The Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“The said United Colonies . . . do jointly and severally hereby enter into a firm and perpetual league of friendship and amity for offence and defence, mutual advice and succor”

Summary Overview

The Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England represented the first attempt to formalize cooperation among the English colonies. The colonies involved were those of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, New Haven, and Connecticut. One of the primary purposes of the articles was to create a mutual defense system to counter aggression from American Indian groups in the area as well as encroachments from neighboring French and Dutch colonies. The articles also helped the colonies address cross-border issues such as the capture of fugitives and runaway slaves. The confederation would only last a few decades, although it would serve as the basis for the colonial effort against American Indian tribes during King Philip’s War. Massachusetts Bay Colony, the largest of the confederation’s members, ultimately caused the alliance to dissolve due to its unwillingness to take part in actions on Connecticut’s behalf against the Dutch.

Defining Moment

The Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England was the earliest example of the connectivity between the colonies under the English Crown. Previously, the colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, New Haven, and Connecticut existed independently of each other while all part of England’s growing empire. However, during the early to mid-seventeenth century, these disparate colonies began to see common interests, particularly in the areas of security and defense. The threats that existed came from both the region’s indigenous populations and the other European powers that established colonies in the areas around New England.

The first of these threats was the American Indian tribes whose territories had been infringed upon by the arriving European colonists. The Pequots, based in what is now southern Connecticut, were one of the major parties negatively affected by the New England colonists. Great tension that escalated to conflict developed as the Pequots faced territorial disputes, fraudulent trade, the destruction of crops, and an epidemic of smallpox. The smallpox outbreak in particular united the Pequot nation against the Europeans. The only major rival of the Pequots other than the Europeans were the Narragansetts, located in what is now Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. By the 1630s, the Narragansetts and Pequots experienced a number of increasingly violent confrontations with the English and Dutch colonists in the area. The English ultimately drove the Pequots from New England in 1637 after colonial forces killed hundreds of Pequots in a siege of what is now Mystic, Connecticut.

The Pequot War of 1637, as it came to be called, demonstrated the risks of violence that existed for the people of the Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, New Haven, and Connecticut colonies. In 1643, delegates from each of these colonies met in Boston to form the United Colonies of New England, also called the New England Confederation. The primary purpose of the organization was to combine resources in order collectively manage the defense of the colonies from conflicts with American Indian tribes. Under the Articles of Confederation, the United Colonies of New England would also address territorial issues, including border disputes between the individual members. Furthermore, the New England Confederation would work together to track and capture runaway slaves and criminal fugitives within their combined jurisdictions.

The Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England were further employed to address a second threat, which came from the French colonies to the north and the Dutch colonies in the south and west of the English colonies. These issues were more specific to individual colonies than others—the Connecticut colony had an ongoing dispute with the colonies of New Netherland, one that had no implications for Massachusetts Bay or Plymouth—causing strains within the United Colonies of New England. Still, the articles would once again join the New England colonies against the Wampanoag and Narragansett tribes during King Philip’s War (1675–76). The United Colonies remained connected under the articles until 1684.

Author Biography

The Articles of Confederation that established the United Colonies of New England were drafted by the delegates assigned by the governors of those respective colonies. These commissioners would represent the interests of each colony, although the colonies would retain their independent governmental authority. The delegates would advise one another on common issues of defense and security. Additionally, the commissioners would, in the event of a threat or attack, recommend to their respective colonial government that militia, money, or both be raised to address the issue.

John Winthrop

The largest of the members of the confederation was Massachusetts Bay Colony, led by Governor John Winthrop. Winthrop founded the colony in 1629 prior to departure from England. He served as governor from the colony’s inception through 1644. Like the other members of the confederation, he was a Puritan. However, his tolerance of both the American Indian tribes and other colonizing nations including England’s major rival, France, helped Massachusetts avoid any conflicts after the confederation was formed up until King Philip’s War.

George Wyllys

George Wyllys had been a part of the Massachusetts Bay legislative body, the General Court, during the 1630s. In 1638, he and his family moved to Hartford, but he remained an assistant with the General Court until he was named the governor of the Connecticut Colony in 1642. During his one-year tenure as governor, Wyllys recognized the threat from the Narragansetts and other tribes in the region and, fearing an attack, pushed Connecticut into a state of military readiness. To this end, in 1643, he sent delegates John Haynes and Edward Hopkins to Boston to help forge the Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies on behalf of Connecticut.

Theophilus Eaton

Theophilus Eaton was a wealthy merchant who arrived in New England in 1638. Although he was invited to live in Massachusetts Bay Colony, he and his partner, John Davenport, opted to move further south, establishing the independent colony Quinnipiac (later renamed New Haven) with himself as governor. Eaton was faced with tensions with the Pequots in his area, along with the rumor that the French were secretly instigating anti-English attacks. He and Davenport therefore joined Connecticut and Plymouth in Boston in 1643.

William Bradford

Plymouth governor William Bradford also saw a growing resentment among American Indians against the English. In particular, he was concerned about the Narragansetts, who after the Pequots were routed, saw an opportunity to grow in power. Bradford would join the other English colonies in the defense pact and would play a major role in King Philip’s War.

Document Analysis

One of the earliest examples of intercolonial cooperation in American history, the Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England is a political framework that established a system of mutual assistance among the Puritan English colonies in northeast America. The articles acknowledge that the people who arrived in the region from England did so with the moral, spiritual, and social values consistent with their Puritan roots. However, the authors also took into account the presence, both within and outside of their borders, of those who did not share those values. The articles were drawn for the purposes of uniting the independent English colonies against perceived threats from those rival European and indigenous groups. To this end, the articles made clear that, although the colonies would retain their individual governments, they shared common security concerns that required a collective response.

The Articles of Confederation were drafted immediately following the Pequot War of 1637. During that conflict, a large number of casualties were inflicted on both sides, with large-scale battles, raids, and small skirmishes taking place in a number of English colonies. With that war still fresh in their minds, the authors of the articles inserted language that described the types of dangers that existed from the American Indian tribes, as well as rival French and Dutch colonies.

Common Concerns

Pervasive throughout the document is the theme of commonality. In the first section, the authors discuss the New England colonies’ fundamental Puritan values, stating that their faith and religious principles were what brought them to New England in the first place. Although each colony was established independently of one another, the authors stress their common values. Puritan colonists, after all, came to the northeastern part of North America in search of the freedom to practice their conservative religion undeterred by the English government, with which Puritans had increasingly conflicted. Upon arriving in America, the Puritans established religiously homogenous colonies, giving each colony order that was consistent with their faith.

By the 1630s, however, it became clear to the New England colonies’ respective leaders that two distinct dangers to the Puritan way of life existed outside of and within their borders. The Pequot War supported the notion that relations with the American Indian tribes within and outside of the colonies’ territories were not entirely amicable and that further conflict could occur. Meanwhile, it was believed that French and Dutch colonists located in the areas outside of the New England colonies sought to undermine and usurp the English living in the area. Furthermore, although they shared common religious and social views, the Puritan colonists did establish borders between one another, some of which were in dispute. Meanwhile, criminals and other fugitives frequently crossed colonial borders to escape prosecution and slavery.

The Articles of Confederation acted as a call to arms for the four colonies included. The authors describe Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven as the victims of aggression. These colonies, the framers of the confederation argued, had a “peculiar jurisdiction,” which indicates that the four colonies shared specific characteristics and were subject to the same dangers. The religious and social traits shared by the colonies’ populations as well as their shared threats meant that only these four colonies could enter into the confederation; although there were other English colonies in New England, such as those in what are now Maine and Rhode Island, they would not be allowed to join the confederation. Furthermore, the members of the New England Confederation would be steadfastly opposed to the other New England colonies entering into similar confederations by themselves.

The articles gave the member colonies the ability to respond collectively to attacks, declarations of war, criminal and fugitive behavior, and territorial disputes. However, the articles also specifically prohibited each of the four colonies from acting alone in such manners. According to article 9, confederation members were expected to refrain from unilaterally declaring war, launching an offensive, or otherwise proactively engaging an identified security risk without the full consent of at least three-quarters of the confederation. Special exemptions could be made in the event that a colony was attacked before the confederation could convene. Still, the inclusion of this provision in the articles meant that the confederation sought to ensure that the colonies, as well as their resources and personnel, would not be unnecessarily drawn into a conflict to suit the needs of just one member.

Although the confederation speaks to the common security interests of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven, the authors of the articles are careful to reference the colonies’ respective independence. The “peculiar jurisdiction” that binds the four colonies also speaks to their respective integrity; each individual colony must remain intact. For example, residents of Massachusetts Bay Colony could not found their own colonies within that jurisdiction. The authors identify the central government of each colony as the highest authority. In fact, the articles clearly state that the delegates to the confederation could not make policies or take any action in the name of their colony. Their responsibilities were to discuss the issues at hand with their fellow delegates, report to their superiors in the colony’s leadership, and return with their respective governor’s response.

The fact that the articles only allowed the New England Puritan colonies of New Haven, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and Plymouth to join underscores the high value the authors placed in the connectivity of these institutions. Article 3 makes clear the desire for these colonies to be connected via the confederation alone. The individual colonies could not enter into similar networks with other colonies that existed outside of the confederation.

The articles established the composition of the confederation in simple terms. The Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, New Haven, and Connecticut colonies would designate two official “commissioners,” or delegates, to represent them in the confederation. This body would meet according to a consistent schedule, although the delegates may be called in for additional meetings in the event of an attack or other matter that required a more immediate confederation response. Each of these commissioners did not necessarily need to be the highest-ranking officials in their respective colonies. However, according to article 6, the delegates must be imbued with the ability to “bring full power from their several General Courts respectively to hear, examine, weigh, and determine all affairs” of the confederation. In other words, the decisions made by these commissioners regarding the policies of the confederation would be based on the full input of the leadership of the respective colonial members. Despite their commonality, the articles also address the territorial disputes and other issues that existed between the participants. Article 8 provides a framework whereby the confederation delegates may settle such disputes through meetings and negotiations. Additionally, the article calls for delegates to encourage their respective governments to update their legal codes so that the laws for prosecuting criminals are uniform. By including this language, the articles’ authors hoped to prevent the transit of criminals and other individuals out of one colony and into another where the legal system might work more to their advantage.

The confederation, taking into account the authority of each individual colony’s central government, would therefore consist of delegates assigned to the organization by their respective colonial leaders. Delegates to the confederation would bring their concerns and issues to the confederation at the behest of their governments. Likewise, the confederation would not act on a specific course of action until its delegates receive the approval of their respective colonial leadership.

The articles speak to a number of issues with which the Puritan English colonies of New England were faced. One area was intercolonial transit. An individual traveling between colonies would also travel between colonial jurisdictions. Article 8 addresses the fact that it was important for the colonies to manage such transit in order to maintain careful population counts and ensure that travelers adhered to the relevant laws and regulations to which they were subject upon their arrival. Article 8 also speaks to the need for establishing a system to track and capture fugitives who escaped from one colony into another.

Among the fugitives referenced in the articles were slaves who escaped from their masters. The confederation, under these articles, would further establish guidelines whereby such fugitives, upon capture, would be returned for prosecution or recommitted to their masters’ keep. This directive constitutes one of the earliest examples in American history of the stated need for the regulation of slavery and an institutional response to runaway slaves. This language would also serve as inspiration for the fugitive slave laws passed in the years leading up to the Civil War.

The confederation’s primary purpose was to create a system whereby the colonies would counter different types of threats. The confederation could intervene in sporadic incidents or participate in what the articles term “just wars.” The articles in part represented a mutual defense pact between the Puritan colonies. In essence, the confederation would view an attack on one of its parties as an attack on all, warranting a response by the confederation’s members. This agreement was somewhat flexible, however. A decision by the confederation to retaliate against an enemy or go to war would be made only after the members fully assessed the issue.

Furthermore, the confederation did not need a unanimous vote in favor of war. It required only six of the eight delegates to take action, which meant that if a colony did not approve of action, it would not be expected to provide support or troops or otherwise take part in the effort in question. Then again, only those colonies that voted to take part in the war in question would be able to determine the amount of resources and manpower to deploy to the conflict zone. Still, the dissenting confederation member would be able to provide input in the development of military policy.

However, the articles would establish a set of protocols to prevent a slow response in the event of an invasion or sudden attack. If such an incident occurred, upon the request of the colonial magistrate in whose jurisdiction the attack took place and with the concurrence of one or two other colonial governors, the confederation’s members would immediately send militia. Massachusetts, the largest of the colonies, would immediately send a minimum of one hundred men along with weapons and supplies, while the smaller colonies would send forty-five men with supplies to counter the threat.

Why the New England Confederation Dissolved

As established in these articles, the rules applied to each confederation member were not necessarily carved in stone. Indeed, the articles provided great flexibility for each colonial participant, deferring to the authority of each colony’s leadership. In fact, article 11 acknowledges that differences may arise between the confederation’s members, causing one or more to refuse to honor the stated desires of the confederation. Such breaches would not be received favorably by the other members but would not necessarily result in the isolation or expulsion of the dissenting member.

The flexible nature of the Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies would contribute to its eventual dissolution. Although there were instances of violence between the tribes in southern New England, there were no large-scale conflicts with colonists during the early years of the confederation. Similarly, in the 1650s, Connecticut sought to fight a war against their rival neighbors, the Dutch, living in what is now New York. However, Massachusetts Bay, the largest of the colonies and thus the one that contributed the most troops, supplies, and weapons to the confederation’s efforts, did not see an interest in using their resources and manpower to engage the Dutch. The largest member of the confederation therefore refused to participate in that Anglo-Dutch conflict. With no provision in the articles addressing such a refusal, the organization’s authority and ability to function as a unified group was undermined in only a short time after the articles established the confederation.

A major example of the differences of opinion that existed among the confederation members—and the reason for the flexibility manifest in the articles—was found in 1643, just before the articles were drafted. A French ship arrived in Boston Harbor on its way to what is now Nova Scotia. Its captain requested to come ashore to purchase supplies and recruit men, an odd request since many English believed that France was conspiring with various American Indian tribes against the English colonies. Despite this prevailing view, Governor Winthrop granted the captain’s request, citing the biblical tenet “love thy neighbor.” Winthrop’s act immediately received criticism from the people of Massachusetts. The example of Winthrop’s gesture to the rival French demonstrated the view of the leadership of Massachusetts Bay Colony that France was not as aggressive as the rumors suggested, despite the prevailing view otherwise among the other colonies.

Also generating controversy was the provision in the articles that prevented other New England colonies from joining the confederation. As stated earlier, the articles specifically state that only the Puritan colonies of New England—Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven—could enter into the confederation. Colonies in Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, while sharing many of the same social values that their counterparts in the New England colonies practiced, also demonstrated more liberal characteristics; in fact, some of these colonies were founded by individuals who were exiled from the New England Puritan colonies. This inability to expand the confederation only added to existing border issues, further hindering the organization’s evolution as the number and size of colonies grew.

In light of these issues, the confederation experienced a decline in strength and efficacy. One period, however, brought the confederation together, if only for a brief span of time. In 1675, the relationship between the Wampanoags, based between Narragansett Bay and Cape Cod, and the English colonies of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay became increasingly tense. Much of the tension arose from the colonies’ rapid expansion into Wampanoag territory. Over time, those strains devolved into violence and armed conflict, as other tribes joined in the anticolonial effort. Metacom, the leader of the Wampanoags—who was known to the colonists as King Philip—was ultimately killed by confederation forces, as the native tribes in this region were decimated or driven from New England. King Philip’s War, as it came to be known, spoke directly to the principles of the Articles of Confederation, fostering a yearlong period of New England colonial unity against a common foe.

Article 12 of the confederation’s charter states that the organization would be expected to continue in perpetuity. The organization was expected to evolve as long as its four members remained intact. The assumption was that pressure from both native populations and European colonial rivals would persist, necessitating a consistent presence of the confederation. However, the clear differences of opinion that existed among the four colonies on the perceived threats to the confederation’s parties, along with the unwillingness of individual members to invest people and supplies in wars and conflicts that did not serve their interest, would signal the decline of the confederation. King Philip’s War would briefly revitalize the United Colonies of New England, but that renewal was short-lived. The confederation ceased to exist in 1684.

Essential Themes

The Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England represented the first attempt by the English colonies of the New World to unite for their mutual benefit. Each of the four confederation members had common ground, both in their conservative Puritan roots and the challenges they faced. Visible throughout the articles are acknowledgements of the shared interests these colonies had in relation to one another. Also discussed were the differences the four colonies shared with the other English colonies in Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, as well as the rival European colonies established near the New England territories.

This theme of commonality gave rise within the articles to the notion that each of the confederation’s members, working in concert, would succeed in building a system whereby not only the threats of violence and criminal activity within the colonies would be countered, but thorny legal issues such as territorial disputes and population changes would be addressed as well.

In addition to the theme of connectivity among the New England colonies, the articles consistently cite the presence of very real dangers to the colonies’ pursuit of a peaceful life in America. The articles cite past conflicts with American Indian groups, alluding to both isolated skirmishes and larger, more coordinated campaigns, including the alliances between different tribes, and touching upon the concept of a “just war” against such groups.

Furthermore, although the articles do not mention a specific threat posed by neighboring European colonial rivals, the perceived danger from those colonies is implicit in the articles. After all, no other colony in New England or the surrounding area was allowed to join the confederation, nor were members of the confederation allowed to ally with external colonies. Those colonies that did not share the same heritage and religious ideals were considered untrustworthy outsiders.

In light of their common interests, the confederates would connect through these articles in a spirit of mutual defense. Prior to the articles’ completion, the New England colonies had after all experienced violence and attack from American Indian tribes, giving the confederation a clear example of the dangers that existed. The articles assumed that such conflicts would continue and that attacks against the colonies by other parties would occur in the future. The confederation of the United Colonies of New England, therefore, needed to continue as long as the colonies themselves existed.

  • Bradford, William. Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, 1606–1646. Ed. William T. Davis. New York: Scribner’s, 1908. Print.
  • Burgan, Michael. John Winthrop: Colonial Governor of Massachusetts. Minneapolis: Compass Point, 2006. Print.
  • “George Wyllys: Governor of the Colony of Connecticut 1642.” Connecticut State Library. Connecticut State Library, Apr. 1999. Web. 14 Dec. 2011.
  • “John Winthrop: First Governor of Massachusetts, 1588–1629.” Boston History and Architecture., 2008. Web. 14 Dec. 2011.
  • “New England Confederation.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. 11 Nov. 2011: n.pag. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Dec. 2011.
  • New Haven Colony Historical Society. Papers of the New Haven Colony Historical Society. New York: Oxford UP, 1865. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Lister, Frederick. The Early Security Confederations: From the Ancient Greeks to the United Colonies of New England. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 1999. Print.
  • Mandell, Daniel R. King Philip’s War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2010. Print.
  • Ward, Harry M. The United Colonies of New England, 1643-1690. New York: Vantage, 1961. Print.
  • Weir, David A. Early New England: A Covenanted Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdsman, 2005. Print.
  • White, Ed. “The Pequot Conspirator.” American Literature 81.3 (2009): 439–67. Print.

Categories: History