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The idea of union in America had been a part of colonial political thought and from the onset of the eighteenth century plans were being made for a union of all the colonies. Following the declaration of Independence in 1776, the American colonies set out to define the terms of their union through a constitution.
The Articles of Confederation were the first constitution of the United States and they were ratified in 1981.
While this constitution was able to unite the country over the course of the American Revolution, the document proved to be inadequate in the following years necessitating the adoption of a new constitution eight years later.
This new constitution was referred to as the Federal Constitution and it has continued to serve Americans for over two centuries. While most of the framers of the Federal Constitution had been the authors of the Articles of Confederations a decade ago, the two documents held significant differences.
This paper will highlight the similarities and differences between the Articles of Confederation and the Federal Constitution and proceed to explain why Americans decided to change their form of government in 1787-1788.
Similarities in the Constitutions
Both documents were committed to the establishment of an independent United States with the freedom of the American people being emphasized on by the two constitutions.
The American colonies were to exercise freedom from foreign control and the documents provided the basis for a common defense since each State was bound to come to the aid of the other in case of a war.
The Federal Constitution asserted in its preamble that one of the major goals of the Union was to “provide for the common defense” of the States (King, 1871).
The Article of Confederation was written for the sole purpose of establishing a mutual defense among the States especially against Great Britain.
Article 2 of the Articles of Confederation declares that the states shall “enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense and the security of their liberties” (King, 1871, p.456).
The Articles of Confederation and the Federal Constitution agreed on the title of “The United States of America” as the official name of the newly united colonies.
Even so, the status of each state within the union differed with the Articles of Confederation explicitly stating that “each State retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right” (Swindler, 1981, p.168).
The Federal constitution on the other hand emphasized on the supremacy of the union over sovereignty of the states.
The preamble of the Federal Constitution begins with the words “we the people of the United States” therefore abandoning the Confederate concept of a loose association of states and in its place establishing a strong United nation (McNeese, 2001).
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Both documents were based on the idea of a union of the colonies and the notion that the government should be founded upon a representation of the people. The two constitutions agreed that the government should be run for the general welfare of its citizens.
The Federal Constitution asserted the role of the people in choosing their leaders by stating, “the house of representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the States” (King, 1871, p.33).
The Articles provided that for the interest of the State, delegates would be appointed and send to congress to represent the interests of their people.
The two documents gave the national government more power than it had previously held. While the Articles of Confederation emphasized on a form of confederacy or league among the independent States, it greatly increased in theory the powers of government.
For example, the powers of Congress were added upon enabling it to establish marine courts and judge between the states (King, 1871). The Federal Constitution gave the national government power over all the States.
Differences between the Constitutions
A fundamental difference between the Articles of Confederation and the Federal Constitution lie in the apportionment of power between the states and the central government.
Jensen (1940) observes that while the Articles of Confederation gave the balance of power to the states, the Federal Constitution gave power to the central government.
The Articles of Confederation were based on the premise that the United Colonies “are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States” (Swindler, 1981, p.166). The Articles therefore regarded a central government as a restraint on the freedom of local legislatures.
The Federal Constitution on the other hand sought to create a strong Central government. The Federal Constitution required the states to surrender certain powers to the federal government in order for the government to operate effectively.
The Federal Constitution therefore led to the formation of a Central government that had greater power than the constituent states.
There was a difference in the inherent power and composition of Congress in the two documents. Under the Articles of Confederation, each State had equal representation in Congress without consideration for the differences in population size among the States.
The Federal Constitution created a bicameral Congress that comprised of a Senate where each state contributed two senators and a House of Representatives where each state contributed a number of representatives based on its population.
The Federal Constitution declared that all legislative powers would be vested in a congress, which was to be made up of two houses: the senate and the House of Representatives. While a Congress existed under the Articles of Confederation, its abilities were greatly restricted.
The Congress lacked the authority to govern interstate commerce or enforce its demands on the States (Jensen, 1940). It also lacked the power to impose taxation on the States greatly weakening its efficiency.
The Federal government saw the powers of Congress increased significantly and this body was empowered to regulate interstate commerce.
The Federal constitution also gave Congress the right to “lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States” (King, 1871, p.152).
The two documents also differed on the number of votes necessary for the Amendment of the Constitution.
While the Articles of Confederation required a unanimous vote (13 out of 13 votes) for an amendment to be ratified, the Federal Constitution declares that “whenever two-thirds of both houses shall propose amendments to the constitution” it will be possible to ratify the amendments (McNeese, 2001).
The Federal constitution therefore made it easier for the Nation to implement changes since it acted on a majority basis instead of waiting for all the States to agree on an issue.
The Articles of Federation stipulated that only the State could act on behalf of its people. The central government did not have any powers over the members of the individual states.
The Federal constitution changed this by stating that both the state and the central governments could act on behalf of the citizens of the United States (Swindler, 1981). This constitution divided the sovereignty between the state and central government therefore making both key players in the lives of the citizens.
Reasons for Change in Government
The Union of the States was proposed and implemented for the original purpose of effectively opposing Great Britain. This inter-colonial unity was favored by radicals who saw a union as desirable for carrying on the war against Britain.
However, these radicals wanted a union that would not infringe upon the sovereign authority of the individual states (McNeese 2001). The Articles of Confederation were effective in uniting the States into a loose confederation and increasing their efficiency in war.
Because of this, the USA was able to achieve victory against Great Britain during the American Revolution and therefore obtain its independence in 1783.
A state of unruly was experienced in the years after the great American Revolution. There was little unity among the states under the Articles of Confederation since each state maintained its sovereignty and was allowed to act as an independent country.
Each State therefore put its interests first and only supported the national government out of self-interest. This state of disorderly highlighted the weakness of the Articles of Confederation. McNeese (2001) states that this unruliness was caused by the factional rivalry that led to violence.
The Federal Constitution promised to break and control the violence of faction by exerting greater control over factions or interest groups under a national government.
Proponents of the Federal Constitution argued that a new Constitution would create a vast republic with diverse people therefore reducing the likelihood that smaller, influential groups dominating.
To address the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation, Congress initially proposed for the amendment of this constitution by selected delegates from all the States.
For the states to act as a nation and reap the benefits of a nation there had to be a greater unification and this could only be achieved by the creation of a new legislative document that laid emphasis on the Federal government.
McNeese (2001) confirms that when the delegates of the Constitutional Convention began their work in 1787, they all had ideas on how to improve the government of the United States.
However, intense debate on the issue led to the proposal for the adoption of a new Constitution that would effectively lead to the establishment of a new form of government in the US.
The Federal constitution brought the nation together under one Chief executive who was the president of the States and he acted as a unifying factor for the States.
This paper set out to highlight the similarities and differences between the two American Constitutions and explain why Americans adopted a new form of government in 1789.
The paper has noted that the Articles of Confederations and the Federal Constitution both advocated for a free and independent United States bud differed on the issue of sovereignty of the states.
However, the Articles of Confederations proved to be an inadequate tool for governing the newly independent nation. The Federal Constitution was able to address the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation and help in the formation of a more perfect union of the States.
Jensen, M. (1940). The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774-1781. Wisconsin: Univ of Wisconsin Press.
King, J. (1871). A commentary on the law and true construction of the federal constitution. Harvard University.
McNeese, T. (2001). U.S. Constitution: American Experience. Boston: Lorenz Educational Press.
Swindler, W.F. (1981). Our First Constitution: The Articles of Confederation. ABA Journal, 67(1), 166-169.