Critical Thinking Articles Of Confederation Strengths

The James Madison Papers

Overview | History | Critical Thinking | Arts & Humanities

The Revolutionary Era | Government Under the Articles of Confederation | The Constitutional Convention and Ratification | Development of Political Parties in the New Nation | The New Nation and Foreign Relations | Madison in Retirement: The Judiciary | Madison in Retirement: Slavery | Madison in Retirement: Nullification Crisis

The Constitutional Convention and Ratification

In April 1787, Madison wrote a short pamphlet entitled "Vices of the Political System of the United States" explaining the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.

In a letter to George Washington, written before the opening of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, Madison proposed a plan that would increase the power of the central government and allow it to act as "a negative in all cases whatsoever on the legislative acts of the States."

Anticipating opposition, he recommended a mode of ratification that would bypass state legislatures, empowered by the Confederation, and go directly to the people. Madison's letter provided the essentials of the Virginia Plan proposed before the Convention in May 1787 by Edmund Randolph.

  • What problems in the government under the Articles of Confederation had Madison identified prior to the Constitutional Convention?
  • Based on those problems, why did Madison believe it was important for the central government to have a "negative in all cases whatsoever on the legislative acts of the States"?
  • List the important ideas for the new constitution that Madison explained in his letter to Washington. For each, list a problem with the government under the Articles of Confederation that it addressed. How well did Madison address those problems in his new plan? Explain your answer.


The collection includes Madison's "Original Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention" in two parts, the first presenting an introduction and notes through July 25, the second beginning July 26, 1787.

On September 30, 1787, shortly after the close of the Federal Convention, Madison wrote a letter to Washington, explaining that some in Congress claimed that the convention had violated its charge and that the "new Constitution was more than an Alteration of the Articles of Confederation under which Congress acted, and even subverted the articles altogether." The letter further explained how defenders of the Constitution countered this argument and discussed efforts by states to offer amendments.

  • On what grounds did some argue that the convention "subverted" the charge of Congress to amend the Articles?
  • What arguments did supporters of the Constitution use to defend the document before Congress?

In a letter to Washington written during the debate over ratification of the Constitution, Madison included the first seven essays of The Federalist. Madison requested that Washington, if he agreed with the essays, circulate them in Richmond to encourage ratification in Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson, serving as envoy to France, had written to Madison from Paris in December 1787, expressing his general support for the Constitution but criticizing the omission of a bill of rights. In a letter to Jefferson written on October 17, 1788, Madison writes that his "opinion has always been in favor of a bill of right,."and also explains his related concerns

  • What were Madison's reservations about including a Bill of Rights in the Federal Constitution?
  • In the letter, Madison says, "the President will be from a Southern State." On what assumption did he base this statement? Was Madison correct in this assumption?
  • Madison continues on to describe, in cipher, two possible candidates for vice-president, John Hancock and John Adams. The transcription of the letter decodes these descriptions. How did Madison assess the qualifications of these two men? Why do you think he put these descriptions in code?

After the bitter ratification debate, some prominent individuals still wished to call a new convention. According to Anti-Federalists, the failure to secure a declaration of rights was one of the basic flaws in the Constitution. To combat further opposition to the Constitution and to fulfill a pledge made during several state ratification conventions, Madison proposed a bill of rights in a speech in the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789. Read Madison's notes for his speech introducing the bill of rights, in which he listed his recommended additions to the Constitution and reasons why they should be adopted.


An Overview of the Articles of Confederation Strengths

The first written constitution of The United States, Articles of Confederation was written with the intention to bring the original thirteen states under one congress and vested with the powers of maintaining army and international affairs, the power to declare war and coin money. Though it raised many disputes and was ultimately ratified, it sparked the idea of having a declaration that establishes the States as an independent democratic entity.
The Articles of Confederation served as the constitution of the United States from March 1, 1781, to March 4, 1789.
That the Articles of Confederation is more often remembered for its weaknesses than its strengths shouldn't come as a surprise, considering that they paved the way for the new US Constitution― the one that is followed as the supreme law of the United States. That, however, doesn't mean that the Articles was devoid of any positive attributes. By 1780, all the thirteen original states had their written constitution in place, and yet, they needed something that could hold them together. That 'something' came in the form of the Articles of Confederation.
An Introduction to the Articles of Confederation
Simply referred to as the Articles at times, the Articles of Confederation was a written agreement containing a set of rules for the functioning of the national government of the United States. It was drafted by a committee comprising delegates from all the thirteen states―appointed by the Second Continental Congress in 1777 and ratified in 1781. The agreement centralized power in the hands of state governments and left the national government with very little or no authority. In fact, the national government was totally dependent on states for most of its operations. The end result was chaos in both, the national and international affairs of the United States, and thus, the Congress was forced to take the decision to revise it.
Strengths of the Articles of Confederation
Despite its drawbacks, one cannot deny the fact that the Articles of Confederation was the first constitution of the United States, and its biggest strength was its ability to bring all the thirteen original states together in order to establish a common legislature. Each of these states, which were more often at the loggerheads before the implementation of the Articles, were expected to respect the laws of other states.
The fact that most powers rested in the hands of state governments might have turned out to be its biggest drawbacks. However, when it was being drafted, this centralization of power in the favor of states was deemed essential to eliminate the chances of oppressive form of government, such as monarchy. It was a true form of democracy wherein people were a part of the government, after years under King George.
The Articles also gave the national government power to deal with foreign nations and sign treaties with them. The government used these powers to accelerate the development of the nation and solve several problems affecting the nation as a whole. The Treaty of Alliance with France (1778) and the Peace Treaty with England (1783) are among the best examples of treaties under the Articles of Confederation.
Other than the foreign affairs department, various Congressional departments, including the Native Indian affairs, postal service, and the treasury, were formed as a part of this agreement. It also had the power to raise an army, and even to wage a war or make peace. The latter was perhaps the most important for a country which was otherwise divided into thirteen individual entities.
The Articles of Confederation also had a provision for creation of new states, whereby those regions with a population of 60,000 or more could qualify as a state. Furthermore, it also kept the doors open for Canada, the Province of Quebec, to declare its independence and join the Confederation.
Though the Articles of Confederation could last only for a few years, the national government did pass some of the most important acts in American history. The Land Ordinance Act (1785) was passed to develop the neglected western lands. It split and sold the land, using the money to pay off national debts. Similarly, the Northwest Ordinance (1787) was passed to ensure effective governance of newly created townships.
As time elapsed, the problems with the Articles started to surface one after the other, resulting in severe criticism of the document on various fronts. When the committee comprising delegates from the thirteen states, including the Founding Fathers of the United States, met at the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787 to revise it, they came to a mutual agreement that it was better to draft a new constitution instead of revising the existing agreement. Eventually, the Articles of Confederation was replaced by the US Constitution as the supreme law of the land in 1789.

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