The Articles of Confederation: Not Totally Lame!
The problem the Founders grappled with when writing the Articles of Confederation was how to create a workable government without authorizing a tyranny. How do you keep life, liberty, and happiness for all while subjecting all to a central authority which must make general laws?
We’re so used to hearing about this struggle that it bores us, because we know the problem was eventually solved by the Constitution. It’s like knowing how a book ends before you read it. There’s no suspense for us. No tension. Plus, with hindsight, the solutions the Constitution came up with seem so obvious. But think about it. Usually new governments struggle not with how to make everyone happy, but with individuals fighting for power. Each revolutionary leader is fighting to establish his faction, to grab power. The people are just a labor source, mob power, or cannon fodder.
But in America, the argument, struggle, and problem was not how to get power but how to give it away. How to have a workable government that didn’t trample people’s natural rights. The Founders would not take the easy way out and just give someone power to tell the people what to do. They wouldn’t even allow an executive branch to be created, because they were afraid if power was represented by the body of one person, he would become a dictator not only from his own greed, but because the people themselves would gladly give up their rights to a powerful leader. The Founders resisted the urge to fall back on the familiar.
And all this in a time of war. The Revolution was not going well in 1777, when the Articles of Confederation were written. If ever there was a time when people might be forgiven for assigning power to one person who could unify and lead them, it was then. But even in this time of ultimate crisis, when the federal government was broke and could not pay Washington or his army, the men who were dying for the independence of America, the Founders would not institute unfair taxes, would not assign an executive, would not give up on trying to establish a fair government, would not give up on the ideals of revolution. War is usually the ultimate excuse for abuse of power, or failure to live up to high ideals. Not for the Founders.
And, when the Founders finally had the Articles of Confederation, and saw that they just didn’t create the best government for the people, they came back and went through the whole agonizing process again, and wrote a new set of rules—the Constitution. That’s dedication. That’s inspiration. That’s stamina.
So instead of seeing a string of half-assed failures leading up to the Constitution, we should see a gritty resolve to make the dream a reality that no amount of hardship could weaken.