Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation (full text here) established the United States of America as its own separate entity, an alliance of independent states. It was the country’s first constitution, later superseded by “the Constitution,” which we still use today.

The Need for the Articles of Confederation

The growing need for inter-colonial cooperation led to the need for a document outlining the terms under which each colony would operate. Previous efforts to write such a document came and went unsuccessfully, changing each time the needs of a state changed.

The Second Continental Congress began acting as a sort of government for the states, which were all busy writing their own constitutions and providing for their own states’ needs.  There was no way for the fledgling country to throw off the authority of Britain without establishing their own central government, which couldn’t be done unless it was unanimous.

Furthermore, international relations and trade relied on the recognition that came with being an independent nation. June of 1776 saw the initial drafting of a declaration of their independence and at the same time, Congress appointed a committee of 13 to prepare a draft of a constitution for the amalgamation of the states.

When the articles were presented to Congress, debate arose regarding the amount of power that should be allotted to each state, how voting procedures should be carried out, and what kind of central government there ought to be.

The Articles of Confederation were approved for ratification November 15, 1777, more than a year after they had begun.

Summary of the Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation broken down can be outlined thusly:

Article 1: establishes the name of the new confederation: “The United States of America.” (See sidefoo.)

Why United States of “America”?

North and South America were named after Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci. “America” is the feminine version of Amerigo or Americus; add “gen”, a version of the Greek word for ‘earth’. Technically that breaks down to “Land of Amerigo”.

One of the cartographers (mapmakers) who first used the name on a map in 1507 said, “Since both Asia and Africa [editor note: and Europa] received their names from women, I do not see why anyone should rightly prevent this [new part] from being called Amerigen—the land of Amerigo, as it were—or America, after its discoverer, Americus …”

Sadly, Amerigo died before he ever saw the map, so it’s likely he never knew that two continents bore his name. 

If you’re interested, you can read more on the naming of America here.

  • Article 2: Affirms the authority of each state, except for specified power entrusted to the confederate government.
  • Article 3: Clarifies that rather than being a nation or having its own government, the states had entered into an agreed friendship and loyalty to each other, bound to protect each other.
  • Article 4: Establishes equal treatment of each individual state and allows that free citizens could cross state borders unchecked and have equal rights in every state. Criminals and fugitives, it specifies, will be extradited back to the state in which they committed their crime to be tried in court.
  • Article 5: Allots one vote in congress to each state and allows a delegation of two to seven members, appointed by individual state legislatures, who could not serve more than three out of any six years. This caused some problems later because no matter how large the state population, the vote was equal to any smaller state’s vote. This article also protected Congressmen’s freedom of speech in and out of session and protected them from imprisonment except for in the case of severe felonies.
  • Article 6: Only the central government (Congress) could conduct foreign political or commercial relations or declare war. This article goes into detail regarding foreign titles and restricts states from individually making business deals with other countries. No state is allowed to maintain peacetime standing armies or Navies, but is to keep a compulsory militia, trained, equipped, and disciplined with storerooms of supplies.
  • Article 7: Each state legislature will name colonels and military ranks below that if necessary (in the event that congress declares war).
  • Article 8: Debts and expenses incurred by the United States of America will be paid by the states. Article 8 requires that state legislatures raise the funds necessary, which are portioned based on the property value of each state. This would cause problems later since congress had no way of enforcing this fund-raising and the debt just grew.
  • Article 9: Outlines the rights that would be specifically designated to congress, such as determining whether the country would go to war, determining the worth of money, exchanging ambassadors with other countries, signing treaties, entering alliances, authorizing privateers (legal pirates), and the like. It also states that Congress was the final court for debates between states.
  • Article 10: Nine states will be enough to pass a vote. In essence: if congress is in recess, and nine (of thirteen) states come to an agreement, that will be enough to make a decision. Having all thirteen is not necessary.
  • Article 11: If Canada (The Province of Quebec) chooses to be part of this alliance, we will accept them. Clearly, this did not happen.
  • Article 12: The Confederation government accepts the full debt incurred by Congress before the Articles were written.
  • Article 13: Only Congress can only alter these Articles, and only with the ratification of all the states’ legislatures.

The Articles of Confederation document
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

Over time, it became clear that the Articles of Confederation were too weak to carry the nation. There was no president, no executive organizations outside of Congress, no tax base, and no way of enforcing the laws. At best, Congress could request funds from the states to help pay off the massive debt incurred during the war, but the states rarely paid up.

Congress was, in the words of General George Washington, “paralyzed.” Not only were they unable to collect money, they could not enforce attendance of their own members. Many documents, including the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War, sat for far too long waiting for signatures from several states’ representatives who had gone home after the war.

Soldiers had been promised pension of half pay for life, but Congress could not force states to donate to the fund and many soldiers went without pay for a while and several riots ensued.

Many people blamed the weak Articles of the Confederation for the trouble ensuing. There was a general fear that if the country could not get its feet under itself financially, that winning the war would have been for nothing and that it would collapse in on itself. 

Two political parties began a debate that essentially boiled down to whether the central government could be trusted with the power that it needed to right the situation, which was spiraling out of control. Since taxation had been a major catalyst in the previous war, there was hesitation in granting Congress taxing power.

However, John Jay, president of the Continental Congress believed that there was no way around taxes. His biographer Walter Stahr writes, “Jay concluded by requesting…that the states and the people provide funds through ‘loans and taxes’ and ‘taxes are…the price of liberty, the peace and the safety of yourselves and posterity.'” John Jay: Founding Father, p. 107

Alexander Hamilton asserted the need for a stronger central government and he received Washington’s approval to convene the Annapolis convention in 1786. There he petitioned Congress to call another convention to re-write the Constitution.

Fun Facts about the Articles of Confederation:

  • None of the signers of the Articles of the Confederation were all in the same room at the same time. 
  • Even though the formal signing of the Articles was initially on July 9, 1778, the document was only signed by only a few.
  • Two states’ delegates were absent, and three did not ratify and didn’t sign.
  • It took two years to get all of the needed signatures on the document.
  • It was only in effect for about 8 years before it was replaced.
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