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Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation was the first governing document of the United States of America. The Articles of Confederation 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 in the temporary American capital at York, Pennsylvania.

Table of contents
1 Ratification
2 Summary
3 Function
4 The end of the war
5 Revision
6 Lessons
7 Signatories
8 References
9 External link


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.


Articles of Confederation

The government created by the Articles of Confederation differs greatly from the one that was later created by the United States Constitution. Congress, for example, under the articles, is responsible for carrying out the duties of the legislative branch and the executive branch. In addition, the articles do not establish a judicial branch.

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.
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 ratification on March 1, 1781. Later that year, John Hanson was elected as President of Congress (a legislative position, perhaps analogous to the modern offices of Speaker of the House of Representatives or the Senate Majority Leader). After Hanson had completed his term in office, some began to refer to its holders as Presidents of the United States in Congress assembled. Despite the way this name is phrased, this position cannot be construed as being a head of state, and is not related to the Presidency later established by the Constitution.

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 nation. 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 Articles of Confederation were, by and large, a failure. The main cause of this was that though Congress could make decisions, it had not the 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 government chronically short of funds. The military, for instance, was always underpaid; at a time when the nation's borders were still vulnerable, the consequences of this, it was worried, could be disastrous. Some generals threatened to turn the military against the government if sufficent funds could not be raised. While this scheme brought little progress, it made people acutely aware of the failings of their political system.

The end of the war

The Treaty of Paris (1783), ending hostilities with the United Kingdom, 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]


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.

Finally, Alexander Hamilton 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 and the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 1954 decision.


New Hampshire Massachusetts Bay Rhode Island and Providence Plantations Connecticut New York New Jersey Pennsylvania Delaware Maryland Virginia North Carolina South Carolina Georgia


  1. Library of Congress: "Today in History: November 15" - the November 29 revision of this article was pretty much copied from here.
  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". Appearing in a book entitled "The Constitutions of the Several Independent States of America", printed in London, 1783.

External link