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Problems with the Articles of Confederation

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Since the birth of the United States, the issue over how strong the national government should be has always been a controversial one. While some believe that decentralization will inevitably lead to chaos, others contend that a powerful central government will inevitably become a tyranny. Although the United States would wholeheartedly embrace the idea of a loose alliance of independent states at first, the many glaring problems that the nation faced under the Articles of Confederation would quickly change the minds of many Americans. Indeed, the nation’s confederal system of government was eventually rejected and replaced by federalism, a political philosophy that calls for a sharing of power between the national government and the smaller state and local governments.

But how should this power be shared? Who should have the final say in the event of a dispute? As they have throughout history, these questions continue to divide Americans to this day. In this essay, three of the problems that the Constitution solved will be described in detail and the modern issue of the rights of the disabled will be used as an example of a disagreement between national authorities who are interested in fulfilling the needs of the entire country and state authorities who do not want the central government to undermine their right to address regional problems on their own.

When the United States won its independence from Great Britain, her leaders were quick to throw out the idea of a powerful central government. After all, the people of every prior civilization in history that chose to adopt a unitary system of government would find themselves subjected to despotism after a very short period of time. The Americans, a people whose desire for liberty motivated their fight for self-determination, were desperate to make sure that they would never follow that path. It therefore seemed that a confederation with an extremely weak central government was the only logical choice for the Americans. After only a few years under the Articles of Confederation, however, it became apparent that the confederal system that the Americans had adopted had many serious problems. These problems would soon cause the nation to spiral into pandemonium.

It quickly became clear to the leaders of the United States that a more powerful national government would be needed if their newly founded nation was to survive. Supporters of a strong federal government met in Philadelphia, where they would draft the Constitution, a groundbreaking document that introduced the policy of federalism, which called for equally powerful national and state governments that would be able to cooperate with each other and check each others’ power. After several months of heated debate, the leaders of every state would ratify the Constitution and agree to make the Constitution the most important legal document in the country. The Constitution was able to solve many of the problems that came with decentralization. For example, disputes between different states over issues such as trade often crippled the nation before the ratification of the Constitution. States did everything in their power to make their rival states suffer economically and politically and there was absolutely nothing that the ineffective central government could do about it.

After the Constitution was adopted, disputes between different states would never be able to escalate out of control again due to the fact that the Constitution grants the national government the power to settle conflicts between states. In addition, the Constitution addressed the economic issues that the United States was dealing with. After the expensive Revolutionary War, the United States was left with many debts to pay off. According to the Articles of Confederation, however, states did not have to give any money to the federal government. Because of its lack of taxing power, the national government had no means by which to earn revenue or pay off its debts. Inflation also soared due to the fact that each individual state could print its own currency whenever it saw fit. The Constitution, however, would be able to solve all of these economic problems by granting Congress the right to tax the states and by allowing only the federal government to print and control the circulation of money.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the Constitution was able to ensure that the nation would always be safe from outside forces and internal forces. While the United States had a confederal system of government, a lack of security was a frightening reality. The state governments did not have to provide the central government with any soldiers and most of the state militias were extremely inadequate. This lack of preparedness became evident during Shays’ Rebellion, an uprising of farmers from western Massachusetts who attacked courthouses in Massachusetts in order to prevent judges from taking their land away from them.

The rebellion was eventually crushed, but it was so close to succeeding that it is considered by many historians to be the event that sparked the Constitutional Convention. The Constitution successfully addressed the country’s military problems by requiring states to provide the federal government with soldiers in the event of a war and encouraging the states to establish militias that would deal with internal problems. Because of the Constitution, the many problems that came with extreme decentralization, such as heated conflicts between states, economic disorder and turmoil, and a pitifully weak and inefficient military, are virtually nonexistent today.

Although the federal system that the United States adopted after the ratification of the Constitution has been a dramatic improvement over the old confederal system, many of its aspects are quite controversial. More specifically, the amount of power that the central government should have over state institutions is always called into question when state governments disagree with the actions of national leaders. Some people passionately support the idea of state governments always adhering to the decisions that are made on Capitol Hill while others support the right of states to use discretion when faced with pressure from the national government with equal adamancy. One contemporary issue that the central government and various state governments often find themselves at odds over is the issue of the rights of the physically disabled. On July 26, 1990, President George Herbert Walker Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that requires all public places and all places of commerce to be accessible to the handicapped (“Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990”).

Although virtually no person is opposed to the Americans with Disabilities Act for ethical reasons, there are people who want the law to be repealed because they believe that it is financially and logistically absurd for every government building and every place of business, no matter how small or how poor, to be legally required to be accessible to disabled people. In many cases, the strongest opponents of the Americans with Disabilities Act have been state governments. For example, the government of Tennessee expressed its opposition to the Americans with Disabilities Act in Tennessee v. Lane, a 2004 Supreme Court case. The case began when a group of disabled Tennesseans sued the state government because there was no way that they could access the higher floors of Tennessee’s courthouses (“Tennessee v. Lane”). Although the state of Tennessee, citing the Eleventh Amendment for support, tried to have the case thrown out, the case would eventually go to the Supreme Court (“Tennessee v. Lane”). In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court sided with the plaintiff and stated that Tennessee’s refusal to make her courthouses accessible to the handicapped violated the due process rights of disabled people in addition to violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (“Tennessee v. Lane”).

This example makes it quite clear that tensions between those who support decentralization and those who support centralization still exist despite the fact that the tenets of federalism and the American Constitution call for compromise between the two opposing factions. Indeed, the Americans with Disabilities Act is just one of many issues that provoke feelings of hostility between states’ rights activists and people who want the central government to be the dominant force in American politics. Although the Constitution is effective when it comes to minimizing the number of these disputes, it is unrealistic to believe that the conflicts over the balance of government power will ever end completely. The people can only hope that state officials and national officials will always be able to work together in the American spirit of compromise and cooperation in order to prevent the United States from stagnating.

In conclusion, the conflict between centralized authority and decentralized authority has and always will be a major aspect of American politics. Although the Constitution solved many of the problems related to an excessive amount of decentralization, such as neverending feuds between enemy states, economic unsoundness, and an unorganized and underpowered military, federalism has not completely eliminated the tensions between the national government and the state governments, as evidenced by reactions to the controversial Americans with Disabilities Act. Despite the fact that disagreements between the central government and the state governments can often be divisive, they are an integral part of the American system of checks and balances and they have successfully prevented the nation from descending into anarchy or becoming undemocratic and dictatorial for over two hundred years.

Works Cited

“Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 16 Aug. 2006. Wikimedia Foundation. 3 Sept. 2006.

“Tennessee v. Lane.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 11 Aug. 2006. Wikimedia Foundation. 3 Sept. 2006.

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