Articles of Confederation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Article I. The Stile of this Confederacy shall be ‘The United States of America.’”

“Article II. Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence and every Power, Jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”

Summary Overview

Throughout the period of the early republic, some Americans, particularly those who favored a strong central government, expressed strong dissatisfaction with the Continental Congress. In their view, it gave too much power to the states; also, it deprived the central government of the authority to tax, which put the new nation on uncertain financial footing. Several leaders of the fledgling republic wrote charters to remedy these defects, including John Dickinson, a delegate to the congress from Pennsylvania, and Benjamin Franklin, the noted diplomat, scientist, and philosopher. The Articles of Confederation, which Congress passed in late 1777 and ratified in early 1781, was the product of the efforts of the congress and its appointed committee tasked with writing a constitution for the new nation. The articles had major defects, however, such as preventing Congress from taxing citizens directly, and was in effect for only six years before it was supplanted by the Constitution.

Defining Moment

In 1777, the United States of America was barely one year old and locked in a life-and-death struggle with Great Britain, arguably the most powerful nation in the world at the time. The United States had an energetic population, farsighted leaders, and considerable economic resources, but its political organization was more of a loose collection of states than a union. Thus, Congress assigned a committee of delegates to draft a compact that would create more association among the colonies. The result was the Articles of Confederation, which Congress ratified in November of 1777 and which went into effect three-and-a-half years later.

Author Biography

John Dickinson

The principal author of the Articles of Confederation was Dickinson (1732–1808), a lawyer and a Quaker from Pennsylvania. He was well-read, had a philosophical bent, and had studied law as a young man in London. Dickinson was active in revolutionary circles and contributed a host of pamphlets and books to the Patriots’ cause; he has been termed the “Penman of the Revolution.” Perhaps the most influential of his writings was Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies (1767–68), which argues that the British had consistently mistreated the colonists but which stops short of calling for independence. He refused to sign the Declaration of Independence, and John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and others regarded him as too moderate to be a true Patriot.

Benjamin Franklin

Franklin (1706–90) was born in Boston and worked at a variety of jobs, including editor of the popular Poor Richard’s Almanack (1732–57). In 1723, he moved to Philadelphia, where he was a newspaper editor, a scientist, and a politician. In 1757, he was appointed colonial agent for Pennsylvania and served in London for nearly twenty years. As ambassador to France during the revolution he helped negotiate the treaty of alliance with that country, a key factor in America’s victory.

In 1754, recognizing the threat to the colonists from France and its American Indian allies, Franklin composed his “Albany Plan of Union” for uniting the colonies. Several elements of the plan can be seen in the Articles of Confederation, including giving populous states more delegates in Congress than less populous ones, giving Congress exclusive power to make treaties with the American Indians and the authority to draw on funds collected by the colonies, and authorizing states to go to war in “Sudden Emergencies” without the permission of Congress.

Document Analysis

Many drafts of the Articles of Confederation were made before it was finally adopted by Congress in 1777. In 1773, Franklin read to the Continental Congress a paper entitled “Articles of Confederation and Plan for Perpetual Union.” The plan called for both establishing a unicameral legislature and giving more powers to Congress. Franklin does not seem to have been particularly concerned that many delegates feared these reforms were too democratic; he trusted the common folk.

In 1777, Dickinson led a committee of the Continental Congress appointed to draft a plan for a confederation, to which Congress agreed on November 15. Dickinson had hoped to create a stronger central government than the one that went into effect. For example, one of the clauses in his original draft read: “Each Colony . . . reserves to itself the sole and exclusive Regulation and Government of its internal police, in all matters that shall not interfere with the Articles of Confederation.” The final document read, “Each Colony . . . retains its Sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power . . . which is not by this Confederation, expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled.”

The Articles of Confederation superseded the Second Continental Congress and served as the template for the government of the United States until the ratification of the Constitution in 1788. First proposed on November 15, 1775, the Articles of Confederation was finally ratified nearly five and a half years later on March 1, 1781, when Maryland agreed to its terms.

The weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation were many and outweighed the document’s strengths. Over time dissatisfaction with the document increased and become more widespread. Some scholars have even suggested that the new nation might not have survived had the Constitution not replaced the Articles of Confederation.

Congress lacked the authority to regulate trade between the states, and, as a result, tariff wars broke out between the states, including a trade war between New York and New Jersey. States printed their own money—even though the federal government already did so—which led to inflation and a distrust of paper money. Many American Indians lived outside the states, meaning Congress did not have the power to regulate them. However, perhaps the most significant defect of the Articles of Confederation was that the powers of Congress were narrowly defined, leaving the bulk of political power with the states. Under Article II, unless the power was stated specifically in the Articles of Confederation, it did not exist: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” Each state was given one vote in Congress regardless of population. States varied widely in population. For example, in 1790, Virginia had nearly 439,000 inhabitants, while Delaware, Georgia, and Rhode Island each had fewer than 70,000. As a result, the votes of delegates in large states counted for less than those of their counterparts in smaller states. Delegates to Congress were elected by the state legislatures not by the people, hardly a democratic process. Also, they were not paid well, discouraging some able men from serving. Furthermore, no state was allowed to restrict the trade of another state or the movement of citizens of another state.

States were responsible for collecting taxes (based on their surveyed land). The funds collected were placed in “a common treasury” and states paid their financial obligations from this common fund. Other than setting the date for the collection of taxes, the central government played little role in the collection of taxes. To the dismay of Robert Morris, superintendent of finance from 1781 to 1784, states, not Congress, decided how the pool of money was spent. In Morris’s view, those who opposed giving Congress taxing authority were aiding the cause of the new nation’s enemies. Morris also disagreed with the decision not to establish a national bank, which, in his view, made it difficult for the new nation to set up a financial system at least partly independent of the European powers.

No standing army under the authority of Congress was established, although states had the authority to set up militias. Shays’s Rebellion (1786–87), an insurrection in western Massachusetts led by farmers and debtors against their creditors, demonstrated the folly of establishing a national government without a national army. With Europe, especially France, in turmoil in the late 1780s, the United States needed a powerful military to keep its enemies at bay. With state militias the chief weapon of the country, doing so was impossible. Congress had limited diplomatic powers. While it had the exclusive right to make “treaties and alliances” and to declare war, treaties that limited the states powers to impose “duties on foreigners . . . or from prohibiting the exportation or importation of any species of goods or commodities” were prohibited. Moreover, in order to change the Articles of Confederation the assent of every state was required. Given the range of economic, social, and political characteristics of the states, changing the Articles of Confederation was not easily accomplished.

The Articles of Confederation led to the establishment of important institutions, enjoyed its share of success, and was not without its defenders. It established a unicameral congress (each state had one vote) and a uniform system of coinage. It prevented states from restricting the movement of citizens of other states, imposed term limits on congressional delegates, and collected taxes from states (but not individuals). Congress became the single medium by which trade with the American Indians was conducted, and it passed the Northwest Ordinance (1787), which established laws for the administration of the territories in the Northwest, gave residents there the same civil rights Americans enjoyed, outlawed slavery and indentured servitude, and established a mechanism for their admission to the union. The ordinance smoothed territories’ transitions to statehood.

Also, under the Articles of Confederation, Congress negotiated an end to the war with Great Britain, signing a peace treaty that favored Americans more than many expected at the start of the conflict. The Articles of Confederation put stiff penalties into place for those engaging in graft and barred delegates from serving “more than three years in a period of six.” Though the provision minimized congressional complacency and corruption, it meant that some experienced legislators were not available to serve in Congress for long periods of time.

Having recently fought against a tyrannical regime, many Americans were loath to give more power to the federal government. Nevertheless, supporters of the Articles of Confederation were in the minority. In 1787, when some political leaders called for a convention to work on a revision of the document, the motion was quickly approved. The Articles of Confederation was in effect for only six years, but those years were some of the most critical in the nation’s young life. The fact that the United States survived those years was at least partly because of the framework and foundation provided by the Articles of Confederation.

Some scholars have asked whether the new nation would have survived if the Articles of Confederation had not been replaced with a stronger compact, namely, the Constitution. In light of the high taxation and arbitrary legislation colonists suffered under the Crown and Parliament in the 1760s and 1770s, it is hard to see how a much stronger confederation could have been established in the 1770s.

Essential Themes

The Articles of Confederation was the first document that was legally binding on all signatories to the confederation. Previous unions had been established in the colonies in the 1760s and 1770s, such as the Stamp Act Congress, Continental Association, and Continental Congress, but they had all been voluntary organizations.

Although the Articles of Confederation neither gave a great deal of power to the states nor established a strong central government as Morris and others hoped, it gave more authority to the central government than any organization in the early republic until that point. In September 1786, the Continental Congress authorized Congress to revise the Articles of Confederation. Congress met in Philadelphia from May until September 17, 1787, and when they adjourned, the nation had the Constitution.

  • Davies, K. G., ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 17701783. Shannon: Irish UP, 1972–81. Print. Colonial Office Series, 21 vols.
  • Dickinson, John. An Essay on the Constitutional Power of Great Britain over the Colonies in America. Philadelphia: Bradford, 1774. Print.
  • ---. Letter from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies. Boston: Mein, 1768. Print.
  • Fleming, Thomas, ed. The Founding Fathers: Benjamin Franklin—A Biography in His Own Words. New York: Harper, 1972. Print.
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Additional Reading
  • Abernethy, Thomas Perkins. Western Lands and the American Revolution. New York: Appleton, 1939. Print.
  • Aptheker, Herbert. Early Years of the Republic: From the End of the Revolution to the First Administration of Washington. New York: International, 1976. Print.
  • Brown, Richard D., ed. Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 17601791: Documents and Essays. Boston: Houghton, 2006. Print.
  • Calvert, Jane E. Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson. New York: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.
  • Flower, Milton E. John Dickinson: Conservative Revolutionary. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1983. Print.
  • Hoffert, Robert W. A Politics of Tensions: The Articles of Confederation and American Political Ideas. Niwot, CO: UP of Colorado, 1992. Print.
  • Jensen, Merrill. The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774–1781. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1970. Print.
  • ---. The New Nation: A History of the United States during the Confederation, 17811789. New York: Vintage, 1950. Print.
  • Jacobson, David Louis. John Dickinson and the Revolution in Pennsylvania, 17641776. Berkeley: U of California P, 1965. Print.
  • Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765–1776. New York: Knopf, 1972. Print.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot, ed. Sources and Documents Illustrating the American Revolution and Formation of the Federal Constitution. New York: Oxford UP, 1965. Print.
  • Morris, Richard B. The Forging of the Union, 1781–1789. 1989. Print.
  • Pole, J. R. The Revolution in America, 1754–1788: Documents and Commentaries. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1970. Print.
  • Prescott, Arthur T. Drafting the Federal Constitution. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1941. Print.
  • Schiff, Stacy. The Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. New York: Holt, 2006. Print.
  • Taylor, Robert J. Western Massachusetts in the Revolution. Providence, RI: Brown UP, 1954. Print.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1998. Print.

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