While this constitution was a contribution to the techniques of government and a step toward national unity, most American historians hold that the Articles of Confederation proved wholly unsatisfactory because of the subordinate position occupied by the central government. Congress, dependent upon the states for its funds and for the execution of its decrees, became a legislative-executive body attempting to reconcile the policies of the various states. It could not extend its jurisdiction to individuals, command respect abroad by stabilizing credit, unify foreign and domestic policies, pass navigation regulations, or enforce treaty obligations.
Because of its inherent weaknesses, the government commanded little respect, and its prestige was further diminished by its inability to cope with internal uprisings such as Shays's Rebellion. Many capable statesmen who held key posts—e.g., Robert Morris, John Jay, and Benjamin Lincoln—were thwarted by this organization of government, while others, equally able, shunned service in Congress in favor of state politics. The unanimity rule enabled one state to prevent the passage of a measure desired by all the others. Thus, New York alone blocked the establishment of a vitally important tariff.
When it became apparent that government under the Articles of Confederation was, in the words of George Washington, "little more than the shadow without the substance," agitation for a stronger federal government began. This agitation resulted in the Annapolis Convention of 1786 and the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787, which drafted the Constitution of the United States. Perhaps the most significant event of the Confederation period was the adoption of the Ordinance of 1787 concerning the Northwest Territory.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.