. They were afraid that another “king” would take the place of the king they had removed through the revolution. This, in part, explains why the states were given more power. For example, each individual state controlled taxation, not the federal government.

As evidenced in Document C, a letter form Delegate Joseph Jones of Virginia to George Washington (February 27, 1783), Congress could not pay the soldiers in the army their back pay or bonuses. Congress could not “…pay their demands, unless furnished with the means by the several states, and that body [has not] obtained the means.” Another example of a state’s power over Congress can be seen in Document A, a letter from Rhode Island Assembly to Congress (November 30, 1782). Some measures passed by Congress could be declared null by a state if the state found the measure to be out of the limit of that state’s constitution. Since there were thirteen separate constitutions for each of the thirteen states, it would be difficult for Congress to pass a measure that was not outside of the limits of someone’s constitution. Therefore, few measures were passed that enhanced the United States. The states were for the most part concerned with what would benefit their state, not the country on a whole.

As can be evidenced in Document E, a visual aid from John Blum’s, The National Experience, the states sometimes acted as thirteen separate countries instead of the one country they were supposed to be. Several of the states ceded western land. The ceding of land is an act that is normally done by a country not a state. Since the Articles of Confederation provided for the states to have more power than the federal government, it soon proved to be an ineffective form of government.

A few years after the adopting of the Articles of Confederation, many people began to see it as ineffective. John Jay, in a letter to George Washington (June 27, 1786), Document G, feels that something is wrong with the government. Although he does not know what is wrong, he feels the people will sense something is amiss and they will “consider the charms of liberty as imaginary and delusive.” This state will “prepare their minds for almost any change that may promise them quiet and security.”

Some people wanted to either alter the confederation or to adopt another constitution. This can be evidenced in Document H, a report of Rawlin Loundes’ speech to the South Carolina House of Representatives (January 17, 1788). A new constitution was later adopted to replace the ineffective Articles of Confederation. * * * *

Sample Essay 4: Unsatisfactory (score of 3)

It has been stated that, “From 1781 to 1789 the Articles of Confederation provided the government with an effective government”, but this cannot be wholly true. The Articles of Confederation had such faults as: the power of government was concentrated in individual states, decisions had to be passed unanimously, each state despite its size or population was only allotted one vote, and it had not the authority to tax. The results of these faults can be seen in some of the documents.

In a letter from the Rhode Island Assembly, the state rejects the recommendation of Congress. The power of a state to override any of Congresses recommendations cannot be very effective. States may reject policies for purely selfish reasons or even for no reason at all.

In a letter from Delegate Joseph Jones of Virginia, it is stated that the army is discontented with Congress because it has been slow to comply with their requests. The actions of the army show that the individual states and their people have much control over the government.

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