The Articles of Confederation were drafted shortly after America had declared independence, but they were not ratified by all of the states until 1781. Just how much of a failure they were depends on your perspective: if one expected the Articles to function like a government, then its design was ill-conceived in the extreme. The meager powers it granted to the federal authority were often inadequate to meet the Confederacy’s needs – on that point many people were agreed – but the greater problem was that Congress could not enforce even the powers that it had. It could requisition money from the states, but it could not tax them directly. Therefore, if the states failed to pay their requisitions (and they often failed to pay), then the Confederation Congress was empowered only to say “please,” or, if circumstances were dire, it could even resort to “pretty-please.” The Articles had provided for no real executive power, no real judicial power, and its legislative power was lodged in a single body of Congress. The Congress allowed each state only one vote regardless of its size. Consequently, tiny Delaware had equal political weight with massive Virginia, even though Virginia had almost fifteen times the number of residents that Delaware had. In spite of its manifest flaws, amending the Articles was almost impossible, because that would have required the unanimous agreement of all thirteen states. Even garnering a simple majority of congressmen to agree on ordinary legislation was a challenging feat, since Congress was so generally disregarded that it often had difficulty mustering a quorum when it was in session. As a government, then, the Articles of Confederation were a contemptible failure.
At the same time, the Articles were never intended to be a government. The document declared at the outset that the compact was meant to establish “a firm league of friendship” between the states, and it unambiguously acknowledged that “each State retains its sovereignty.” It was intended, then, to be a sort of treaty or league, binding the 13 sovereign states in the same manner as NATO or the U.N. binds independent nations.
If viewed as an international alliance, the Articles were only a moderate failure. Unquestionably, they often failed to achieve even the limited aims the compact was designed to accomplish, but they did accomplish some important goals. The Articles were primarily intended to encourage friendly relations between the states, to ease trade negotiations with foreign nations, to pay off old war debts, and to present a credible show of united force against any potential foe. In all of these aims, the Confederation met with some success, albeit a very imperfect success. The Confederation Congress also passed the deservedly celebrated Northwest Ordinance during the same summer that the Constitutional Convention met.
Even the simple goal of keeping the states unified in their international policies and friendly toward each other was not as easy as many had expected. The individual states knew that history was brimming with cautionary tales of small republics that were continually at war with each other, and that is why the Articles of Confederation included various comity provisions. They were meant to prevent these quarrels from arising, or at least to find amicable ways of resolving them before they led to bloodshed or disunion. Under the Articles, states were forbidden from making exclusive treaties amongst themselves or private treaties with foreign nations. But the states were continually flouting the Articles’ prohibitions; they frequently sought to win lucrative commercial deals with neighboring states or with foreign countries.
When the Congress did attempt to form treaties as a unified whole, sectional jealousies were often the result. John Jay, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, had attempted to negotiate one such treaty with the Spanish government in 1786. He suggested sacrificing navigation rights in the Mississippi (which he believed Spain would block at New Orleans anyway) in order to win concessions favorable to the northeastern states. His treaty won seven northern votes and earned the animosity of all the southern states. If it had passed, it could have been devastating to the commercial interests of the southern and western regions. Without river access to the important ports, the interior country in the South would remain a backwater for generations to come, because transportation by any other means was too difficult to be commercially viable. The states in the Deep South understandably felt that they were being thrown under the bus (or a hackney coach, as the case may be) for the sake of northern interests.
All of this contributed to the impression—both domestically and internationally—that the states were individual actors rather than a cohesive force, and a disunited America was a weak America. As long as the world perceived the United States as thirteen small, independent republics, foreign powers could be expected to play a game of divide and conquer. It was in the interests of other countries to play one state or region against the others in order to procure the most advantageous trade deals for themselves. Any invading army would find these tiny bickering states ripe for the picking. Yet the mutual suspicions engendered by the weak Articles also made reforming the Articles all the more unlikely. If the Confederation Congress could not be trusted to act in the interests of every part of the union, then the last thing that people wanted was to give them more power. Respectable men were openly advocating a plan to divide the existing confederacy into multiple smaller ones.
Congress had not even been able to compel Great Britain to fulfill its obligations under the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War. The British continued to occupy forts in the western territories, menacing America’s frontier, and had freed slaves, all in violation of the treaty. Britain defended its actions by objecting (rightly) that the United States had likewise not complied with its own end of the bargain. The simple truth was that Congress was too weak to compel the states to pay the debts that it owed or to return confiscated property to the Loyalists. If these threats from foreign shores were to flare up into an international conflict, would the United States have the wherewithal to defend itself? Prospects did not look good at the beginning of 1786, and they had taken a turn for the worse by the end. A small domestic conflict in Massachusetts convinced men like Washington that, unless the faltering Articles were replaced with a stronger government adequate to meet their exigencies, the United States would not be able to remain free and independent for long.