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September 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-4


A Citizens Introduction to Federalism: Federalism and the Future of Constitutional Government


Part I: The Articles of Confederation and the Constitutional

Convention of 1787



President Calvin Coolidge stated that “to live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.”[14]  The Constitution is not only “the oldest written national constitution in the world,” but it is a document rooted in liberty.[15] The Constitution, which was created out of the Philadelphia or Constitutional Convention in 1787, is the bedrock of the American system. The Founding Fathers who created the Constitution knew they were not creating a perfect system of government. As the late James McClellan, a noted constitutional scholar, wrote in Liberty, Order, and Justice:


The Founders of the American republic did not suddenly invent the American Constitution overnight. Learning from the mistakes of the past, they revised and applied constitutional concepts deeply rooted in America’s colonial past, the history of Great Britain, and the chronicles of the ancient world. By understanding the mistakes of the past, of course, we improve our chances of not repeating them in the future.[16]


The idea of a constitution and the principle of self-government was part of the American colonial political culture. States formed their own written constitutions and Founding Fathers such as John Adams, who became known as the “Father of American Constitutionalism,” were instrumental in helping to create state constitutions. In fact, more attention was given to state governments rather than the national government. Before the ratification of the 1787 Constitution, the “national” government under the Continental Congress, and later the Articles of Confederation, was very loose and decentralized. In fact, “Americans had no experience with any form of continental union.”[17] The thirteen colonies, and later states, did work together in regard to their political opposition to Parliament’s and King George III’s policies, but efforts at union were difficult.


The states held the majority of political power, and prior to the American Revolution the original thirteen colonies were each independent under the control of England. By the time of the Revolution, “the colonies had already transformed themselves into thirteen constitutional republics, each claiming independence, sovereignty, and statehood.”[18] Although efforts to join the colonies into a union failed before the Revolution (such as Benjamin Franklin’s Albany Plan), the colonies did start to work together to coordinate opposition to British authority. Examples of this include the Stamp Act Congress, the Committees of Correspondence, the non-importation agreements, and later the Continental Congress.


The Articles of Confederation created the first significant form of a “national” government when the states ratified them in 1781. Previously the original thirteen states worked together through the First and Second Continental Congresses. The Articles of Confederation created a “league of friendship” between the states, and they would be governed by the Confederation Congress. This type of government is referred to as confederal, which means that states retain their sovereignty and delegate very limited specific powers to a national government. During the American Civil War, the eleven states of the south joined together to form the Confederate States of America, which was another example of a confederal system. In Europe, Switzerland has a confederal-style government. As James McClellan explained:


Until nearly the end of the eighteenth century, the word ‘federal’ was a synonym for the word ‘confederate.’ In politics, a federation was a league of states or cities. This had been the definition of such words from ancient times. The member-states or member-cities of a ‘federation’ or ‘confederation’ did not acknowledge or create a central government. They remained independent, but were joined together loosely by treaty or some other agreement by which the members pledged themselves to cooperate with each other under certain circumstances or for certain limited purposes — usually military action. A federal government scarcely was a government at all. It amounted to no more than a simple apparatus for enabling the members of the confederation to confer and cooperate.[19]


The opposite, which is a central government or unitary government, “had always been understood to mean a political structure in which there is one central sovereign power that all lesser political units must obey.”[20]


With the Articles of Confederation the states held the majority of the political power. The national governmental structure of the Articles of Confederation was very limited:


The government established under the Articles of Confederation vested all the powers of the national government in a Congress of the States. There was no regular national judiciary and only the merest shadow of an executive power. Each state had one vote in Congress, regardless of size. Important measures required the votes of nine of the thirteen states to pass, while amendments to the Articles required the unanimous consent of all the states.[21]


Reflecting on the Articles of Confederation, it appears that they were weak because of the limited powers that the Confederation Congress could exercise. In actuality the Articles were strong when taking into consideration the American fear of a strong central government. The Americans fought a major war for independence against England — the world’s superpower at that time — and they were very concerned about a large, powerful, central government governed by a tyrannical executive.


The Articles of Confederation could not properly address the structural problems facing the young republic in the aftermath of the American Revolution. This was especially true in addressing the economic and security problems of the nation. The Confederation Congress “lacked authority to impose taxes to cover national expenses or enforce requests on states,” and they could not address security issues such as Daniel Shays’ rebellion in Massachusetts.[22] Shays’ Rebellion occurred in Massachusetts when farmers revolted against their state government for foreclosing on farmers who did not pay their debts. Shays’ Rebellion was eventually put down, but the Confederation Congress was helpless. In addition to the turmoil caused by the economic problems, the states were often disputing with each other over trade and territorial boundaries and other issues that the Articles could not resolve. George Washington described the Articles as “half-starved, limping government, always moving upon crutches and tottering at every step.”[23]


A growing concern emerged that the Articles of Confederation were inadequate to resolve the political and economic problems facing the republic. This concern was especially shared by a group of individuals that became known as “nationalists” or more commonly referred to as the Federalists. Prominent leaders of the Federalists included individuals such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, among others. They believed that a stronger national government was needed to not only unify the nation, but to solve the many structural problems that the Articles could not resolve.


The result was a resolution that emerged out of the Annapolis Convention in 1786 to call for a convention to address the possibility of amending the Articles of Confederation. This convention would be held in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. The goal of the Philadelphia or Constitutional Convention was to revise the Articles of Confederation, but some patriots were suspicious of the convention. Patrick Henry, who would become an opponent of the Constitution, famously stated he “smelt a rat,” and Rhode Island did not send any delegates to participate.[24]  Henry and other opponents of the Constitution would become known as Anti-Federalists.




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