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Articles of Confederation

The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Political and Legal History
John P. KaminskiJohn P. Kaminski

Articles of Confederation 

On 7 June 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia moved in the Second Continental Congress that the 13 American colonies declare their independence from Great Britain and that Congress establish a committee to draft articles of confederation to bind the colonies together. Five days later, Congress created such a committee composed of one delegate from each colony with John Dickinson of Pennsylvania as chair. Congress approved the final version of the Articles of Confederation on 15 November 1777 and sent the document to the states for ratification. On 9 July 1778, delegates from eight states signed the Articles. Maryland, the last state to ratify, did so on 1 March 1781, at which time Congress declared “the Confederation of the United States” completed and perpetual.

The Articles provided for a unicameral Congress with no separate executive or judiciary. Congress, which could act only on the states, not on individuals, was to be elected annually in a manner determined by each state legislature. States could send up to seven delegates, with a minimum of two delegates needed for a state to be represented officially. Despite wide differences in population, each state had but one vote.

Congress had the sole power of determining war and peace, sending and receiving ambassadors, negotiating treaties, settling boundary disputes between states, regulating coinage, borrowing money, managing affairs with Indians, establishing and regulating a post office, regulating the army and navy, appointing courts for the trial of piracy and felonies on the high seas, and dealing with cases concerning captured ships. The vote of nine states was required for most important matters. Congress did not have the power to regulate foreign or interstate commerce, to levy and collect taxes, or to raise an army. It could only request the states to pay their share of federal expenses and supply soldiers for the Continental army.

Canada was specifically allowed to join the confederation, but all other colonies needed the approval of nine states to enter. Every state was to abide by the determination of Congress on questions delegated to Congress by the Articles, and the Articles were to be inviolably observed by every state. Amendments to the Articles had to be ratified by the legislature of every state.

Even before adoption of the Articles, Congress observed most of their provisions. The British military danger encouraged the states to meet their obligations to Congress. After peace returned, however, the Articles’ inherent weakness became apparent and, after several attempts to strengthen Congress by amending them failed because of the unanimity requirement, a Constitutional Convention was called in 1787 to revise the Articles. In one of its first acts, the Convention voted to abandon the Articles altogether and draft a new constitution.

Congress under the Articles had three great successes: it obtained an advantageous peace treaty ending the Revolutionary War, it acquired a huge public domain from state cessions of their western lands, and it enacted the Northwest Ordinance, which established the pattern for the administration of federal territories.

[See also Constitution; Constitutional Convention of 1787; Federalism; Northwest Ordinance; States’ Rights; and Taxation.]


Jensen, Merrill. The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774–1781. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1940.Find this resource:

    Morris, Richard B. The Forging of the Union, 1781–1789. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.Find this resource:

      Rakove, Jack N. The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.Find this resource:

        John P. Kaminski

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