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Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation
The Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation was the first governing document of the United States of America. The Articles combined the colonies of the American Revolutionary War into a loose confederation. The second Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union on November 15, 1777, after 16 months of debate. The Articles then languished for another three years before ratification was completed on March 1, 1781.



The Articles of Confederation were submitted to the states for ratification on November 17, 1777, accompanied by a letter from Congress urging that the document

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 . . . [2]

The document only became effective as it was ratified by the states. This process dragged on for several years, stalled by an interstate quarrel over claims to uncolonized land in the west. All of the colonies rebelling against Britain ratified it by 1781.


The government created by the Articles of Confederation differs greatly from the one that was later created by the United States Constitution. Under the articles, Congress was responsible for carrying out the duties of the legislative branch and the executive branch. In addition, the articles did not establish a judicial branch (except for maritime courts and ad hoc courts for disputes between the states).

The Articles of Confederation consists of 13 articles, a conclusion, and a signatory section.

Article Summaries:

1: Establishes the name of the confederation as "The United States of America"
2: Explains the rights possessed by any state, and the amount of power to which any state is entitled
3: Establishes the United States as a league of 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..."
4: Anyone can pass freely between states (excluding fugitives from the law) and be entitled to the rights established by the state into which he or she travels. If a crime is committed in one state and the perpetrator flees to another state, he will be transported to and tried in the state in which the crime was committed.
5: Allocates one vote in Congress 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.
9: Defines the rights of the central government.
11: "Canada acceding to this confederation, and adjoining in the measures of the United States, shall be admitted into, and entitled to all the advantages of this Union; but no other colony shall be admitted into the same, unless such admission be agreed to by nine States."

A change in the articles would require unanimous approval from all 13 states.

Although Congress debated the Articles for over a year, they requested immediate action on the part of the states. On February 5, 1778 South Carolina became the first state to ratify the Articles of Confederation. However, three-and-a-half years passed before the final ratification by Maryland on March 1, 1781.

Still at war with the Kingdom of Great Britain, the colonists were reluctant to establish another powerful national government. Jealously guarding their new independence, the Continental Congress created a loosely structured unicameral legislature that protected the liberty of the individual states at the expense of the confederation. While calling on Congress to regulate military and monetary affairs, for example, the Articles of Confederation provided no mechanism to ensure states complied 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 war

The Treaty of Paris (1783), ending 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." [3]


The Articles supported the Congressional direction of the Continental Army, and allowed the Thirteen Colonies to present at unified front when dealing with the European powers. But as an instrument of government, they were largely a failure. Congress could make decisions, but had no power to enforce them.

Perhaps the most important power that Congress was denied was the power of taxation: Congress could only request money from the states. Understandably, the states did not generally comply with the requests in full, leaving the confederation chronically short of funds. The states and the national congress had both incurred debts during the war, and paying congressional debts became a major issue.

Nevertheless the Continental Congress did take two actions with lasting impact. The Land Ordinance of 1785 establisheed 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.

Once the unity demanded by the Revolutionary War became unnecessary, the Continental Army was largely disbanded. A very small national force was maintained to man frontier forts and protect against Indian 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 weren't being met. In 1783, Washington defused the Newburgh conspiracy, but riots by Pennsylvania veterans forced the Congress to leave Philadelphia on June 21.


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.

In September, five states met in the Annapolis Convention (1786) to discuss adjustments that would improve commerce. Under their chairman, Alexander Hamilton, they invited state representatives to convene in Philadelphia to discuss improvements to the federal government. After debate, Congress endorsed the plan to revise the Articles of Confederation on February 21, 1787.


Although ultimately supplanted by the United States Constitution, the Articles of Confederation provided stability during the American Revolutionary War years. Most importantly, the experience of drafting and living under this initial document provided valuable lessons in self-governance and somewhat tempered fears about a powerful central government. Still, reconciling the tension between state and federal authority continues to challenge Americans, as seen in such conflicts as the 1832 Nullification crisis, The United States Civil War, and the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.


The copy of the Articles in the U.S. National Archives has a series of signatures on page six. A list of them is presented here. The signing of the Articles was a process that has caused some confusion. The Articles were approved 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.

Then, on July 9, 1778 the prepared copy was ready. They dated it, and began to sign. They also requested the remaining states to notify their 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 8th. 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. After a wait of two years, Maryland ratified, and her delegates signed the Articles on March 1, 1781. The articles were finally in force.

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:

Presidents under the Articles

The following presidents led the congress under the Articles of Confederation and are considered by some to be the first Presidents of the United States. Nevertheless virtually all historians recognize them by their true title, as the Presidents of the United States in Congress Assembled, which was defined by the Articles of Confederation.

The powers are not the same as this title pertains to the leader of a legislative body rather than to an executive leader as the current President of the United States is. Also, the Articles defined the powers of a confederation of states as opposed to the current Constitution, which defines the powers of a federation of states.

  1. Samuel Huntington
  2. Thomas McKean
  3. John Hanson
  4. Elias Boudinot
  5. Thomas Mifflin
  6. Richard Henry Lee
  7. John Hancock
  8. Nathaniel Gorham
  9. Arthur St. Clair
  10. Cyrus Griffin

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.

External links

  1. Library of Congress: "Today in History: November 15"
  2. Monday, November 17, 1777, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. A Century of Lawmaking, 1774-1873
  3. Letter George Washington to George Clinton, September 11, 1783. The George Washington Papers, 1741-1799
  4. Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union".

Last updated: 12-17-2004 01:57:55