If you have taken an American history course in school, chances are you know a little about the Articles of Confederation. History books discuss them briefly as the background failure, against which to set the shining success of the Constitution of the United States (COTUS).
The Articles in some ways did fail. Most importantly, they failed to produce a federal government capable of servicing its debts.
But, this failure should not blind us to their successes. The federal government under the Articles was not a cipher. It established the first federal territory, began to survey and sell the vast western public domain, and set the precedent of banning slavery from federal territory. It created the first federal executive and judicial branches, settled state boundary disputes which threatened to tear apart the country, adopted the first federal Bill of Rights (for the Northwest Territory), established the United States on a decimal currency, and chartered and funded the first bank in American history.
In this light, the Articles can be viewed as a first step toward the COTUS, not as a justly forgotten failure. The Confederation Congress, indeed, supported the call for the COTUS Convention, and helped to put the COTUS into effect.
Beyond specific accomplishments, the Articles are interesting to study in their own right. Did a unicameral Congress work better than a bicameral Congress? Were annual terms for members of Congress a good idea? Did term limits work? If all we know is the COTUS, we study American history with a sample size of one constitution. Add the Articles, and we have a sample size of two.
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