Lesson Plans

Colonial America & Revolution

Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation

Author: Julie Bedard

School: Eagle Ridge Middle

Grade Level: 6th

Time Estimated: 1 day (90 minute period)

Historical Background

After signing the Declaration of Independence, representatives from the Second Continental Congress answered the need for a form of government for the fledgling nation by drafting the Articles of Confederation. Largely a reaction to their experience with the strong central government of Britain, the Articles of Confederation provided for a loose partnership of states, each with somewhat autonomous governmental control. The central government lacked the power to tax, raise an army, and enforce treaties, which led to vast internal and external problems.

"In many ways each state acted as an independent nation with its own laws, it own borders and customs inspectors and its own currency rate. As each colony set their own value for their currency, the exchange rate between the various currencies was not always equal; a price in New York shillings was not the same as a price in Georgia shillings. These local currencies were both monies of account and paper currencies printed by the individual states (but not coins). A similar situation today would be the difference between a price in U.S. dollars and a price in Canadian dollars; both units are dollars but they have different exchange rates."


  1. Students will be able to articulate the problems that were created by the lack of a common currency under the Articles of Confederation.
  2. Students will be able to draw conclusions about weaknesses formed by other facets of government under the Articles of Confederation.

SOL Skills

US I.1a The student will develop skills for historical and geographical analysis, including the ability to identify and interpret primary and secondary source documents to increase understanding of events and life in United States history to 1877.
US I.1e The student will develop skills for historical and geographical analysis, including the ability to evaluate and discuss issues orally and in writing.

SOL Content

U.S. I.7a The student will demonstrate knowledge of the challenges faced by the new nation by identifying the weaknesses of the government established by the Articles of Confederation.



  1. Introduction: To introduce students to the root of money’s value, something that most people take for granted, I will have the students consider a dollar bill and ask them how we know what it is worth using the following as guiding oral questions:
    • What can you buy with this?
    • Can you buy the same things in Maryland that you can in Virginia with this dollar?
    • How are we sure how much this is worth?
    • Would you be willing to exchange this for a British pound? Would you be willing to exchange this for an Oogooboogoostani dollar? What is the difference? (Question for honors students)
  2. We will then examine some of the markings on the current U.S. dollar, exploring the idea that the current dollar gets its worth from the guarantee of the U.S. government. Because all states have agreed to let the central government provide and manage this currency, we can use our dollars in any state. Most people in the world believe that the U.S. is managing its money supply (somewhat) competently, so we can trade our money to buy things other places in the world, which is not true of all countries’ currencies (as evidenced by my fictional country, whose money most people would probably not trust). (10 minutes)
  3. Processing Activity: Students will work in groups of 2 to 4 depending on the size of the class to analyze and discuss a series of currencies issued during the government of the Articles of Confederation.

    The whole class will analyze the picture of the Continental Coin together, observing the features of the coin, which leads one to the idea that the colonies worked together at this point. Most groups from the colonies represented will agree that they would accept the coin as payment because they are pictured on the coin. (10 minutes)
    Some factors to highlight during this discussion include:
    • The reverse side of the coin says “We Are One”
    • The rings on the reverse side of the coin show the names of the colonies and are linked together
    • Students may wonder about the word “fugio,” which comes from the Latin “to fly." The coin, which was designed by Benjamin Franklin contains a seal which means “Time flies, so mind your business.” This could perhaps be linked in by highlighting that Franklin wanted the colonies to work together, otherwise their “time” might run out.
  4. Each individual "colony" group will then turn to the chart on the economies of the different colonies and work on their colony’s “business plan.” Each person in the group should complete a chart and a “business plan” on their own. The “business plan” will consist of one proposed trade with another colony where they will pay their colony’s money for the other colony’s good. (15 minutes)
    • During this trading round, each group will complete the “Colonial Swap” worksheet. They will need to identify which colony they are from based on the script on the currency, how much the currency is worth, and will think about whether other colonies will believe in the value of their currency.
  5. Trading: The results of this round will vary, but each of the groups will propose a trade to one of the other colonies. That colony will have 60 seconds to decide whether or not to accept the trade. In most cases, very few trades will be made, demonstrating the point that it was difficult for people to get what they needed under this system. (20 minutes)
  6. The class will have a discussion about the outcome of the mini-simulation using the following guiding questions:
    • On a scale of 1 – 10, with one being the easiest, how easy or difficult was it to get the things that your colony needed?
    • Do you think it would have been easier if all of the colonies used the same money?
    • What kinds of problems (aka, what bad things could colonies do to each other) under this system? (This question will require some prompting – counterfeiting, fighting, etc) (10 minutes)
  7. The class will then have a discussion and fill in notes about the OTHER weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, which all stem from the colonies operating almost as separate countries. (15 minutes)
    • The biggest weakness of the Articles of Confederation is that the states were very powerful and the central government had no power. This is why each individual state was allowed to issue its own currency.
      • Because the central government couldn’t tell the states what to do, they couldn’t resolve problems between the states. As we just saw with this activity, the states were likely to have problems with each other. Without someone to resolve problems, this might create more war.
      • A sub-effect of the weak central government was that there was no executive (president) or judicial branch. There was only a legislative branch where each state had an equal vote. This was so that NOBODY could tell an individual state what to do.
      • Because the central government could have no power over the states, it could not collect taxes, which meant that it couldn’t provide services on a national level.


Groups can be created by the teacher to ensure that students are matched with others of a similar or a complementary skill level to yield the best discussion for all involved.

For groups that will have a difficult time generating the correct ideas of what their colonies would have created, the charts could already include that appropriate information in the 1st column.


Informal assessment will be possible both through observing the deliberations of the groups as they are preparing for their trade and during the actual trading rounds.

References: Web

Colonial Currencies

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

    The Gilder Lehrman collection displays different colonial currencies in the context of Alexander Hamilton’s push for greater federal power and a federal currency.

Online Money Museum, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

American Currency Exhibit, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco

    The previous two websites from the Richmond and San Francisco Federal Reserve Banks both have detailed exhibits about the history and purposes of American currency

Coins of Colonial and Early America, University of Notre Dame Libraries

    This website compiles information about coins and early America, including graphics and historical information.

Articles of Confederation

The James Madison Papers, American Memory, Library of Congress

    "The Vices of the Political System of the United States," written by James Madison in May 1787, outlines some of the key problems with the Articles of Confederation. Madison’s writing is very dense, but is organized thematically, allowing for a quick summary of some of the weaknesses.

The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals, American Memory, Library of Congress

    An article from the Atlantic Monthly in 1886 details the weaknesses of the government under the Articles of Confederation.