School Improvement in Maryland
Clarifications: Each clarification provides an explanation of an indicator/objective to help teachers better understand the skills and/or concepts.

Standard 1.0 Political Science

Topic A. The Foundations and Function of Government

Indicator 1. Investigate the evolution of the U.S. political system as expressed in the United States Constitution

Objective a. Compare the confederate form of government under the Articles of Confederation with the federal form under the Constitution


The first national government of the United States was a confederate form under the Articles of Confederation. A confederate form of government is one in which sovereign states join together only for certain specific purposes, such as defense. For the most part, the states remain independent of one another and manage their own affairs. The founding fathers deliberately selected this form of government after declaring independence from Great Britain because they feared strong central governments. They worried that a powerful national government would deprive them of their individual liberties in the same way that Great Britain's strong central government had. Moreover, they believed that republican forms of government could work only in small communities where people shared the same values and were close enough to the place of government to monitor it closely. For these reasons, the founding fathers left the vast majority of governmental power with the states, granting the national government very little authority.

Under the Articles of Confederation, the national government consisted of a legislature only. There was no president or judicial system. The Congress consisted of representatives from each state, and each state was given one vote. Important matters required the agreement of at least nine of the thirteen states. Congress' authority was limited to the powers to conduct foreign affairs, wage war, maintain military forces, borrow money, and issue currency. However, Congress had no power to enforce its measures. For example, it could only request revenues from the states to support the army; it had no power to tax. Also, while Congress could make trade agreements with foreign nations, it had no authority to compel the states to abide by those agreements. Moreover, the national government had no control over individual citizens. The state governments had authority over their own citizens. In essence, the thirteen states acted as independent countries, cooperating with each other for very few purposes and only when it suited their interests.

The weaknesses of the national government under the Articles of Confederation soon became apparent. Because it lacked the power to tax and requests for money from the states were often ignored, the central government faced financial problems. The United States government also encountered problems with foreign powers like Great Britain and Spain, again because it lacked the power to force the states to abide by foreign agreements. The weaknesses of the national government were exposed dramatically by Shays' Rebellion in 1786. Massachusetts farmers unable to pay their debts protested the confiscation of their homes and property by attempting to arm themselves and shut down the courts. Their rebellion was put down, but property owners in other states were frightened by the incident and began to think a stronger central government was necessary.

In 1787, the states sent delegates to a convention to amend the Articles of Confederation and instead decided to form a whole new government. This time, they chose a federal form of government, under which citizens divide powers between the states and a robust central government. Under the new Constitution, the federal government was divided into legislative, judicial, and executive branches. The legislative branch has the power to make laws. Importantly, the executive branch has the power to enforce those laws. And the judicial branch interprets the laws. The Constitution gives the federal government the powers to tax, regulate foreign and interstate commerce, declare war, maintain armed forces, issue currency, and conduct foreign affairs. State governments retain authority over most of the aspects of their citizens' daily lives, including education, intrastate trade, property regulations, family law, and taxes to support the state government, although the central government also has authority over individuals. Under the new government, the Constitution and measures passed by Congress would be the supreme law of the land, meaning that all state laws and actions would have to be in sync with them.

The Constitution created a much stronger central government than had existed under the Articles of Confederation. But it was not all powerful. The framers provided safeguards to make sure that this strong national government does not trample state or individual rights the way Great Britain had. The states retain significant autonomy, and any powers not expressly granted to the national or state governments remain in the hands of the citizens themselves.

Resources for Objective 1.A.1.a: