Problems with the Articles of Confederation

Difficulty Passing Legislation and Amending the Articles of Confederation

Not only did Congress lack the ability to enforce its laws under the Articles of Confederation, but it was also too difficult for Congress to pass legislation in the first place. The concurrence of nine of the thirteen states were needed before Congress could, among other things, “engage in a war . . . coin money, . . . ascertain the sums and expenses necessary for the defense and welfare of the United States, . . . appropriate money, . . . [or] appoint a commander in chief of the army or navy” (Art. IX). The requirement for supermajorities in so many cases meant that a small minority of people (sometimes one state) could successfully tie the hands of the rest of the states. 

Even worse, the unanimity of all thirteen states was needed to amend the Articles themselves (Art. XIII). Thus the deep-seated flaws in the Articles of Confederation could not be fixed, even though most at the time understood and agreed on those flaws were. Many attempts were made to amend the Articles of Confederation, though none were successful. In 1781, for example, an amendment was proposed that would have given Congress the right to impose a 5% impost failed when only Rhode Island failed to offer its assent. Another attempt in 1783 that would have allowed Congress to impose a 5% tax based on the value of imported goods and property (which its proponents viewed as inadequate, but nonetheless a step in the right direction) failed when Rhode Island agreed, but New York refused. It would ultimately take much more drastic measures than attempting to amend the Articles to supply the defects of American government. 

How did the U.S. Constitution later address these issues?

The Constitution makes it easier to pass legislation by reducing the number of cases requiring supermajorities and eliminating unanimity in all cases except the original ratification. Art. VII specifies that only those states which ratify the Constitution are subject to it – which translates to a unanimity of those states being subject to it – though only nine states were sufficient to ratify. Once ratified, a simple majority of both houses of Congress is sufficient for passing most legislation. And when the Constitution requires future amendments, only two-thirds of both Houses of Congress and three-fourths of the states are required for ratification (Art. V).