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Difference Between Articles of Confederation and Constitution

The late 1770s can be described as a difficult but eventful time for America. After the revolution, 80000 Loyalists had left the country; this paved the road for more democratic changes. Conservative opinions leaned toward a stronger government presence while radical ones thought that financial issues of people should be solved with the power of the states. Comparing and contrasting these two documents and the ratification debate could show us the reasons behind the content of the new Constitution.

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Differences between the Articles and the New Constitution

The Articles of Confederation

Following the Declaration of American Independence in July 1776, the Second Continental Congress ordered the creation of a plan to unify the colonies as a confederation. Newfound American independence and the costs of the war put new priorities on the creation of a common identity for the colonies (Spalding & Forte, 2014).

The Articles of Confederation were proposed in 1777 and ratified in 1781. Under them, America won the revolutionary war, created first diplomatic relations with major nations of the world, settled land claims, and started the western expansion. It was an effective system that tapped in the common opposition to British rule and taxation. Ultimately, the Articles of Confederacy proved to be unsustainable. Congress had the ability to create war and peace, establish a postal service, regulate coinage, choose weights and measures standards, and borrow money. On the other hand, the states did not have to pay taxes for national expenses and did not have an independent executive or judiciary. One of the most problematic points of the Articles was that all states had to be in agreement to ratify an amendment. This led to stagnation of structural reforms and problems with the western expansion. Moreover, nine of thirteen states had to approve important legislations or treaties, creating a situation where five states could reject any major proposal (Spalding & Forte, 2014).

An armed revolt broke out in 1786 with a group of objecting farmers, capturing a federal armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. The state law required all debts should be paid in coinage which led to many farms and homes foreclosing. This law sparked the revolt which would later be known as Shays’ Rebellion (Condon, 2015).

The New Constitution

In 1783 George Washington described The Articles of Confederation as “a shadow without the substance” (as cited in Spalding & Forte, 2014). Subsequently, multiple attempts were made to solve issues of interstate trade, but none have proved effective. Although the last meeting on the issue prompted James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to issue a call for a general convention of the states to create a constitution that would satisfy the needs of the country (Spalding & Forte, 2014).

This call led to the Constitutional Convention which took place from May 25 until September 17, 1787, at the Independence Hall. All states except for Rhode Island were represented as well as many prominent political figures of the time. George Washington was chosen as the president of the convention and promoted a search for radical solutions to the problems of the old constitution (Spalding & Forte, 2014).

Multiple plans were presented at the Convention. The Virginia Plan proposed the creation of a new national government based on three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. This plan was mostly agreed upon except for the point where the population would determine Congress representation. The Virginia Plan would make more populated states have more power in Congress, and this became problematic. William Paterson presented an alternative New Jersey Plan that preserved each state’s equal votes with some slight augmentations. This plan was also rejected. Consequently, Roger Sherman of Connecticut presented what would later be called “the Great Compromise.” His plan would combine both previous plans with every state having an equal vote in the Senate while on the other hand having the House of Representatives appointed based on the population. This proposal was later elaborated on and adopted by the convention (Spalding & Forte, 2014).

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In late July the resolutions of Virginia Plan were reworked into a draft constitution. After much work on details and language of the draft, the final version of the Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787. In part, the success of the Great Compromise is attributed to the absence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who were overseas at the time. Both of them were highly strong-willed figures who could decide against the compromise, subsequently preventing the progress of the new Constitution (Spalding & Forte, 2014).

The new Constitution was built as a firm union of people with the national government overseeing everything. This contrasts harshly with the loose connection of states under the Articles of Confederation. The Federal Constitution promised two votes in the Senate for each state as opposed to 1 during Confederation, in addition to representation by population in the House of Representatives. Voting on important measures was simplified with only a simple majority vote would be required in Congress, which was subject to presidential veto. Similar simplification was done to the implementation of amendments. Only a third of Congress votes was required, and only a third of state votes. Furthermore, Congress was given extensive power to levy taxes, federal and supreme courts were established, and laws were executed by the President (Spalding & Forte, 2014).

Debate over Ratification

Ratification of the Constitution soon became a highly debated issue. Although states that saw the Articles of Confederation as a faulty system supported the ratification, there was strong opposition from people concerned with possible overreaches of power under the new Constitution. They argued that the national government would receive too much executive ability relative to the states. Most Anti-Federalists have also voiced concern that the new constitution did not include a bill of rights (Faber, 2015).

Federalists were quick to react, and during the ratification debate in the State of New York, prominent Federalists wrote a series of essays to oppose the arguments of Anti-Federalists. These essays showed the weakness of the Confederation and presented advantages of a strong union, in addition, they explained how the new government system would be closer to what was considered “true principles of republican government” (as cited in Spalding & Forte, 2014). Federalists also implemented a set of amendments to bring Anti-Federalists to their side. This specifically turned many of the prominent Anti-Federalists like John Hancock, Edmund Randolph and Melancton Smith (Faber, 2015).

Original lack of a bill of rights created a strong argument for Anti-Federalists. During the Constitutional Convention, a bill was rejected because it might imply powers that are not delegated. Soon after the outcry, James Madison took it upon himself to create a bill of rights for the new Constitution. Madison took George Mason’s Declaration of Rights for the Virginia Constitution of 1776 as a base but added 17 amendments with only 10 making it to the final bill. Anti-Federalists were concerned that their rights would be undermined by the new Constitution, but this bill helped make a case for the ratification (Cogan, 2015).


After analyzing and comparing both documents, it is possible to see how the new Constitution solved the issues created by the Articles of Confederation as well as how the document was adapted to unite Federalists and Anti-Federalists.


Cogan, N. (2015). The complete Bill of Rights (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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Condon, S. (2015). Shays’ rebellion: authority and distress in post-revolutionary America. Baltimore, MD: JHU Press.

Faber, M. (2015). The federal union paradigm of 1788: Three Anti-Federalists who changed their minds. American Political Thought, 4(4), 527-556. Web.

Spalding, M., & Forte, D. (2014). The heritage guide to the Constitution (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing.

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