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The Articles of Confederation (1777)–Milestone Documents in American History v. 1 (Dallas, Tex.: Schlager Group, 2008), p. 170-185

The Articles of Confederation (1777) [DRAFT]

The Articles of Confederation, a.k.a. the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, was the first constitution of the United States—and the first successful attempt by the American colonies to form a unified government. The differences in the interests of the colonies as well as Great Britain’s hesitance to see a unified colonial structure had always sabotaged previous movements for union. With the Declaration of Independence, it became imperative that some type of union be created not only to coordinate the Revolutionary War but also to create a single state to deal with foreign nations whose assistance the country needed.
The Articles set up a government whereby the states were united through the legislature of the Confederation—the Congress of the Confederation. However, the Confederation only had certain powers given to it; all other powers were reserved for the states. Individual colonies wanted to retain their sovereignty and looked with suspicion on a continental government that could possibly usurp their powers. As a result, the Articles formed a confederation whereby each state retained its own power over its citizens, transport, industries, etc. with only certain specific powers, such as foreign affairs, given to the Confederation government. This created a loose, federal organization of states in perpetual alliance with one another.

With the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, the differences between the American colonies and Great Britain intensified. With the British treasury empty from the war, the British government sought to recuperate monetary losses by making the colonies pay taxes for their own defense while the colonials insisted that taxation without representation was unlawful. Also, with the French threat removed, many in the colonies questioned why Great Britain needed to be so involved in colonial affairs; the colonies could run their own affairs without British interference.

There were several attempts at colonial union. In 1754, the meeting of the Albany Congress resulted in the Albany Plan of Union, which was never enacted or accepted. In 1774, Joseph Galloway presented his own plan of union for the colonies to the First Continental Congress, but again nothing was done. In 1775, Benjamin Franklin also tried to interest the Congress in a union and wrote his version of the Articles of Confederation. No action was taken.

There were two groups who dominated colonial political thinking. The radicals, who were primarily small farmers, teachers, craftsmen and the landless, believed in direct democracy: the control of the citizenry over the government. Only small political units could be controlled directly by the people, so the radicals believed in the power of the colonial governments as the supreme authority. In addition, many radicals sought a change in the social order as well as the political: redistribution of land, the payment of higher taxes by the well-off, etc. A strong, central government would not be desirable because it would be too far removed from the control of the people. In contrast, the conservatives were the large landowners, the merchants, ship owners and lawyers who wanted the repeal of repressive British laws; many did not want to see the end of British rule, at least in the beginning. They believed in a strong central government for the colonies—Great Britain was the original central authority—and they did not want any change in the social order. In effect, the conservatives feared direct, democratic control embodied in the revolutionary state legislatures and looked to a strong central government to curb the power of the states to protect personal property and the rights of the wealthy.

However, by 1776 it became clear to most conservatives that rapprochement with Great Britain was impossible. Therefore, a union between the colonies became necessary, not only to coordinate the war with Britain but also to serve as the contact between the colonies and the governments of Spain and France, with whom the colonies sought support. While debating the Declaration of Independence , the Second Continental Congress set up a commission to create a plan for union. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania (and Delaware) headed the committee to draft the Articles. It was he who wrote the draft that was later debated in Congress. From Dickinson’s Articles came the finished version, which was finally ratified and went into effect on March 1, 1781.

February 10, 1763—Treaty of Paris signed, ending the French and Indian War
January, 1776—Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is published, explaining in lay terms the reasons for independence
June 12, 1776—committee headed by John Dickinson created by Continental Congress to write the draft of the Articles of Confederation
July 4, 1776—Declaration of Independence approved by Second Continental Congress
July 12, 1776—Debates on the Articles begin in the Second Continental Congress
November 15, 1777—Second Continental Congress accepts the Articles; document is sent to colonies for ratification
March 1, 1781—the last colony, Maryland, ratifies the Articles, thereby creating the first national government of the United States of America
1782—the First National Bank of the United States opens
June 21, 1783—mutinous soldiers hold the Confederation Congress hostage in Philadelphia
September 23, 1783—Treaty of Paris ends the Revolutionary War
August, 1786—Shays’ Rebellion erupts in Massachusetts
May 25-September 17, 1787—Constitutional Convention meets in Philadelphia
July 13, 1787—Confederation Congress passes the Northwest Ordinance
July 25, 1788—Former Secretary to the Congress of the Confederation turns over all official records
April 30, 1789—George Washington inaugurated president of the United States in New York City

About the Author
Known as the “Penman of the Revolution,” John Dickinson was born on the Crosiadore estate near the village of Trappe in Talbot County, Maryland, on November 8, 1732. His father, Samuel Dickinson, was a prosperous farmer and his mother was Mary (Cadwalader) Dickinson, his father’s second wife. In 1740, the family moved to Kent County, Delaware. There he was educated by private tutors until 1750, when he went to Philadelphia to study law with John Moland.

In 1753, Dickinson went to London to study law at Middle Temple. Returning to Philadelphia, Dickinson became a prominent lawyer there from 1757 to 1760. Entering public life, Dickinson served in the Three Lower Counties (Delaware) assembly as speaker. In 1762, Dickinson won a seat in the Pennsylvania assembly and was reelected in 1764. He quickly became the leader of the conservatives in the assembly and gained notoriety for his defense of the proprietary governor against the faction led by Benjamin Franklin.

Dickinson’s influential pamphlet, The Late Regulations Respecting the British Colonies, advocated pressuring British merchants to have the act repealed. As a result, the Pennsylvania assembly sent Dickinson as a representative to the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and he drafted its resolutions. In 1767-1768, Dickinson wrote a series of newspaper articles, Letters of a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies, which circulated throughout the colonies and attacked British taxation and advocated resistance to all unjust laws. However, Dickinson always remained optimistic that a peaceful resolution could be found. Because of his Letters, Dickinson was given an honorary LL.D. from the College of New Jersey (later known as Princeton University).

Dickinson continued to criticize British policy. In 1768, he attacked the Townsend Acts, established by the British to collect duties in order to pay the salaries of royal officials in the colonies. Dickinson advocated resistance through non-importation and non-exportation agreements on British goods.

In 1770, Dickinson married Mary Norris, the daughter of wealthy merchant Isaac Norris. They had two daughters, Sally and Maria.

Dickinson was reelected to the Pennsylvania assembly in 1771 and drafted a petition to the king that was approved. However, Dickinson’s belief in non-violence led to the decline in his popularity. In 1774, Dickinson chaired the Philadelphia committee of correspondence and briefly served in the First Continental Congress as a Pennsylvania representative.

Throughout 1775, Dickinson continued to write to the British government for a redress of colonial grievances, but he was slowly drawn into the revolutionary fray. Serving in the Second Continental Congress (1775-1776), Dickinson drew up the Declaration of the Causes of Taking Up Arms. He refused to sign the Declaration of Independence (1776) and had voted against it. Nonetheless, Dickinson entered the army to fight the British. Dickinson declined to serve in the Congress and resigned from the Pennsylvania Assembly. He may have taken part in the Battle of Brandywine (1777).

Dickinson headed the congressional committee to draft the Articles of Confederation (1776-1777). He authored the draft of the Articles that was debated in the Congress. Delaware sent Dickinson to the Continental Congress (1779-1780) as a delegate. In 1781, Dickinson served as president of Delaware’s Supreme Executive Council. Moving back to Philadelphia, Dickinson was elected president of Pennsylvania (1782-1785). He represented Delaware at the Annapolis Convention in 1786.

Though in poor health, Dickinson was sent by Delaware to the Constitutional Convention (1787). Dickinson argued against the United States Constitution. Nonetheless, he authorized his friend and fellow delegate George Read to sign his name to the Constitution and advocated for its ratification by writing a series of letters under the pen name “Fabius.”

Dickinson withdrew from public life and wrote on politics and had his works published in two volumes (1801). He died on February 14, 1808 in Wilmington, Delaware and is buried in the Friends Burial Ground. Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (chartered in 1783) was named in his honor.

Explanation and Analysis of the Document
In order to understand the version of the Articles of Confederation accepted by the Continental Congress, a comparison between John Dickinson’s draft and the final version must be made.

On June 12, 1776, the Continental Congress created a committee to write a draft of the Articles of Confederation. John Dickinson, an excellent writer, was viewed as the leader. The conservatives serving on the committee were: Dickinson, Edward Rutledge, Robert R. Livingston, Francis Hopkinson, Thomas Stone, Joseph Hewes, Button Gwinnett and Thomas Nelson. Thomas McKean also served, but though radical in his desire for independence, he was a conservative in all his other political leanings. Roger Sherman and Josiah Bartlett were moderates between radical and conservative. The only true radicals serving on the committee were Stephen Hopkins and Samuel Adams, John Adams’ cousin.

This conservative-dominated committee, made up of several lawyers, wrote a document that created a confederation in name only. “The Dickinson draft, while by no means as explicit as the Constitution of 1787, made the constitution of the central government the standard by which the rights, powers, and duties of the states were to be measured. Congress was theoretically, if not practically, the supreme authority. In contrast, the final draft of the Articles of Confederation was a pact between thirteen sovereign states which agreed to delegate certain powers for specific purposes, while they retained all powers not expressly delegated by them to the central government.” (Merrill, Articles, p. 130) Dickinson’s language in the draft was that of a lawyer: he used phrases and terms that could have multiple meanings from a legal point of view that a lay person would not realize. And Dickinson was extremely precise in what he wrote. His exactness of language caused Edward Rutledge to comment in a letter to John Jay that the Articles occupied “the Vice of his [Dickinson’s] Productions to a considerable Degree; I mean the Vice of Refining too much.” (Merrill, Articles, p. 127)

The debates over the Articles in committee were not recorded. However, the actual debate over Dickinson’s draft in the radically-controlled Continental Congress, are recorded in that body’s proceedings. The Dickinson draft had 20 articles whereas the accepted document has 13. Language in the final document was rewritten; much of the legal turns of phrase were eliminated or rewritten.

After a preamble of greetings, the document’s full title is given as “The Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.”

Article 1 fixes the name of the new nation as “The United States of America.” In the closing paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, this name is used—the only time in the entire document—in regards to the representatives of the colonies who signed the declaration. The Articles officially established this as the name of the new country.

Article 2 (article 3 in the Dickinson draft) defines the powers of the states in regard to the Confederation. All power is reserved to the states and only certain powers were given by the states to the Congress of the Confederation. In effect, there is no balance of powers between the Confederation government and the state governments; the state governments remained the ultimate power in the new country; the Confederation government’s powers were strictly limited to those enumerated in the Articles and assigning it a subservient role to the governments of the states.

In article 3 (article 2 in the Dickinson draft), the “firm league of friendship” between the states is established for their mutual defense and protection from those outside the Confederation who would seek to destroy their freedoms and liberties. However, the Articles did not create or allow a standing federal army of the United States. In time of war, all militias and armies raised by the states would be commanded by officers appointed by the Congress of the Confederation, as is stated in article 7. The Congress would declare war and call on an army to be raised by the states to defend the United States or, in the case of Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts, to suppress internal strife. The call to arms by the Congress to the states was not always answered, as in the case of Shays’ Rebellion, which presented a serious weakness to the Confederation.

Article 4 extends the same rights and privileges to all citizens whenever they travel to other states within the Confederation. It also guarantees transit from state to state free of harassment or restriction as well as protection under the laws of each state as if the visiting citizens were from that state. In addition, it recognizes the legitimacy of the proceedings of the magistrates and courts of all the states and ensures the extradition, at the request of state authorities, of any criminals who have fled to escape arrest. While article 4 may suggest the notion of dual citizenship—a man in one state having citizenship in that state as well as in the Confederation—the government of the United States was to have limited (if men were in a Confederation army) or no jurisdiction over the individual citizens of the states. What is talked about is a reciprocal type of citizenship whereby citizens of one state were guaranteed the same rights and protections as citizens of any other state that they visited. To many, the idea of being a citizen of the United States was an alien concept.

Article 5 deals with the representation of the states in the Congress of the Confederation. Each state was required to have no fewer than two delegates and no more than seven at any given time. How delegates were selected was reserved for the state legislatures to decide; states had the right to recall delegates and send others in their place. Each state had one vote in the Congress, which met the first Monday in November of every year. Term limits on delegates was set as well and the probation that none could hold any other Confederation office while serving as a delegate. States were responsible for the care of their delegates while serving in Congress. Delegates were also assured freedom of speech when in Congress and no delegate could be arrested by other states while traveling through them as punishment for having performed his duties in Congress.

It was not unknown for states to send even numbers of representatives to Congress. In the event of a split vote by a state’s delegates, that state could not cast a vote. Several instances of messages being sent to absentee delegates to come to Congress and cast the deciding vote—and therefore allow the state to vote—are recorded.

The “one state one vote” unicameral legislature codified in the accepted document resulted after lengthy debates. Representation based on state population was suggested, but was opposed by smaller states that feared the larger ones would dominate the Confederation. Also, the southern states insisted that their representation include their slave populations, who were not citizens and had no rights. This was opposed by the northern states, since it would swell the southern states’ representation. The problem of representation in Congress would create a crisis in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which was resolved only by compromise and the creation of the bicameral Congress that Americans know today.

Article 6 prohibited any state from sending embassies to foreign countries or entering into any treaties or alliances with them. Foreign relations was one area strictly reserved for the Confederation government. In addition, no United States public servant could accept a position or title from a foreign government, nor could the government of the United States bestow any title of nobility. States were prohibited from collecting duties on foreign imports that might interfere with treaties the United States had or would have with Spain or France. States were prohibited from having standing armies and navies in times of peace except a number as determined by the United States for the defense of the state or its trade. However, states were required to keep their militias trained, armed and prepared. States could not engage in war without the permission of the Congress unless the state was actually attacked or had advanced warning of an attack and Congress could not be consulted ahead of time. States had to wait for a declaration of war from the United States before granting commissions to vessels of war or letters of marque and to only attack the foreign nation with whom the United States was at war.

Article 7 stipulates that any army raised by a state shall have all officers with the rank of colonel and below appointed by the legislature of that state. Generals were appointed by the Congress of the Confederation. This was in keeping with the tradition established during the Revolution, whereby Congress appointed George Washington Commander-in-Chief of the colonial forces as well as all the other generals that fought the war. Responsibility of raising and maintaining the army was the sole responsibility of the state that originally created it.

Expenses of war and those for the common defense and welfare of the United States are dealt with in article 8. A common treasury was to be established and used to pay for said expenses. Payment into the common treasury came from each state and was based on the value of land (granted or surveyed), buildings, etc. in those states. It was the responsibility of Congress to periodically direct the re-estimation of the values of property in the states. Taxes due the United States were levied and collected by the state legislatures within a timeframe agreed to by Congress.

The problem with this article is that the United States had no recourse in collecting money owed it from the states. It was assumed that the good conduct of the states would ensure that the money due the United States would be collected by the date set. In many cases, the states neglected this article so that Congress had little or no money with which to run the country.

Article 9 is the largest article in the document. It reserves the right of determining the state of peace and war to Congress. The sending and receiving embassies was reserved for Congress as well as the entering into treaties and alliances with foreign powers. However, the United States was restrained from making any commercial treaty with a foreign power that restrained the powers of the states to reciprocally tax foreign goods and commerce in regards to those foreign nations imposing the same taxes on the goods and commerce from the states. In addition, war prizes captured on land and sea as well as the issuing of letters of marque and reprisal in times of peace were decided by Congress. Courts appointed to dispose of said prizes would be established by Congress; no member of Congress could serve as judge in any of these courts.

States could ask the Congress to become involved in land disputes between the states. Colonial boundaries often conflicted, since the original charters were nebulous in setting the exact colony’s boundary. For example, Virginia’s Charter of 1609 set nebulous boundaries for the colony, which the state’s 1776 constitution confirmed, though magnanimously ceding “The territories, contained within the Charters, erecting the Colonies of Maryland, Pennsylvania, North and South Carolina, are hereby ceded, released, and forever confirmed, to the people of these Colonies respectively.” (Avalon Project, Western territories to the Mississippi River were, to the Virginians, their land. If the Mississippi River was meant to be Virginia’s boundary, then the colony could claim all the lands that are today’s states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio as well as Western Pennsylvania.

Land disputes threatened to tear apart the new nation even before it won independence. Dickinson’s draft gave Congress full control in settling the western territories, but it did not explain the method by which Congress could do it. This article does not appear in the final version of the Articles.

Many states claimed lands west of the Appalachian Mountains—Indian lands that were under British control and not part of the original colonies. It was assumed, correctly, that once the Revolution was won, the British would cede the lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River to the United States. Therefore, intense rivalries over claims to land were forwarded by many colonies. These so-called landed states, such as Virginia and New York, threatened the landless states, such as Pennsylvania and Maryland, because they could continue to increase their population by giving away land, thereby drawing away people from the landless states. With larger areas and populations, the landed states would come to dominate the new country, effectively ruining their landless neighbors.

Land speculators poured over the Appalachian Mountains and sold thousands of tracts of land to people, who settled on the lands and believed that they had the right of ownership. Since these lands were claimed by two or more states, the speculators had no legal right to sell lands in dispute. Compounding the problem, the Indians did not welcome new settlers on their lands and there were frontier raids. Protection of the new settlements was in dispute, since no one was sure who had the right of ownership of the land.

Maryland resisted ratifying the Articles of Confederation until the land issue was settled. The state wanted the authority of the western lands given to Congress; all the states, not just the landed ones, should benefit from the sale of the western lands. Typically, Virginia and the other landed states resisted this idea, but in the end it was agreed to settle the states’ boundaries and to give up all claims.

The reality that the western lands were so vast and remote from the colonies that it would be hard to govern them. In the case of Virginia, the realization that a Virginia incorporating western lands would become too large to govern as a direct democracy helped persuade many in the state legislature to give up claims on the western lands. This critical problem was thus resolved under the Articles, and the Congress of the Confederation adopted the Northwest Ordinances 91784, 1785 and 1787), which settled the land disputes and set up how new states would enter the United States.

Congress was given authority to regulate the value of coins struck by the Confederation as well as those of the states—in affect, no exclusive national currency would be established. States could continue to coin their money along with that of the Confederation. However, it was the responsibility of the Confederation to ensure that the exchange rates for the multiple currencies were equal. In addition, the Congress would set weights and measures to regulate trade, manage all affairs with the Indians, creating (or regulating) post offices in the different states and collecting postal duties, appointing the officers of the navy and making the rules and regulations of the army and navy and directing their operations.

When in recess, Congress would have a “Committee of the States” to run the Confederation. Each state would appoint one delegate to the Committee. The Committee could appoint others to posts necessary to run the Confederation government. A president would be chosen by the Committee to serve a yearly term; no person could serve as president more than once in any three years. The Committee would ascertain the funds needed to run the Confederation and could borrow money and issue bills of credit. The rest of the paragraph regulates the drafting and equipping of a navy and the way a number of soldiers should be raised by each state in proportion to the number of the white population.

The president of the Committee of the States was the de facto president of the United States. He served as the head of government, met foreign embassies and functioned in a ceremonial role. However, he had no powers even close to that of the president established under the 1787 Constitution. The president of the Confederation was a legislator; he served in the Congress of the Confederation as did all those he appointed to executive positions. Not only did the president and his staff need to carry out their executive duties but also had to continue to perform their legislative ones as well. This organization of executive power coming from the legislature is a parliamentary democracy; Great Britain’s prime minister and his staff are members of the House of Commons. This type of democracy, though alien to Americans today, nonetheless is how the first government of the United States was organized.

Here is a critical difference between the Articles and Dickinson’s draft. Dickinson’s draft created a “Council of State” that would be headed by a president. Congress would choose the president and his officers, and the Council would continue to function even when Congress was in session. In addition, the Council could summon Congress before it was to meet if circumstances warranted and prepare items for Congress to debate. The Council was in charge of all United States armed forces when Congress was not in session, could The Council, like the Committee, was not above Congress; unlike the Committee, the Council was independent of Congress, to act like an executive branch of government with more than the limited powers given to the Committee.

The Congress of the Confederation needed a majority vote of nine states in order to pass any legislation or do any business. This amounts to two-thirds majority, which today is needed in Congress to override a presidential veto. Simple majority to pass legislation was not considered enough. Most of the states had to agree before Congress could pass legislation.

The Congress of the Confederation could adjourn at any time and could meet anywhere within the United States. (There was, as yet, no national capital.) A record of the proceedings of the Congress was to be published on a regular basis, excluding anything deemed of a secretive nature. Congressional debates and votes would be recorded; copies would be available to any delegate upon request and regular copies would be sent to the state legislatures.

Article 10 establishes a Committee of the States to run the Confederation when Congress was not in session. This Committee would be made up of delegates chosen by the states and, like the Congress, needed a vote of at least nine states before any action could be taken.

Article 11 allows Canada to enter the Confederation on an equal footing as a state. No approval of the Congress is needed for Canada to join. Otherwise, at least nine states must approve the admission of a colony to the United States. As previously stated, the Northwest Ordinances (1784, 1785 and 1787) set up the process by which states could be admitted.

Article 12 recognizes all debts created by the Congress in executing the duties of the Confederation. Payment by the United States of all these debts is pledged. Again, the United States had no way to ensure prompt payment by the states to the national treasury. In many cases, the Confederation lacked the proper funds to function.

Article 13 calls on all member states to honor the Articles and uphold the decisions made by the Congress. Again it is reiterated that the Confederation is perpetual. Only Congress can make changes or amendments to the existing Articles and only by a nine states’ majority vote, as stated in article 10; changes approved by Congress must then be ratified by the state legislatures before the changes could become law.

The Articles end with the declaration that the delegates approve and call for the ratification of the document. All questions and problems of the Confederation are to be resolved by Congress, which is the supreme authority in all Confederation matters. The states are called upon to abide by the Articles; the union is again called perpetual.

Articles (n): statements or paragraphs in a document or constitution which regulates the running of a government
Bicameral (adj): two-house legislature or law-making body
Confederation (n): an association of independent states, the central government of which can make recommendations to the different states but cannot interfere in their internal affairs, nor does it have authority over the individual states’ citizens
Constituents (n.): people represented by an elected official
Conventions (n): special meetings of delegates to draft and discuss laws or to approve laws
Executive (n): the department in a government that enforces laws and is responsible for handling specific responsibilities, such as foreign affairs and collecting taxes; the executive officer is the head of a country or government
Legislature (n): body of elected officials that write and pass laws
Marque or Reprisal, Letters of (n.): authorization from a leader or state allowing the pirating of a foreign country’s ships, goods, etc., usually issued during a time of war
Quorums (n): minimum number of people needed to conduct the business of the body or organization
Unicameral (adj): one-house legislature or law-making body

Essential Quotes
“The said States hereby enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, 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 t hem, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.’ (Article 2)

“If any person guilty of, or charged with, treason, felony, or other high misdemeanor in any State, shall flee from justice, and be found in any of the United States, he shall, upon demand of the Governor or executive power of the State from which he fled, be delivered up and removed to the State having jurisdiction of his offense.” (Article 4)

“Freedom of speech and debate in Congress shall not be impeached or questioned in any court of place out of Congress, and the members of Congress shall be protected in their persons from arrests or imprisonments, during the time of their going to and from, and attendance on Congress, except for treason, felony, or breach of the peace.” (Article 5)

“When land forces are raised by any State for the common defense, all officers of or under the rank of colonel, shall be appointed by the legislature of each State respectively, by whom such forces shall be raised, or in such manner as such State shall direct, and all vacancies shall be filled up by the State which first made the appointment.” (Article 7)

“And we do further solemnly plight and engage the faith of our respective constituents, that they shall abide by the determination of the United States in Congress assembled, on all question, which by the said Confederation are submitted to them. And that the Articles thereof shall be inviolably observed by the States we respectively represent, and that the Union shall be perpetual.” (Article 13)

To fully understand the Dickinson draft of the Articles, one needed legal training or at least a high degree of education. People who could read could understand most of the document. However, the legal phrases and jargon that could have different or hidden meanings would be lost on the general reader. In contrast, the adopted Articles is written in a much more straightforward language, with the meaning quite plain. There are no hidden meanings in the language.

The Articles would be read over by many different people throughout the colonies. Copies of the final document were made and sent to all the state assemblies for ratification. From there, copies were circulated at the pleasure of the state legislatures. For example, the Virginia legislature reviewed and debated on the Articles without making it public. Massachusetts, in contrast, printed up 250 copies of the Articles and sent them out to the towns for review and comment.

Quite simply, the United States of America became a nation under the Articles of Confederation.

Whereas all other attempts at colonial unification had failed, the Articles created a government that, in the short term, could direct the American Revolution and be represented in the courts of France and Spain. No longer would thirteen states be seeking freedom but the United States of America would request aid and, as such, one large nation would negotiate the terms of financial agreements, loans and military assistance with foreign powers. It would be the United States of America that France recognized and assisted in the American Revolution.

With the end of the Revolution, however, the interest by the radicals in a national government faded. The British were defeated and expected to withdraw from the forts on the western lands ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Paris in 1783 (it would take the War of 1812 to force full British compliance), and independence had been achieved. The radicals’ interests had always been at the local level and their respective state legislatures. Local government, embodied in the states, was what concerned them. As time went on, the Congress of the Confederation found it harder and harder to get the states to pay what they owed into the national treasury or even send delegates for Congress to have a quorum to conduct Confederation business.

Even in 1783, Congress lacked the funds to pay veterans of the Continental Army. On June 21, mutinous Pennsylvania soldiers surrounded the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) in Philadelphia and refused to let the legislators leave until they promised to pay them. The “crisis” was averted when the soldiers became drunk and distracted, and the legislators were able to escape without serious incident. However, the Congress of the Confederation never again met in Philadelphia.

Far more serious was Shays’ Rebellion, which erupted in western Massachusetts in August, 1786. With an economic downturn, the small farmers were facing foreclosures and debt proceedings while trying to pay high taxes. Daniel Shays and other local leaders organized hundreds of armed men who forced the closing of several courthouses; they even forced the Supreme Court of Massachusetts in Springfield to adjourn. The governor of Massachusetts sent an urgent request to the Congress of the Confederation for United States troops to be sent to help put down the rebels and restore order. Congress requested troops be sent to Massachusetts; the Confederation lacked the funds to pay for such an army, and the states simply ignored Massachusetts’ plea. With no help forthcoming, Shays’ Rebellion eventually ended in February, 1787 when Massachusetts forces finally defeated Shays at Petersham.

The solution to the western lands problems was resolved in the Confederation through three land acts adopted by Congress in 1784, 1785 and 1787, which finally settled the western boundaries of the “landless” states and set up the process by which these territories were administered. Along with the two previous ordinances (1784 and 1785), the Northwest Ordinance addressed the area of the Old Northwest Territory and created a blueprint of how public lands would be surveyed and divided into smaller and smaller parcels of land. In addition, the ordinances directed how local and regional governments were created, how each town had public lands for schools, how the territory would be represented in Congress as well as criteria for how and when these territories could enter the Union. The Northwest Ordinance outlawed slavery forever in the Old Northwest Territory. The land ordinances also ensured that new states would enter the Union on an equal footing with the original states and not be inferior in status to them.

Spain, a potentially hostile state that controlled the mouth of the Mississippi River at New Orleans, served as a bottleneck for farmers living in the western lands. The Mississippi was the natural way for the farmers to move their crops to market, but the United States had no commercial treaty with Spain over usage of the Mississippi. Some farmers, seeking to use the river, went so far as to swear allegiance to the crown of Spain so that their crops could go to New Orleans. As a result, the Annapolis Convention met in September 1786 to discuss these and other commercial problems. Five states were in attendance, and it was resolved that the Articles had to be revised in order to solve the problems of national commerce.

The conservatives saw their chance. In 1787, the Congress of the Confederation created a committee to revise or amend the Articles of Confederation. Most of the delegates were conservatives (the radicals boycotted or simply had no interest) and what was supposed to be a revision in the Articles turned into a coup d’état. This committee, now known as the Constitutional Convention of 1787, secretly and illegally drafted the current Constitution of the United States, thereby creating an entirely new form of government, although much of substance of the Articles was incorporated into the Constitution.

The Articles of Confederation, in retrospect, did give the United States a strong start as a new nation. However, the issue of slavery was never mentioned or addressed in the Articles, nor was a federal judiciary created. Slavery would be discussed in the Constitution of 1787, which would set up the checks and balances of the three branches of the current federal government.

Under the Articles, the United States reduced its Revolutionary War debt by more than half, diffused the disputes over the western lands ceded by Great Britain, settled how new states would enter the union, and allowed the creation of the first national banking system in the United States. Also, the first debates on the location of the new national capital took place in the Congress of the Confederation.

Questions for Further Study
Re-read the Articles of Confederation. What were the specific powers granted to the United States?

John Dickinson’s draft of the Articles of Confederation created a “Council of State,” but the accepted document had a “Committee of the States.” Compare and contrast the differences between these two bodies.

Compare Dickinson’s draft of the Articles of Confederation with the final draft adopted by the Continental Congress. What are the similarities and differences? Why were the changes made to Dickinson’s draft?

Compare the Articles of Confederation to the United States Constitution. What are the similarities and differences? How did the writers of the Constitution address the perceived problems in the Articles?

Related Documents
The Constitution of the United States, Charters of Freedom, National Archives and Records Administration (
The successor to the Articles, the Constitution incorporated the Articles and expanded the power of the federal government to set up the current three branches and the checks-in-balance system. The progression of American political thought is evident from the Declaration of Independence through the Articles and into the Constitution.

The Declaration of Independence, Charters of Freedom, National Archives and Records Administration (
Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration was reworked in its final form and adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. The Articles of Confederation was the next logical step in the progression of American political thought after the Declaration and illustrates why the Articles emphasized the power of the states over the limited powers of the Confederation government.

Jefferson, Thomas. Papers. Julian P. Boyd editor; Lyman H. Butterfield … [et al.], associate editors. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950- Thomas Jefferson’s influence on the development of democracy in the United States should not be underestimated. His thoughts on government, his views on the events taking place during his lifetime, and his belief in the United States are discussed. Jefferson’s ideas on the Articles of Confederation are recorded.

Madison, James, et al. The Federalist Papers. Supplementary materials written by Maria Hong. New York, N.Y.: Pocket Books, c2004. Composed of a series of articles published in American papers to generate support for the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, the papers were written by Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. Exactly why the Articles of Confederation was abandoned for an entirely new type of government is explained here.

Northwest Ordinance, National History Day, National Archives and Records Administration and USA Freedom Corps (
The most important (1787) of the three land ordinances passed by Congress, the Northwest Ordinance was adopted by Congress in 1787. Along with the two previous ordinances (1784 and 1785), the Northwest Ordinance addressed the area of the Old Northwest Territory and created a blueprint of how territories would be divided, governed and admitted as states.

Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications,1997. No other work had as much impact as Common Sense on enhancing the cause for independence from Great Britain. Paine wrote his work in easy to understand English so that the lay people could understand why revolution was necessary.

Treaty of Paris, National History Day, National Archives and Records Administration and USA Freedom Corps (
The Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution and forced Great Britain to recognize the independence of the United States of America. The stipulations and agreements by which Great Britain promised to abide by are listed. Another document contemporary to the Articles.

Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, reported by James Madison; with an introduction by Adrienne Koch. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1984.
These are the proceedings of the committee that wrote the Constitution. Tthe thoughts and beliefs of the delegates as they worked out a new type of government and debated on why the federal system under the Articles did not work and why changes were necessary are recorded here.

United States. Continental Congress. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. Washington: G.P.O., 1904-1937. The 34 volumes created by the Continental (and Confederation) Congress are the record of all the debates, votes and motions made. The debates of the committee that created the Dickinson draft of the Articles of Confederation are not recorded. However, the debates over Dickinson’s draft in the Continental Congress, which reduced the articles from 20 to 13 and rewrote and rephrased the document, are recorded here.


Cain, Michael J., and Keith L. Dougherty, “Suppressing Shays’ Rebellion: Collective Action and Constitutional Design Under the Articles of Confederation.” Journal of Theoretical Politics (v. 11 no. 2, April 1999), p. 233-260.

Lienesch, Michael, “Historical Theory and Political Reform: Two Perspectives on Confederation Politics.” The Review of Politics (v. 45 no. 1, Jan. 1983), p. 94-115.

Lutz, Donald S., “The Articles of Confederation as the Background to the Federal Republic.” Publius: the Journal of Federalism (v. 20 no. 1, Winter 1990), p. 55-70.

Payne, Samuel B., “The Iroquois League, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.” The William and Mary Quarterly (3rd ser., v. 53 no. 3, July 1996), p. 605-620.

Berkin, Carol. A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. New York: Harcourt, c2002.

Burnett, Edmund Cody. The Continental Congress. New York: Macmillian, 1941.

The Case Against the Constitution: From the Antifederalists to the Present, edited by John F. Manley and Kenneth M. Dolbeare. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, c1987.

Flower, Milton Embick. John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary. Charlottesville: Published for the Friends of the John Dickinson Mansion by the University Press of Virginia, 1983.

Hoffert, Robert W. A Politics of Tensions: The Articles of Confederation and American Political Ideas. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1992.

Jensen, Merrill. The Articles of Confederation: an Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774-1781. Madison, Wis. and London: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970.

Jensen, Merrill. The New Nation: A History of the United States during the Confederation, 1781-1789. New York: Knopf, 1950.

Main, Jackson Turner. The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781-1788. Williamsburg, Va.: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture ; Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 1961.

Web Sites

American Confederation, The James Madison Center, James Madison University (

The Avalon Project at Yale Law School: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, Yale University (

Charters of Freedom, The National Archives and Records Administration (

—By Michael W. Handis

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