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The country’s economic woes were made worse by the fact that the central government also lacked the power to impose tariffs on foreign imports or regulate interstate commerce. Thus, it was unable to prevent British merchants from flooding the U.S. market with low-priced goods after the Revolution, and American producers suffered from the competition. Compounding the problem, states often imposed tariffs on items produced by other states and otherwise interfered with their neighbors’ trade.

The national government also lacked the power to raise an army or navy. Fears of a standing army in the employ of a tyrannical government had led the writers of the Articles of Confederation to leave defense largely to the states. Although the central government could declare war and agree to peace, it had to depend upon the states to provide soldiers. If state governors chose not to honor the national government’s request, the country would lack an adequate defense. This was quite dangerous at a time when England and Spain still controlled large portions of North America ( [link] ).

The Articles of Confederation suffered from many problems that could not be easily repaired. The biggest problem was the lack of power given to the national government.
Problems with the Articles of Confederation
Weakness of the Articles of Confederation Why Was This a Problem?
The national government could not impose taxes on citizens. It could only request money from the states. Requests for money were usually not honored. As a result, the national government did not have money to pay for national defense or fulfill its other responsibilities.
The national government could not regulate foreign trade or interstate commerce. The government could not prevent foreign countries from hurting American competitors by shipping inexpensive products to the United States. It could not prevent states from passing laws that interfered with domestic trade.
The national government could not raise an army. It had to request the states to send men. State governments could choose not to honor Congress’s request for troops. This would make it hard to defend the nation.
Each state had only one vote in Congress regardless of its size. Populous states were less well represented.
The Articles could not be changed without a unanimous vote to do so. Problems with the Articles could not be easily fixed.
There was no national judicial system. Judiciaries are important enforcers of national government power.

The weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, already recognized by many, became apparent to all as a result of an uprising of Massachusetts farmers, led by Daniel Shays . Known as Shays’ Rebellion , the incident panicked the governor of Massachusetts, who called upon the national government for assistance. However, with no power to raise an army, the government had no troops at its disposal. After several months, Massachusetts crushed the uprising with the help of local militias and privately funded armies, but wealthy people were frightened by this display of unrest on the part of poor men and by similar incidents taking place in other states.

David P. Szatmary. 1980. Shays' Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection . Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 84-86, 102-104.
To find a solution and resolve problems related to commerce, members of Congress called for a revision of the Articles of Confederation.

Shays’ rebellion: symbol of disorder and impetus to act

In the summer of 1786, farmers in western Massachusetts were heavily in debt, facing imprisonment and the loss of their lands. They owed taxes that had gone unpaid while they were away fighting the British during the Revolution. The Continental Congress had promised to pay them for their service, but the national government did not have sufficient money. Moreover, the farmers were unable to meet the onerous new tax burden Massachusetts imposed in order to pay its own debts from the Revolution.

Led by Daniel Shays ( [link] ), the heavily indebted farmers marched to a local courthouse demanding relief. Faced with the refusal of many Massachusetts militiamen to arrest the rebels, with whom they sympathized, Governor James Bowdoin called upon the national government for aid, but none was available. The uprising was finally brought to an end the following year by a privately funded militia after the protestors’ unsuccessful attempt to raid the Springfield Armory.

This 1787 almanac cover shows a drawing of Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck.
This contemporary depiction of Continental Army veteran Daniel Shays (left) and Job Shattuck (right), who led an uprising of Massachusetts farmers in 1786–1787 that prompted calls for a stronger national government, appeared on the cover of Bickerstaff’s Genuine Boston Almanack for 1787 .

Were Shays and his followers justified in their attacks on the government of Massachusetts? What rights might they have sought to protect?

Fearful of creating a system so powerful that it might abuse its citizens, the men who drafted the Articles of Confederation deliberately sought to limit the powers of the national government. The states maintained the right to govern their residents, while the national government could declare war, coin money, and conduct foreign affairs but little else. Its inability to impose taxes, regulate commerce, or raise an army hindered its ability to defend the nation or pay its debts. A solution had to be found.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, American government. OpenStax CNX. Dec 05, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11995/1.15
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