Ratification of the Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation represented the first attempt of the thirteen American colonies to band together as a single political unit. The articles, however, represented a treaty between thirteen sovereign entities more than they created a new, single sovereign entity. The states of the Confederation soon discovered that they had retained too much sovereignty for themselves to the detriment of the new country, and they set about creating the U.S. Constitution to correct their mistake.

Summary of Event

The American experience with nationalism ran counter to developments that had led to nationhood throughout much of the modern world. A sense of American nationalism scarcely existed during the colonial period. Nor did nationalism produce a revolution aimed at the creation of a single, unified American government. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Americans’ sense of oneness grew as the colonies stood together in opposition to Great Britain’s post-1763 imperial program. As Americans traveled the long road to 1776 and became more aware of their shared principles and interests, they began to think simultaneously about independence and union. Because the independent states realized they must work cooperatively or perish, American patriots turned to the task of creating a confederacy of states. [kw]Ratification of the Articles of Confederation (Mar. 1, 1781)
[kw]Confederation, Ratification of the Articles of (Mar. 1, 1781)
[kw]Articles of Confederation, Ratification of the (Mar. 1, 1781)
Nationalism;United States
Articles of Confederation (1781)
[g]United States;Mar. 1, 1781: Ratification of the Articles of Confederation[2450]
[c]Government and politics;Mar. 1, 1781: Ratification of the Articles of Confederation[2450]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 1, 1781: Ratification of the Articles of Confederation[2450]
Dickinson, John
Jefferson, Thomas
[p]Jefferson, Thomas;Articles of Confederation
Burke, Thomas
La Luzerne, Chevalier de

In June, 1776, while Thomas Jefferson and his committee worked on the Declaration of Independence, a second committee was appointed by the Continental Congress, Second (1775) Continental Congress. Including one representative from each colony, the committee was instructed to draft a series of articles that would set forth the principles and structure of a cooperative union between the states, thus linking the thirteen self-governing states into a “league of friendship.” With John Dickinson from Pennsylvania as chairman, the committee quickly proposed a plan for union, but in late July, opponents of such a union convinced the Continental Congress to reject Dickinson’s document.

Nearly five years elapsed before all agreements and compromises could be reached both within the Continental Congress and at the state level. The exigencies of the Revolutionary War slowed the process as the Continental Congress grappled with enlistments, supplies, finances, and foreign aid. The lawmakers were also forced to flee Philadelphia twice in the face of approaching British armies; once they fled to Baltimore and once to York, Pennsylvania. State governments were similarly distracted, which further slowed the process, since each state legislature had to agree on instructions to its delegate to the congress.

Political clashes in and out of the Continental Congress about the contents of the proposed document added yet another obstacle to approval of the Articles of Confederation. Historians have differed sharply over the nature of these struggles. Some contend that they were ideological in substance, between so-called radicals and conservatives; others contend that they were rivalries between the small and large states. However, few scholars deny that the conflicts over questions concerning local authority versus central authority were conditioned by the colonists’ previous experience with remote, impersonal government control from London. Nor should it be forgotten that creating a central administrative authority for all thirteen states and participating in government beyond the colony level were experiences largely foreign to Americans.

Although the committee report, of which John Dickinson was the primary architect, was placed before the Continental Congress as early as July 12, 1776, it languished, as attention was focused on questions about administering the western frontier and apportioning representation and financial burdens among the states. Most delegates favored a loose confederation, as opposed to a highly centralized and powerful national government. Sometimes explicitly, but more often implicitly, it seemed that the Dickinson draft left too much authority in the hands of Congress. Finally, in November, 1777, the Continental Congress agreed upon the Articles of Confederation and submitted the agreement to the states for ratification.

Under the Articles, the confederated Congress became the only branch of the central government. Each state would have one vote to cast, regardless of population, by a delegate selected by the legislature of that state. A simple majority of states was required for most votes, except in explicitly specified matters that required the consent of nine of the thirteen. Each state had the sole power to tax its population, although each state also was expected to contribute its share of money (based upon improved lands) to the upkeep of the Confederation. States also retained exclusive power to regulate their own commercial activities.

Each state claiming territory in the trans-Appalachian region was allowed to keep its possessions instead of turning them over to the United States. Individually, the states were to retain their sovereignty, freedom, and independence, as well as all rights not specifically granted to Congress. In turn, the Articles gave the confederated Congress the authority to make war and peace, make military appointments, requisition men and money from the states, send out and receive ambassadors, and negotiate treaties and alliances. Management of postal affairs and the authority to coin money, decide weights and measures, and settle disputes between states were also responsibilities that the Articles gave to the confederated administration.

Although the Articles of Confederation vested momentous responsibilities in the confederated Congress, the agreement did not give Congress the authority to discharge those responsibilities. Without the ability to tax or regulate trade and lacking powers of enforcement, Congress could only hope that the states would meet their assigned requisitions and cooperate with the confederated administration in other vital areas. Despite the limits on power built into the Articles of Confederation, some states were reluctant to give their consent to the proposed confederated Congress. Opponents continued to question jurisdictional responsibilities assigned to the central government.

By 1779, all states except Maryland had endorsed the Articles. Maryland’s continuing opposition was driven largely by avaricious land speculators. Speculation;land Colonial charters had given Connecticut, Massachusetts, and all states south of the Potomac River land grants extending westward to the Pacific Ocean. Many people from the “landless” states felt that regions beyond the settled areas should be turned over to the Confederation, so that states with extensive western claims would not enter the union with distinct natural advantages over states without western claims. Likewise, “landless” representatives maintained that the western frontier eventually would be won through the combined military efforts of all states working in tandem.

If Maryland land speculators (who hoped to fare better from Congress than from the Commonwealth of Virginia in having prewar claims recognized) had exercised a decisive role in their state’s refusal to ratify, their stand did not invalidate the reasoning of others who demanded an equitable solution to the western land problem. To break the impasse, Congress reversed itself and recommended that the landed states relinquish generous portions of their tramontane territories. Virginia, with vast claims, held the key.

Prompted by Thomas Jefferson, on January 2, 1781, Virginia offered the Confederation its rights to all lands north of the Ohio River. Equally important and far-reaching were Virginia’s stipulations (ultimately accepted) that speculators’ claims be canceled and that new states be created and admitted to the union on terms of equality with the original thirteen. New York responded, abandoning its tenuous claims, as Connecticut abandoned its more solid ones. In time, the remaining landed states followed suit. Maryland, which had requested French naval protection, was prodded into ratification by the French envoy, the Chevalier de La Luzerne, and on March 1, 1781, Congress finally announced the formal creation of a “perpetual union.”


The Articles of Confederation created a relatively loose union of thirteen sovereign states, characterized as a league of friendship far more than a collection of subordinate provinces within a single sovereign nation. Time and circumstances during the 1780’s, however, would demonstrate the inherent flaws in the Articles. By the end of the decade, it had become apparent to many Americans that the Articles were not adequate for the needs of the thirteen member states. Instead, the states consented, for the first time, to create a national government, and they produced a new document, the Constitution of the United States, to bring about that government.

Further Reading

  • Berkin, Carol. A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. New York: Harcourt, 2002. Chapter 1 contains information about the Articles of Confederation and how the inadequacies of that document spurred creation of the U.S. Constitution. Includes an appendix with the full text of the Articles.
  • Callahan, Kerry P. The Articles of Confederation: A Primary Source Investigation into the Document That Preceded the U.S. Constitution. New York: Rosen Primary Source, 2003. Aimed at young adults, this book describes the drafting and ratification of the Articles, their significance, and the eventual drafting of the U.S. Constitution.
  • Douglas, Elisha P. Rebels and Democrats: The Struggle for Equal Political Rights and Majority Rule During the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955. Demonstrates that the fortunes of the prerevolutionary ruling class varied from state to state.
  • Henderson, H. James. Party Politics in the Continental Congress. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974. Focuses on the various interests that separated and then united members of the Continental Congress.
  • Jameson, J. Franklin. The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1926. Stimulating and suggestive, although the degree of immediate change produced by the American Revolution may be exaggerated.
  • Main, Jackson T. The Social Structure of Revolutionary America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965. Describes the era as one of relatively little social change, although few Americans were frozen in a lower-class status.
  • Miller, John C. Triumph and Freedom, 1775-1783. Boston: Little, Brown, 1948. Provides a somewhat detailed account of the events involved in the American Revolution.
  • Morris, Richard B. Forging of the Union, 1781-1789. New York: Harper & Row, 1987. The evolution of U.S. national government is described in some detail.
  • Wood, Gordon. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969. Presents a thorough analysis of the motives and goals of American political theory between independence and the creation of the nation in 1787.

Proclamation of 1763

First Continental Congress

Battle of Lexington and Concord

Second Continental Congress

Declaration of Independence

Franco-American Treaties

Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown

Treaty of Paris

Ordinance of 1785

Northwest Ordinance

U.S. Constitution Is Adopted

Publication of The Federalist

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Articles of Confederation (1781)