Why were the Articles of Confederation abandoned?

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    In order to both improve my own knowledge on the subjects and spread that knowledge to others, I will sometimes discuss history and economics with my younger cousins (I have much a greater grasp of the latter). Right now we are going through the reading list of DiLorenzo’s program on Hamilton, Clay, and Lincoln. In one of his articles, DiLorenzo talks about how Hamilton actively lobbied for “amending” the Articles of Confederation for several years.

    I don’t recall the Articles ever being mentioned in my K-12 schooling. I asked my 15-year-old cousin if he had. He said that he had and that the reason they were replaced was because under the Articles there was no central leader and because the government couldn’t pay off war debts due to the lack of their power to tax. It seems hard for me to imagine that a large number of people felt like they needed a central leader in their lives or wanted a far-off governing body to be able to tax them.

    Thus, I wanted to ask what the impetus was for creating a Constitution to replace the Articles and with whom that impetus resided.


    Well, I just watched the lecture, “The Constitution Movement,” and that seemed to answer who the primary movers were for the abandonment of the Articles and some reasons why they desired to do so. But I feel like it hasn’t fully been explained why a new constitution was necessary, if the largest problem was lack of revenue (especially since the Articles had gotten them through a war).

    I will intently listen to the subsequent lectures and look forward to responses.



    Not everyone was sold that the Articles needed to be scrapped. Certainly a small faction of persistent men believed so, Madison and Hamilton foremost among them, but also people like John Dickinson of DE, Roger Sherman of CT, Francis Dana of MA, and other leading men were of the opinion that at least a revision was necessary due to 1) financial problems arising under the monetary structure of the central government, 2) the difficulty of doing business (many States simply chose not to send delegates to the Congress at times) and 3) internal strife (Shay’s Rebellion).

    Patrick Henry, for example, denied that the Articles did not function well, as did other opponents of the Constitution from PA, NC, MA, and NY. The Constitution was a great coup for its proponents and was only ratified because they swore that the document would not fundamentally alter the existing federal nature of the government.

    Hope that helps.


    Yes, thank you. I suppose my follow-up question would be whether most of the proponents of the Constitution believed the propaganda they were giving to defend it. It seems that some libertarian circles speak quite highly of the Constitution while others say that tyranny in installments was the original goal.

    I will also copy and paste a question that seemed to have gotten overlooked in the topic titled, “Articles of Confederation.”

    “I recently watched Sheldon Richman’s lecture, “Articles of Confederation versus the Constitution,” (http://youtu.be/rrC5lRY4Kr8) 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.”


    The point about Article II of the Articles of Confederation is regurgitated by virtually every law professor who addresses the question of the Constitution’s nature — national or federal — because legal education is case-law education, and John Marshall’s opinion in MCCULLOCH V. MARYLAND (1819) is a “classic case.” In that opinion, Marshall made that claim: that the word “expressly” was omitted from the 10th Amendment, and so the 10th Amendment doesn’t actually have any meaning.

    Marshall knew perfectly well that the Federalists had said exactly the opposite of this in the ratification debates, particularly in Virginia, where Marshall was a prominent participant. Over and over, leading Federalist orators told the Richmond Ratification Convention that the unamended Constitution meant that Congress would only have the powers *expressly* delegated. Two of the three chief spokesmen for ratification, Governor Edmund Randolph (one of the five most prominent Philadelphia Convention Framers) and George Nicholas, said so repeatedly.

    If the unamended Constitution gave Congress only the powers expressly delegated, omission of the word “expressly” from the 10th Amendment could not change that fact.

    I have written about this subject in several places, including JAMES MADISON AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA, VIRGINIA’S AMERICAN REVOLUTION, A COMPANION TO JAMES MADISON AND JAMES MONROE, and “Edmund Randolph and Virginia Constitutionalism,” THE REVIEW OF POLITICS (2000).

    Beyond that, I also provide detailed accounts of the reasons for scrapping the Articles and adopting the Constitution in both JAMES MADISON AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA (available in paperback day after tomorrow) and THE POLITICALLY INCORRECT GUIDE TO THE CONSTITUTION. The short of it is that nationalists wanted a central government capable of funding its essential functions, but so did virtually everyone else in the American political elite; Patrick Henry, for example, long favored amending the Articles to give Congress a taxing power, though of course he did not want to see an entirely new central government created.

    Federalist propaganda about the failure of the Articles of Confederation was consistent. Whether it was candid, who knows?

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