In the summer of 1776, the Second Continental Congress officially declared independence from the British crown, but it also drafted the Articles of Confederation.
Approved on November 15th, 1777 and ratified in 1781, it served as the first official government of the former colonies during and after the American Revolution, and reflected the skepticism toward strong, centralized power held by many of the Revolutionary generation.
Though some delegates balked at the limited power vested to the federal government in the Articles, the majority conceived the nation as a confederacy aligned in a “firm league of friendship,” leaving the first federal government purposefully weak.
In order to keep federal power limited, the Articles created a unicameral legislature, provided no enforcement power over the states, and required unanimous consent of all state legislatures to amend the document. Individual states retained control over governmental functions, except in cases of foreign diplomacy and trade, and interstate conflict.
But problems arose during the Revolution that hinted at the need for a more centralized structure. Since the federal government did not have the power to tax, but instead had to request funding for the Continental Army, several winters passed with inadequate food, shelter and warm clothing. After the Revolution, each state controlled its own currency, making interstate trade challenging.
Beginning in 1786, statesmen such as James Madison suggested making revisions to the original document in response to mounting frustrations. But it wasn’t until violence erupted in western Massachusetts over tax issues that the spirit of reform took hold.
While the initial skepticism toward a strong, federal government remained, the decision to draft a new document, which became the U.S. Constitution, reflected the need for more centralized power “in order to form a more perfect Union.”