Articles of Confederation

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    I would like to learn more about the Articles of Confederation. My assumption is that although the Articles may have been a failure from the central government’s perspective, from the perspective of the people of the states, the Articles were a success in their objective of preserving state sovereignty and leaving states free to govern themselves.

    Any recommendations? I heard Tom Woods mention that Marshall DeRosa (author of “The Confederate Constitution of 1861”) is working on a book on the Articles of Confederation, but have not been able to learn anything further about this alleged book.

    I have Murray Rothbard’s “Conceived in Liberty,” but would like something a little more comprehensive. Or maybe that’s as good as it gets? Knowing Rothbard, I wouldn’t be surprised.


    Great question. This is a HUGE COMMON objection to local, state government sovereignty. People will almost immediately say, “But we had decentralized govt under the Articles of Confederation and it was a total failure!”

    Would love some good facts and material to be able to respond to that objection.


    First, sovereignty isn’t in any level of government in the American system, but in the peoples of the separate states.

    Second, the best books on the Articles are Jensen’s THE ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION… and Dougherty’s COLLECTIVE ACTION UNDER THE ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION (an overlooked blockbuster). For the question whether the Articles were really a flop, as the Federalists claimed, I recommend THE DOCUMENTARY HISTORY OF THE RATIFICATION OF THE CONSTITUTION, VOL. VIII-X: VIRGINIA. There, you’ll see Patrick Henry, William Grayson, James Monroe, and George Mason argue that no, they hadn’t been at length and in detail.

    I deal with this question in one chapter 3 of VIRGINIA’S AMERICAN REVOLUTION (Lexington Books, 2007).


    I recently watched Sheldon Richman’s lecture, “Articles of Confederation versus the Constitution,” ( and he makes a variety of claims about which I would like to get your opinion.

    The first is that one of the major impetuses for creating the Constitution was that those who were privileged under British rule wanted to regain that status by centralizing power. I’m only familiar with the standard explanation that the Articles came up short in terms of being unable to deal with trade barriers between the States at the federal level and in a lack of power to tax.

    Secondly, he argues that the federal income tax was always constitutional, according to its language (though it seems strange that if that is the case that Congress would go through the trouble of amending the Constitution).

    Thirdly, there was a provision in the Articles (Article II, I believe) that was similar in language to the 10th Amendment, but the changing of some key words (“reserved” instead of “retained”, and the lack of the modifier, “expressly”) was an attempt to water down the amendment, so much so that it doesn’t substantively change the Constitution.

    Lastly, he argues that the language of the commerce clause (“among the several States”) doesn’t necessarily mean only interstate commerce but could include commerce between residents of the same state. As well, he criticizes the view that when it was written, “regulate” meant to “keep regular” rather than the modern definition of completely dictating all possible aspects remotely relating to commerce.

    Clearly, if what Richman says is true, it is very difficult to celebrate the US Constitution as an attempt to limit government.

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