Articles of Confederation

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The Articles of Confederation was an unratified governmental contact from the Second Continental Congress (1977) that was replaced in 1789 by the newly ratified U.S. Constitution. The Articles were effectively the first constitution of the United States of America, and were in place during and after the American Revolution. The new nation was formed on July 4, 1776, but its government (called "the United States in Congress assembled") operated until 1781 without a written constitution. The Articles were written in 1776 and 1777 and adopted by the Second Continental Congress on November 15, 1777 after a year of debate. In practice, the unratified Articles were used by the members of Congress as the de facto system of government until it became de jure by final ratification on March 1, 1781. [1] The Articles created a weak national government that had the power to make war and sign foreign alliances, but lacked an executive, a judiciary, and especially the power to raise taxes. Its great achievements were holding the nation together during the American Revolution, and, after the war ended in 1783, in resolving the issues of land ownership in the western territories. By late 1786, three years after the peace, the Articles were in widespread discredit and many national leaders, led by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison organized to create a wholly new constitution. The Articles operated until early 1789 when the whole system was replaced by the new U.S. Constitution, which created a much stronger national government.


The idea of a central government for the 13 main British colonies in America dates to the Albany Congress of 1754. Led by Benjamin Franklin, there were discussions about unity for more effective defense against the French and Indians. The Albany Congress drafted a plan that proposed a central government with the power to raise troops and levy taxes for colonial defense, to dispose of western lands and create new colonies, and to regulate Indian affairs. Colonial legislatures rejected the plan and Great Britain ignored it.

After the expulsion of France from North America in 1763, there was no longer an external danger to the colonies. They did not need British military or naval protection. The British, however, insisted on imposing a series of taxes, partly to raise revenue and partly to demonstrate the superiority of Parliament. The Americans insisted that they possessed the traditional rights of Englishmen and only their elected officials had the power to raise taxes; they were not represented in Parliament, which therefore could not levy taxes. The dispute was unbridgeable, especially as Americans started adopting republican political ideas that warned the aristocratic British system was corrupt and dangerous. Popular leaders in the colonies, such as Samuel Adams in Massachusetts and Patrick Henry in Virginia tried to achieve united opposition to British policies. The colonies, without British permission, formed the first Continental Congress in 1774 in response to the British clampdown on Boston. Leaders such as Adams argued that there must be a central government to regulate trade, to prevent civil war among the colonies, and to suppress internal dissension. Nothing was done.

Second Continental Congress

The Second Continental Congress, called by the First Continental Congress, convened in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, adopting the name the "United Colonies." Trouble brewed in Boston where the British army, opposed by colonial Minute Men, had marched on Lexington and Concord. An outpouring of militia trapped the British in Boston, and Congress took control of the militia, appointing one of their members, Colonel George Washington of Virginia, as commander in chief "of all the continental forces, raised, or to be raised, for the defence of American liberty." For the next six years, Congress became the national government by consensus of the states.

When the Second Continental Congress began, it was supposed it would furnish immediately needed counsel to the colonies and then adjourn, deputizing a committee to continue in session. With war underway, urgent problems of organization, procedure, and policy prevented adjournment. Battles at Crown Point, Ticonderoga, and Bunker Hill put the war machine in motion. Congress tried for the restoration of union and harmony with Britain. There was much difference of opinion concerning colonial independence and union, but, as the character and extent of military and political commitments changed, it became evident that the formation of some sort of political union was necessary. The members of the Congress, while reluctant to take the revolutionary step to independence, were yet unwilling to return to the old status of colonial subservience. The failure of the "Olive Branch Petition" of conciliation with Britain convinced the members of Congress that the colonies had gone too far to turn back. Washington's success in forcing the British evacuation of Boston on March 17, 1776, tended to give force and direction to this sentiment and to make it doubly apparent that only by arms could the prized liberties be preserved.

The colonies had now expelled all the British authorities and become states. As Thomas Paine explained in Common Sense, there was no reason to return to the unsatisfactory royal system. Congress unanimously approved the U.S. Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, resolving "that these United Colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent States." One of the first acts was "to prepare a plan of treaties to be proposed to foreign powers." This "Plan" served as the model for a critical treaty with France negotiated by Benjamin Franklin in 1777-78 after the capture of a British army at Saratoga. France not only provided money and munition, but it also declared war on Britain and turned the American Revolution into a world war.

Congress authorized the "Continental Army" giving it a force directly under its control; Washington gave it a national vision and a national mission, overcoming localism and regional demands. Lacking the power to tax, Congress undertook to finance the war by its own letters of credit, but when these bills began to depreciate, and Congress called on the states for aid, there was grumbling and discord.

National Capital

The British advance on Philadelphia in mid-December 1776 compelled Congress to flee to Baltimore. Congress was able to reconvene in Philadelphia in March 1777. In September, Congress was again forced out, going first to Lancaster and then York, Pennsylvania, where it remained until the British left Philadelphia in June 1778. In June 1783, Congress again removed from Philadelphia because of the mutiny of Pennsylvania troops, this time going to Princeton, New Jersey, until November 4, 1783, then to Annapolis, Maryland, and in 1784 to Trenton, New Jersey. It moved to New York City in early 1785, and remained there until it dissolved in favor of the Constitution Congress in 1789.

National Powers

The Articles set the rules for operations of the United States government. The new nation was legally capable of making war, negotiating diplomatic agreements, and resolving issues regarding the western territories; it could print money and borrow inside and outside the US.

The Congress's lack of taxing authority is generally agreed to be one of its major shortcomings; Congress had to request funds from the states, borrow, or issue paper money. The paper money, called Continentals, depreciated rapidly and became worth a few pennies on the dollar.

A second major weakness was the equal suffrage of the states in Congress - though each state was required to send two representatives and could send up to seven, each state delegation had to agree on the state's position on any issue and vote as a state. Though seen at the time as an important reflection of each state's sovereignty, equal suffrage was irksome to large states, which expected to contribute more but had only one vote. As Benjamin Franklin complained, "Let the smaller Colonies give equal money and men, and then have an equal vote. But if they have an equal vote without bearing equal burdens, a confederation upon such iniquitous principles will never last long." [2]

The Articles created a weak national government designed to manage the American Revolution. When the war ended in 1783, its many inadequacies became glaringly obvious, and national leaders such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton called for a new charter. The Articles were replaced by the much stronger United States Constitution, which was ratified by all 13 states and went into effect with the inauguration of the first President, George Washington, in 1789 in New York City.

Debating the issues

The Articles of Confederation were proposed by a committee headed by John Dickinson on July 12, 1776. The Congress debated the original proposal over the course of meeting during 1777, and finalized the Articles on November 15, 1777. The main disputes were whether taxes should be apportioned according to the gross number of inhabitants, counting slaves or excluding them (the South wanted slaves excluded to lower its taxes) — the decision was to use land values as a tax base; whether large and small states should have equality in voting — the decision was one state, one vote; whether Congress should be given the right to regulate Indian affairs; the decision was that it should — and whether Congress should be permitted to fix the western boundaries of those states which claimed territory as far west as the Mississippi River. This last issue held up final approval until 1781, when the delegates from the final state, Maryland, signed the Articles.

The Articles said all costs of the national government were to be defrayed from a common treasury, to which the states were to voluntarily contribute in proportion to the value of their surveyed land and improvements. The states were likewise to supply quotas of soldiers, in proportion to the white inhabitants of each. Congress was given full control over foreign affairs, making war, and of the postal service; it was empowered to borrow money, emit bills of credit, and determine the value of coin; it was to appoint all naval officers and the higher ranking military officers, and control Indian affairs. The states were forbidden to enter into treaties, confederations, or alliances, to meddle with foreign affairs, or to wage war without congressional consent, unless invaded. Most important, they were to give to free inhabitants of other states all the privileges and immunities of their own citizens.

Confederation of sovereign states

The Articles of Confederation created a federal government - a government whereby the member states are sovereign in their own sphere but delegates certain powers to the national government and requires certain things of the member states. For example, Article 3 of the Articles locks the states into a mutual defense treaty, promising troops from all states to help repel invasion of any state from outside. Article 2, however, makes it clear that the states retain all powers not expressly granted to the national government. The states were protected by the requirement that all laws receive unanimous approval; Rhode Island, for example, vetoed a national tariff law in 1781.

Western lands

By the end of the war the national government had foreign debts of $8 million (mostly to French and Dutch bankers), and debts to Americans amounting to $42 million. Annual interest payments were $2.5 million. Sales of western lands could provide the national government with needed revenue without asking the states, while also facilitating western settlement. The challenge was to get the land from the states. In 1776, seven states had overlapping and conflicting claims to western lands that were based on old royal grants and charters. Virginia had the largest claim, which included the present states of Kentucky and West Virginia, and parts of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Cutting across Virginia's northwestern claims were the claims of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. South of Virginia were the claims of North Carolina (claiming Tennessee) and South Carolina and Georgia, which claimed the lands between their western boundaries and the Mississippi. The ownership of such vast areas by a few states aroused jealousy and ill-feeling among the six smaller states that had no western lands. Maryland refused to ratify the Articles until the landowning states surrendered their claims to the new government.

The Continental Congress successfully urged the states to cede their land claims to it and promised that the territory so ceded would be erected into new states having full equality with the old. New York and Virginia ceded their claims in 1781 and 1783. Virginia ceded its lands in Ohio on condition of being allowed to reserve for itself the Military District between the Scioto and Little Miami rivers to satisfy military grants made during the Revolution. Virginia also retained its land south of the Ohio, which became the state of Kentucky in 1791. In 1785, Massachusetts ceded its claim to a belt of land extending across the present states of Michigan and Wisconsin, and in the following year, Connecticut ceded its western lands. Connecticut reserved to itself a tract of 3.8 million acres in northeastern Ohio — called the Western Reserve — a part of which was set aside for the relief of Connecticut sufferers whose property had been destroyed by the British during the Revolution. The remainder was sold to the Connecticut Land Company. South Carolina ceded its narrow strip of land in 1787, and North Carolina transferred its western lands in 1790. All the land in Kentucky and Tennessee had already been granted to revolutionary war veterans, settlers, and land companies so the national government received no land but only political jurisdiction.

These cessions of 222 million acres of western lands gave to the national government a vast public domain in which it owned the land and over which it had governmental jurisdiction. In 1785, a land ordinance provided a method of selling the lands. In 1787, in response to demands of the Ohio and Scioto land companies, which were negotiating for the purchase of large tracts of land north of the Ohio, the Northwest Ordinance was adopted to provide a form of government for what came to be known as the "Old Northwest." The Ordnance, written by Thomas Jefferson, provided for an elaborate survey that created the checkerboard land pattern still in use, and provided that no slavery was allowed there during the territorial stage. [3]

State support

During the Revolution, it was obvious that unity was needed to overcome a much stronger British Empire and to collaborate with allies like France. Keith Dougherty (2001) uses analytic techniques borrowed from economics that are together known to political scientists as "positive theory," and concludes that after peace was achieved in 1783, the states had no apparent reason for cooperation. Indeed, they started laying import tariffs on each others' goods. The national government had to beg the states for money; but during the war, the states were strapped for funds. They could not tax imports because their ports were blockaded. The old tax system operated but generated only a small stream of revenue, so new monies were raised by seizing and selling royal property and the assets of loyalists who fled the state. [4] The states were never able to comply with national levies and requisitions; but they did provide 53% of the men levied for the Continental army from 1777 to 1783 and 40% of the money requisitioned for the federal treasury from 1782 to 1789.

The American leaders at the local, state, and national levels were dedicated to a new common republican ideology that made the common good a core value. The states had different rates of voluntary contribution to the national government at different times, depending on circumstances. In the case of troop levies, Dougherty shows that the closer a state was to British military threats, the higher its contribution to the national defense. The rate was in direct proportion to how threatening the British were. As the battlegrounds moved southward, the compliance of southern states rose accordingly and that of northern states fell off. In peacetime, from 1782 to 1789, Dougherty reports that voluntary monetary payments increased in proportion to the level of domestic debt held by citizens of each state. Paying money to the national government in order to pay down the war debt thus benefited a state to the extent that its own citizens would be repaid. [5]

Summary of Text of the Articles of Confederation

Article 1

Article 1 of the Articles of Confederation confirms the name of the new nation as "The United States of America." The name first appeared in the Declaration of Independence.

Article 2

Article 2 affirms that each state is a sovereign and independent state and retains all powers not granted to the Congress.

Article 3

Article 3 affirms a "league of friendship," and binds all states into a common defense pact.

Article 4

Article 4 ensures that when a citizen of one state travels in or through another state, the person shall enjoy all the rights of the citizens of the state he or she is traveling through. It also ensures free travel between the states. It requires a state to hand over a fugitive from justice who has fled to that state. Finally, it requires that full faith and credit by given to the records and acts of one state by all other states.

Most of the provisions of Article 4 were carried over into the Constitution in its Article 4

Article 5

Article 5 of the Articles of Confederation establishes the Congress, a unicameral legislature known officially as the "The United States in Congress Assembled". Each state legislature chose its congressional delegates and was free to send from two to seven members. Delegates had a term limit of no more than three years every six years. When a vote came to the floor of the Congress, each state's delegates would meet to determine the state's vote - states voted as states, individual members of Congress did not vote as individuals.

Article 5 guarantees freedom of speech in the Congress, and provides immunity to all members of Congress for whatever is spoken in Congress. Additionally, Article 5 provides that all members of Congress be free from arrest while traveling to and from Congress.

Article 6

Article 6 of the Articles of Confederation places limits on the states. Specifically:

  • no state could enter into a treaty without the consent of Congress
  • no state could grant a title of nobility (nor would Congress)
  • no vessels of war could be kept in peacetime, except that number determined by Congress necessary for defense
  • no state could engage in a war except on the authorization of Congress, unless invaded or in danger of invasion

Article 7

Article 7 of the Articles of Confederation ensures that all military officers of the state militias, at the rank of colonel or below, will be appointed by the state legislature.

Article 8

Article 8 of the Articles of Confederation directs that any expenses of the United States would be paid out of a common treasury, with deposits made to the treasury by the states in proportion to the value of the land and buildings in the state.

The inability of the Congress to force the states to pay this levy was one of the major weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.

Article 9

Article 9 of the Articles of Confederation lists the powers of the Congress. For example:

  • the power to declare war and peace
  • the power to send and receive ambassadors
  • the power to make treaties
  • the power to grant letters of marque
  • the power to regulate the currency of the United States and the individual states
  • the power to fix standards and measures
  • the power to establish post offices
  • the power to make rules for land and naval forces
  • the power to borrow money on the behalf of the United States
  • the power to build and equip a navy
  • the power to determine the size of an army and to requisition troops from each state to fill the need
  • the power to arm, equip, and clothe the members of the army

Article 9 also makes Congress the final court of appeal for disputes between states. All decisions of the Congress must have been made by majority vote of the states.

Additionally, Article 9 establishes "A Committee of the States," which takes the place of the full Congress when it is not in session. This committee was made up of one member of Congress from each state.

Article 9 also directed Congress to choose one of its number to be presiding officer (to be chosen for one year, and with a service limit of one year out of three). This person, often referred to as "President," had a role much akin to the Speaker of the House of the House of Representatives under the Constitution.

The Congress was required to meet at least once a year, and could adjourn at any time, though never for more than six months at a time. Article 9 requires Congress publish its proceedings and the results of all votes taken.

Article 10

Article 10 of the Articles of Confederation allows the Committee of the States, or any nine individual states, to make decisions for the United States when Congress is in adjournment.

Article 11

Article 11 of the Articles of Confederation invites Canada to join the United States as a new state, at any time. Other new states, however, must be approved by the vote of nine existing states.

Article 12

Article 12 of the Articles of Confederation ensures that all debt incurred by the Continental Congresses assembled before the Articles went into effect would be valid and binding on the United States.

Article 13

Article 13 of the Articles of Confederation requires the states to be held to the decisions of Congress; it notes that the union is perpetual; and that any changes to the Articles must be agreed upon by Congress and all states.


The signers were: [6]






New Hampshire

New Jersey

New York

North Carolina


Rhode Island

South Carolina



The Articles were in effect until the Constitution was ratified and the first Congress met in 1789.

Presiding Officers of the Congress

Notably, the Articles of Confederation did not create an executive nor a national judiciary. Aside from Congress's role as final judge of disputes between states, all judicial powers remained with the states. The Committee of the States held a quasi-executive role, in that it could make decisions for the nation when the Congress was not in session. The Articles also created the office of Presiding Officer of the United States in Congress Assembled.

This office was often shortened and referred to as "President," though the "President of the United States in Congress Assembled" under the Articles was a minor figure compared to the "President of the United States of America" under the Constitution. The men elected to the office of Presiding Officer of Congress were:

Note: Huntington was the presiding officer of the Continental Congress when the Articles were finally ratified. He resigned due to ill health and McKean was selected to replace him. Hanson was the first person specifically selected to be the presiding officer of the United States in Congress Assembled.


  1. At that point Congress became the "Congress of the Confederation."
  2. July 30, 1776, quoted in Andrew C. McLaughlin, A Constitutional History of the United States (1935) ch 12 note 8
  3. Benjamin Horace Hibbard, History of the Public Land Policies (1965)
  4. Allan Nevins, The American States during and after the Revolution, 1775-1789 1927
  5. See Keith L. Dougherty, Collective Action under the Articles of Confederation. 2001. 225 pp and also Donald S. Lutz, "Why Federalism?" William and Mary Quarterly 2004 61(3): 582-588.
  6. When there is no date listed for the signing, the date of signing was 9 July, 1778.