James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Lessons Learned: The Articles of Confederation

by James M. Lindsay
February 28, 2012


A new installment of “Lessons Learned” is now out. This week I discuss the Articles of Confederation, America’s first constitution. It entered into effect on March 1, 1781, after Maryland became the thirteenth and final colony to ratify it. In the video I examine the Articles’ weaknesses and explore what lessons they have for understanding international relations today. Here’s a question to consider in light of the fact that the founders gave up on the Articles after only six years: What makes for a durable and effective constitution? I encourage you to weigh in with your answer in the comments section below.

I hope you enjoy the video.

Further Reading:

Barlow, J. Jackson, Leonard W. Levy, and Ken Masugi, eds. The American Founding: Essays on the Formation of the Constitution. (1988)

Bowling, Kenneth R., Inventing Congress: Origins & Establishment Of First Federal Congress. (1999)

Hoffert, Robert W., A Politics of Tensions: The Articles of Confederation and American Political Ideas. (1992)

Jensen, Merrill, The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774-1781. (1959)

McDonald, Forrest, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. (1986)

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Kir Komrik


    Thanks for the great video and for posing my all-time favorite question from CFR.

    Your question is rather big. You asked, “What makes for a durable and effective constitution?” I’ve been studying that question for a long time and my website is dedicated to the answer. Let me frame it in terms of what elements of durability the United States lacks so that the answer will be manageable.\

    First, a durable constitution, or fundamental law, establishes a legal and economic framework that is not vulnerable to excessive influence from popular faction. The United States Constitution is a “Madisonian” Constitution in that it is weak in this regard. It is a populist Constitution. Hamilton’s version was much better. We are suffering the effects of that now and this country is in decline because of it (and because of Peak Oil, but that’s another post).

    Second, a durable fundamental law esablishes a legal and economic framework that is *true* Rule of Law, not some approximation of it. The United States is nowhere near a nation of rule of law. That is a long story, but nonetheless very true. This country is guaranteed to fail eventually due to this elision alone.

    Third, a durable fundamental law establishes a legal and economic framework through which The People delegate authority to professional politicians who are, once elected, left relatively immune to popular faction by a reduction in the frequency of voting, second tier delegation (see my Constitution), and a system of delegation and revocation that is enforceable in deed by The People.

    You can read just such a Constitution at:
    entitled “A Constitution for a General Federation”

    – kk

  • Posted by Matt Weber

    I’d have to echo the thoughts recently offered by one of our Supreme Court Justices (Scalia) in response to a question that was in a similar vein to the one posed in your video.

    In line with what Scalia said, I believe a “durable” constitution can be realized if the system of government established by the constitution is such that:

    1) It is difficult to enact legislation via “power contradicting power”.

    2) It is extremely difficult to change the constitution.

    It’s too easy to enact legislation as well as change the constitution in the majority of other countries. You can’t say the same in regards to the US; just look at the “gridlock” we currently find ourselves in. Amendments to the constitution in today’s political climate are unfathomable as well.

    The characteristics I just mentioned are, I believe, some of the largest contributing factors to the success of the US constitution.

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