Are the Articles of Confederation useful in promoting democracy in the United States?

The Articles of Confederation was the document that served as the precursor to the official constitution of the United States.  The former was ratified in 1781, the latter was signed and accepted in 1789.  The leaders of revolutionary America felt the need for unity among different states and the necessity to define the “relative powers of the Continental Congress and the individual states”; and this “led Congress to entrust the drafting of a federal constitution to a committee headed by John Dickinson”.  The product of this tentative exercise is the Articles of Confederation which was submitted on July 12, 1776 to the Second Continental Congress.  The three talking points it generated in Congressional sessions were “the apportionment of taxes according to population, the granting of one vote to each state, and the right of the federal government to dispose of public lands in the West”. (The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2009)  So concerns for the development and establishment of democracy did not figure during initial discussions.  At the same time, one could argue that the template for equal representation of all states is an indicator of impending installation of democratic practices.

Through Articles 1 and 13 there is no explicit mention of democracy or egalitarian citizen representation.  The Articles are born out of concerns of the ruling elite, who are exclusively White Anglo-Saxon Protestant males (WASPs); they were also propertied slave owners.  In fact WASP domination of American political and business society continues even today, albeit in a weakened form, making incredulous the claim that the Articles served as a guide for democracy in the country.  Indeed, several historians are of the opinion that the Articles of Confederation (and later the Constitution) are inadequate due to the limited powers they endowed to the central government and democratic institutions.  Identifying this inadequacy, George Washington famously remarked that the Articles were “little more than the shadow without the substance” and mooted the idea of a stronger federal government. (Lind, 2002, p.40)

By taking a look at the content of the 13 Articles, one can see that implementation of democracy is not high priority.  For example,

“The preamble and Article 1 established a perpetual union of the Thirteen Colonies under the style of the United States of America. Article 2 asserted that each state retained its sovereignty and every right not expressly delegated to the central government, while Article 3 characterized the confederation as a “league of friendship,” for common defense…..Article 5 provided that each state send annually not less than two nor more than seven delegates to Congress, though each state was to have only one vote. Article 6 left the conduct of war to Congress, and Article 7 empowered the state legislatures to appoint military officers up to and including the rank of colonel….” (The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2009)

While there are hints and gestures in the Articles that point toward democracy,  there is no explicit laying out of democratic processes and institutions as we understand today.  Hence it is reasonable to conclude that the Article of Confederation serve as a poor guide for successful democracy in the United States.  It might also explain why most Presidential candidates are drawn from upper middle-class or elite sections of the population.

Works Cited

“Confederation, Articles Of.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2009.

Lind, Michael. “Do the People Rule?.” The Wilson Quarterly Wntr 2002: 40+.

“United State of Confusion?.” The Mirror (London, England) 11 Apr. 2007: 8.