|Articles of Confederation|
Page I of the Articles of Confederation
|Created||November 15, 1777|
|Ratified||March 1, 1781|
|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 governing constitution of the alliance of thirteen independent and sovereign states styled "United States of America." The Article's ratification (proposed in 1777) was completed in 1781, legally uniting the states by compact into the "United States of America" as a union with a confederation government. Under the Articles (and the succeeding Constitution) the states retained sovereignty over all governmental functions not specifically deputed to the central government.
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; it could not mint coins (each state had their own currency) and borrow inside and outside the United States. 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."
They sought a federation to replace the confederation. The key criticism by those who favored a more powerful central state (the federalists) was that the government (the Congress of the Confederation) lacked taxing authority; it had to request funds from the states. Also various federalist factions wanted a government that could impose uniform tariffs, give land grants, and assume responsibility for unpaid state war debts ("assumption".) 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. Due to its one-state, one-vote plank, the larger states were expected to contribute more but had only one vote.
Fearing the return of a monarchical form of government, the system created by The Articles ultimately proved untenable. Their failure in creating a strong central government resulted in their replacement by the United States Constitution.
The political push for the colonies to increase cooperation began in the French and Indian Wars in the mid 1750s. The opening of the American Revolutionary War in 1775 induced the various states to cooperate in seceding from the British Empire. The Second Continental Congress starting 1775 acted as the confederation organ that ran the war. Congress presented the Articles for enactment by the states in 1777, while prosecuting the American Revolutionary war against the Kingdom of Great Britain.
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, known as "federalists," felt that the Articles lacked the necessary provisions for a sufficiently effective government.
The final draft of the Articles was written in the summer of 1777 and adopted by the Second Continental Congress 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.
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…
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. 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.
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.
Still at war with the Kingdom of Great Britain, the colonists were reluctant to establish another powerful national government. Jealously guarding their new independence, members of the Continental Congress created a loosely-structured 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 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.
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.
Since guerrilla warfare was an effective strategy in a war against the British Empire, a centralized government proved unnecessary for winning independence. The Continental Congress took all advice, and heeded every command by George Washington, and thusly the government essentially acted in a federalist manner during the war, thereby hiding all problems of the Articles until the war was over. 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. 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.
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 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 were not being met. In 1783, Washington defused the Newburgh conspiracy, but riots by unpaid Pennsylvania veterans forced the Congress to leave Philadelphia temporarily.
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.
The Articles themselves were unsigned, and the date left 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), directing delegates to 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.
On February 2, 1781, the much-awaited decision was taken by the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis. 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.
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.
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.
In September, five states assembled in the Annapolis Convention 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. 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. 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.
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.
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, 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." 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.
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."
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 impermanency of the Constitution are hard to interpret. They might have referred to a legal right to revoke ratification. But they could equally 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 any lack of legal power. The public debates seemingly do not speak specifically to whether ratification under Article VII was revocable.
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, (1890) 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.
A competing view, promoted by Daniel Webster and later by Abraham Lincoln , was that the Constitution (and Articles) established a permanent union. 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”:
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.
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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