The Articles of Confederation
Articles page1
Page I of the Articles of Confederation
Created November 15, 1777
Ratified March 1, 1781
Authors Continental Congress
Signers Continental Congress
Purpose Constitution for the United States, later replaced by the creation of the current United States Constitution

The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, commonly referred to as the Articles of Confederation, was the first constitution of the thirteen United States of America. The Second Continental Congress appointed a committee to draft the 'Articles' in June 1776 and proposed the draft to the States for ratification in November 1777. The ratification process was completed in March 1781, legally federating the sovereign and independent states, allied under the Articles of Association, into a new federation styled the "United States of America". Under the Articles the states retained sovereignty over all governmental functions not specifically relinquished to the central government.

On June 12, 1776, a day after appointing a committee to prepare a draft declaration of independence, the Second Continental Congress resolved to appoint a committee of thirteen to prepare a draft of a constitution for a confederate type of union. The last draft of the Articles was written in the summer of 1777 and the Second Continental Congress approved them for ratification by the States on November 15, 1777 in York, Pennsylvania after a year of debate. In practice the final draft of the Articles served as the de facto system of government used by the Congress ("the United States in Congress assembled") until it became de jure by final ratification on March 1, 1781; at which point Congress became the Congress of the Confederation. The Articles set the rules for operations of the "United States" confederation. The confederation was capable of making war, negotiating diplomatic agreements, and resolving issues regarding the western territories. An important element of the Articles was that Article XIII stipulated that "their provisions shall be inviolably observed by every state" and "the Union shall be perpetual".

The Articles were created by the chosen representatives of the states in the Second Continental Congress out of a perceived need to have "a plan of confederacy for securing the freedom, sovereignty, and independence of the United States." Although serving a crucial role in the victory in the American Revolutionary War, a group of reformers,[1] known as "federalists", felt that the Articles lacked the necessary provisions for a sufficiently effective government. Fundamentally, a federation was sought to replace the confederation. The key criticism by those who favored a more powerful central state (i.e. the federalists)[citation needed] was that the government (i.e. the Congress of the Confederation) lacked taxing authority; it had to request funds from the states. Also various federalist factions wanted[citation needed] a government that could impose uniform tariffs, give land grants, and assume responsibility for unpaid state war debts ("assumption".) Those opposed to the Constitution, known as "anti-federalists," considered these limits on government power to be necessary and good.Template:Dubious[2] Another criticism of the Articles was that they did not strike the right balance between large and small states in the legislative decision making process. Template:Dubious Due to its one-state, one-vote plank, the larger states were expected to contribute more but had only one vote.

The Articles were replaced by the US Constitution on June 21, 1788.


The political push for the colonies to increase cooperation began in the French and Indian Wars in the mid 1750s. The American Revolution in response to lack of elected representation in the British government and a rejection of the resulting law and regulation, followed by the beginning of the American Revolutionary War in 1775 and a proclamation by the monarchy that Congress were traitors in rebellion, induced the various states to cooperate in seceding from the British Empire. Starting 1775, the Second Continental Congress acted as the provisional national government that ran the war. Congress presented the Articles for enactment by the states in 1777, while prosecuting the American Revolutionary War.


Congress began to move for ratification of the Articles in 1777:

"Permit us, then, earnestly to recommend these articles to the immediate and dispassionate attention of the legislatures of the respective states. Let them be candidly reviewed under a sense of the difficulty of combining in one general system the various sentiments and interests of a continent divided into so many sovereign and independent communities, under a conviction of the absolute necessity of uniting all our councils and all our strength, to maintain and defend our common liberties...[3]

The document could not become officially effective until it was ratified by all of the thirteen colonies. The first state to ratify was Virginia on December 16, 1777.[4] The process dragged on for several years, stalled by the refusal of some states to rescind their claims to land in the West. Maryland was the last holdout; it refused to go along until Virginia and New York agreed to cede their claims in the Ohio River valley. A little over three years passed before Maryland's ratification on March 1, 1781.

Article summariesEdit

Even though the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were established by many of the same people, the two documents were very different. The original five-paged Articles contained thirteen articles, a conclusion, and a signatory section. The following list contains short summaries of each of the thirteen articles.

  1. Establishes the name of the confederation as "The United States of America."
  2. Asserts the equality of the separate states with the confederation government, i.e. "Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated."
  3. Establishes the United States as a new nation, a sovereign union of sovereign states, united ". . . for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them . . . ," while declaring that the union is "perpetual," and can only be altered by approval of Congress with ratification by all the state legislatures.
  4. Establishes freedom of movement–anyone can pass freely between states, excluding "paupers, vagabonds, and fugitives from justice." All people are entitled to the rights established by the state into which he travels. If a crime is committed in one state and the perpetrator flees to another state, he will be extradited to and tried in the state in which the crime was committed.
  5. Allocates one vote in the Congress of the Confederation (United States in Congress Assembled) to each state, which was entitled to a delegation of between two and seven members. Members of Congress were appointed by state legislatures; individuals could not serve more than three out of any six years.
  6. Only the central government is allowed to conduct foreign relations and to declare war. No states may have navies or standing armies, or engage in war, without permission of Congress (although the state militias are encouraged).
  7. When an army is raised for common defense, colonels and military ranks below colonel will be named by the state legislatures.
  8. Expenditures by the United States will be paid by funds raised by state legislatures, and apportioned to the states based on the real property values of each.
  9. Defines the powers of the central government: to declare war, to set weights and measures (including coins), and for Congress to serve as a final court for disputes between states.
  10. Defines a Committee of the States to be a government when Congress is not in session.
  11. Requires nine states to approve the admission of a new state into the confederacy; pre-approves Canada, if it applies for membership.
  12. Reaffirms that the Confederation accepts war debt incurred by Congress before the Articles.

Still at war with the Kingdom of Great Britain, the Framers were divided between those seeking a powerful, centralized national government, and those seeking a loosely-structured one. Jealously guarding their new independence, members of the Continental Congress arrived at a compromise solution dividing sovereignty between the states and the federal government, with a unicameral legislature that protected the liberty of the individual states. While calling on Congress to regulate military and monetary affairs, for example, the Articles of Confederation provided no mechanism to force the states to comply with requests for troops or revenue. At times, this left the military in a precarious position, as George Washington wrote in a 1781 letter to the governor of Massachusetts, John Hancock.

The end of the warEdit

The Treaty of Paris (1783), which ended hostilities with Great Britain, languished in Congress for months because state representatives failed to attend sessions of the national legislature. Yet Congress had no power to enforce attendance. Writing to George Clinton in September 1783, George Washington complained:

Congress have come to no determination yet respecting the Peace Establishment nor am I able to say when they will. I have lately had a conference with a Committee on this subject, and have reiterated my former opinions, but it appears to me that there is not a sufficient representation to discuss Great National points.[5]



The Articles supported the Congressional direction of the Continental Army, and allowed the 13 states to present a unified front when dealing with the European powers. As a tool to build a centralized war-making government, they were largely a failure: Historian Bruce Chadwick wrote:

George Washington had been one of the very first proponents of a strong federal government. The army had nearly disbanded on several occasions during the winters of the war because of the weaknesses of the Continental Congress. ... The delegates could not draft soldiers and had to send requests for regular troops and militia to the states. Congress had the right to order the production and purchase of provisions for the soldiers, but could not force anyone to actually supply them, and the army nearly starved in several winters of war.[6]

The Continental Congress, before the Articles were approved, had promised soldiers a pension of half pay for life. However Congress had no power to compel the states to fund this obligation, and as the war wound down after the victory at Yorktown the sense of urgency to support the military was no longer a factor. No progress was made in Congress during the winter of 1783-1784. General Henry Knox, who would become the first Secretary of War under the Constitution, blamed the weaknesses of the Articles of the inability of the government to fund the military. The army had long been supportive of a strong union.[7] Knox wrote:

The army generally have always reprobated the idea of being thirteen armies. Their ardent desires have been to be one continental body looking up to one sovereign. ... It is a favorite toast in the army, “A hoop to the barrel” or “Cement to the Union.”[8]

As Congress failed to act on the petitions, Knox wrote to Gouverneur Morris, four years before the Philadelphia Convention was convened, “As the present Constitution is so defective, why do not you great men call the people together and tell them so; that is, to have a convention of the States to form a better Constitution.”[9]

Once the war was won, the Continental Army was largely disbanded. A very small national force was maintained to man frontier forts and protect against Native American attacks. Meanwhile, each of the states had an army (or militia), and 11 of them had navies. The wartime promises of bounties and land grants to be paid for service were not being met. In 1783, Washington defused the Newburgh conspiracy, but riots by unpaid Pennsylvania veterans forced the Congress to leave Philadelphia temporarily.[10]

Foreign policyEdit

Even after peace was achieved, the weakness of the government frustrated the ability of the government to conduct foreign policy. In 1786 Thomas Jefferson, concerned over the failure to fund a naval expedition against the Barbary pirates, wrote to James Monroe, "It will be said there is no money in the treasury. There never will be money in the treasury till the confederacy shows its teeth. The states must see the rod.” [11]

Taxation and commerceEdit

Template:Expand Under the articles, Congress could make decisions, but had no power to enforce them. There was a requirement for unanimous approval before any modifications could be made to the Articles. Because the majority of lawmaking rested with the states, the central government was also kept limited.

Congress was denied the power of taxation: it could only request money from the states. The states did not generally comply with the requests in full, leaving the Confederation Congress and the Continental Army chronically short of funds. As more money was printed, continental dollars depreciated. Washington in 1779 wrote to John Jay, serving as President of the Continental Congress, "that a wagon load of money will scarcely purchase a wagon load of provisions."[12] Jay and the Congress responded in May by requesting $45 million from the states. In an appeal to the states to comply Jay wrote that the taxes were "the price of liberty, the peace and the safety of yourselves and posterity."[13] He argued that Americans should avoid having it said "that America had no sooner become independent than she became insolvent" or that "her infant glories and growing fame were obscured and tarnished by broken contracts and violated faith."[14] The states did not respond with the money requested.

Congress was also denied the power to regulate commerce, and as a result, the states maintained control over their own trade policy as well. The states and the national congress had both incurred debts during the war, and how to pay the debts became a major issue after the war. Some states paid off their debts; however, the centralizers favored federal assumption of states' debts.


Nevertheless, the Congress of the Confederation did take two actions with lasting impact. The Land Ordinance of 1785 established the general land survey and ownership provisions used throughout later American expansion. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 noted the agreement of the original states to give up western land claims and cleared the way for the entry of new states.


The Second Continental Congress approved the Articles for distribution to the states on November 15, 1777. A copy was made for each state and one was kept by the Congress. The copies sent to the states for ratification were unsigned, and a cover letter had only the signatures of Henry Laurens and Charles Thomson, who were the President and Secretary to the Congress.

But, the Articles at that time were unsigned, and the date was blank. Congress began the signing process by examining their copy of the Articles on June 27, 1778. They ordered a final copy prepared (the one in the National Archives), and that delegates should inform the secretary of their authority for ratification.

On July 9, 1778, the prepared copy was ready. They dated it, and began to sign. They also requested each of the remaining states to notify its delegation when ratification was completed. On that date, delegates present from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina signed the Articles to indicate that their states had ratified. New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland could not, since their states had not ratified. North Carolina and Georgia also didn't sign that day, since their delegations were absent.

After the first signing, some delegates signed at the next meeting they attended. For example, John Wentworth of New Hampshire added his name on August 8. John Penn was the first of North Carolina's delegates to arrive (on July 10), and the delegation signed the Articles on July 21, 1778.

The other states had to wait until they ratified the Articles and notified their Congressional delegation. Georgia signed on July 24, New Jersey on November 26, and Delaware on February 12, 1779. Maryland refused to ratify the Articles until every state had ceded its western land claims.

File:Act of Maryland to ratify Articles.jpg

On February 2, 1781, the much-awaited decision was taken by the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis.[15] As the last piece of business during the afternoon Session, "among engrossed Bills" was "signed and sealed by Governor Thomas Sim Lee in the Senate Chamber, in the presence of the members of both Houses… an Act to empower the delegates of this state in Congress to subscribe and ratify the articles of confederation" and perpetual union among the states. The Senate then adjourned "to the first Monday in August next." The decision of Maryland to ratify the Articles was reported to the Continental Congress on February 12. The formal signing of the Articles by the Maryland delegates took place in Philadelphia at noon time on March 1, 1781 and was celebrated in the afternoon. With these events, the Articles entered into force and the United States came into being as a united, sovereign and national state.

Congress had debated the Articles for over a year and a half, and the ratification process had taken nearly three and a half years. Many participants in the original debates were no longer delegates, and some of the signers had only recently arrived. The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union were signed by a group of men who were never present in the Congress at the same time.

The signers and the states they represented were:

Roger Sherman (Connecticut) was the only person to sign all four great state papers of the United States: the Articles of Association, the United States Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution.

Robert Morris (Pennsylvania) was the only person besides Sherman to sign three of the great state papers of the United States: the United States Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution.

John Dickinson (Delaware) and Daniel Carroll (Maryland), along with Sherman and Morris, were the only four people to sign both the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution.

Presidents of the CongressEdit

The following list is of those who led the Congress of the Confederation under the Articles of Confederation as the Presidents of the United States in Congress Assembled. Under the Articles, the president was the presiding officer of Congress, chaired the Cabinet (the Committee of the States) when Congress was in recess, and performed other administrative functions. He was not, however, a chief executive in the way the successor President of the United States is a chief executive, but all of the functions he executed were under the auspices and in service of the Congress.

For a full list of Presidents of the Congress Assembled and Presidents under the two Continental Congresses before the Articles, see President of the Continental Congress.


Revision and replacementEdit

In May 1786, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina proposed that Congress revise the Articles of Confederation. Recommended changes included granting Congress power over foreign and domestic commerce, and providing means for Congress to collect money from state treasuries. Unanimous approval was necessary to make the alterations, however, and Congress failed to reach a consensus. The weakness of the Articles in establishing an effective unifying government was underscored by the threat of internal conflict both within and between the states, especially after Shays' Rebellion threatened to topple the state government of Massachusetts.

On January 21, 1786, the Virginia Legislature, following James Madison's recommendation, invited all the states to send delegates to Annapolis, Maryland to discuss ways to reduce these interstate conflicts. At what came to be known as the Annapolis Convention, the few state delegates in attendance endorsed a motion that called for all states to meet in Philadelphia in May, 1787 to discuss ways to improve the Articles of Confederation in a "Grand Convention." Although the states' representatives to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia were only authorized to amend the Articles, the representatives held secret, closed-door sessions and wrote a new constitution. The new Constitution gave much more power to the central government, but characterization of the result is disputed. The general goal of the authors was to get as close to a republic as defined by the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, while trying to address the many difficulties of the interstate relationships. Historian Forrest McDonald, using the ideas of James Madison from Federalist 39, describes the change this way:

The constitutional reallocation of powers created a new form of government, unprecedented under the sun. Every previous national authority either had been centralized or else had been a confederation of sovereign states. The new American system was neither one nor the other; it was a mixture of both.[16]

When approached after leaving the close of the Federal Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked a question. This is the conversation as has been recorded:

The lady asked "Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?"
“A Republic, if you can keep it.” was the response of Benjamin Franklin.

Historian Ralph Ketcham comments on the opinions of Patrick Henry, George Mason, and other antifederalists who were not so eager to give up the local autonomy won by the revolution:

Antifederalists feared what Patrick Henry termed the "consolidated government" proposed by the new Constitution. They saw in Federalist hopes for commercial growth and international prestige only the lust of ambitious men for a "splendid empire" that, in the time-honored way of empires, would oppress the people with taxes, conscription, and military campaigns. Uncertain that any government over so vast a domain as the United States could be controlled by the people, Antifederalists saw in the enlarged powers of the general government only the familiar threats to the rights and liberties of the people.[17]

According to their own terms for modification (Article XIII), the Articles would still have been in effect until 1790, the year in which the last of the 13 states ratified the new Constitution. The Congress under the Articles continued to sit until November 1788,[18][19][20][21] overseeing the adoption of the new Constitution by the states, and setting elections. By that date, 11 of the 13 states had ratified the new Constitution.

Historians have given many reasons for the perceived need to replace the articles in 1787. Jillson and Wilson (1994) point to the financial weakness as well as the norms, rules and institutional structures of the Congress, and the propensity to divide along sectional lines.

Rakove (1988) identifies several factors that explain the collapse of the Confederation. The lack of compulsory direct taxation power was objectionable to those wanting a strong centralized state or expecting to benefit from such power. It could not collect customs after the war because tariffs were vetoed by Rhode Island. Rakove concludes that their failure to implement national measures "stemmed not from a heady sense of independence but rather from the enormous difficulties that all the states encountered in collecting taxes, mustering men, and gathering supplies from a war-weary populace."[22] The second group of factors Rakove identified derived from the substantive nature of the problems the Continental Congress confronted after 1783, especially the inability to create a strong foreign policy. Finally, the Confederation's lack of coercive power reduced the likelihood for profit to be made by political means, thus potential rulers were uninspired to seek power.

When the war ended in 1783, certain special interests had incentives to create a new "merchant state," much like the British state people had rebelled against. In particular, holders of war scrip and land speculators wanted a central government to pay off scrip at face value and to legalize western land holdings with disputed claims. Also, manufacturers wanted a high tariff as a barrier to foreign goods, but competition among states made this impossible without a central government.[23]

Political scientist David C. Hendrickson writes that two prominent political leaders in the Confederation, John Jay of New York and Thomas Burke of North Carolina believed that "the authority of the congress rested on the prior acts of the several states, to which the states gave their voluntary consent, and until those obligations were fulfilled, neither nullification of the authority of congress, exercising its due powers, nor secession from the compact itself was consistent with the terms of their original pledges."[24]

Law professor Daniel Farber argues that there was no clear consensus on the permanence of the Union or the issue of secession by the Founders. Farber wrote:

What about the original understanding? The debates contain scattered statements about the permanence or impermanence of the Union. The occasional reference to the possible impermanency of the Constitution are hard to interpret. They might have referred to a legal right to revoke ratification. But they could equally could have referred to an extraconstitutional right of revolution, or to the possibility that a new national convention would rewrite the Constitution, or simply to the factual possibility that the national government might break down. Similarly, references to the permanency of the Union could have referred to the practical unlikelihood of withdrawal rather than to any lack of legal power. The public debates seemingly do not speak specifically to whether ratification under Article VII was revocable.[25]

However, what if one or more states do violate the compact? One view, not only about the Articles but also the later Constitution, was that the state or states injured by such a breach could rightfully secede. This position was held by, among others, Thomas Jefferson and John Calhoun.

If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation . . . to a continuance in union . . . I have no hesitation in saying, let us separate.

Jefferson letter to James Madison, 1816
This view motivated discussions of secession and nullification at the Hartford Convention, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and the Nullification Crisis. In his book Life of Webster Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge writes

It is safe to say that there was not a man in the country, from Washington and Hamilton to Clinton and Mason, who did not regard the new system as an experiment from which each and every State had a right to peaceably withdraw.[26][27]

A competing view, promoted by Daniel Webster and later by Abraham Lincoln , was that the Constitution (and Articles) established a permanent union.[28][29] President Andrew Jackson during the Nullification Crisis, in his “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina”, made the case for the perpetuity of the Union while also contrasting the differences between “revolution” and “secession”:[30]

But each State having expressly parted with so many powers as to constitute jointly with the other States a single nation, cannot from that period possess any right to secede, because such secession does not break a league, but destroys the unity of a nation, and any injury to that unity is not only a breach which would result from the contravention of a compact, but it is an offense against the whole Union. To say that any State may at pleasure secede from the Union, is to say that the United States are not a nation because it would be a solecism to contend that any part of a nation might dissolve its connection with the other parts, to their injury or ruin, without committing any offense. Secession, like any other revolutionary act, may be morally justified by the extremity of oppression; but to call it a constitutional right, is confounding the meaning of terms, and can only be done through gross error, or to deceive those who are willing to assert a right, but would pause before they made a revolution, or incur the penalties consequent upon a failure.[31]

This view, among others, was presented against declarations of secession from the Union by southern slave states as the American Civil War began.

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