The Articles of Confederation – Who, What, When, and Why?

articles of confederation
The Articles of Confederation served as the United States' first constitution.

The members of the Second Continental Congress wrote the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. It was the forerunner to the United States constitution

The Authors of the Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation authors were the committee members formed on June 11, 1776, after the Lee Resolution moved Congress to work toward independence from Great Britain.

The committee comprised delegates from each of the thirteen colonies, and John Dickinson, representing Pennsylvania, was the committee chairperson. 

map of united states
The Articles of Confederation were submitted to Congress on July 12, 1776.

The committee was tasked to “prepare and digest the form of a confederation” for the national Congress forming. 

A draft of the document, written mainly by Dickinson, was presented to Congress on July 12, 1776.

Benjamin Franklin’s input

People who influenced the tone of the Articles include Benjamin Franklin. Franklin attended the Albany Congress in 1754 and authored the Albany Plan of Union, a plan to create a unified government for the thirteen colonies. 

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin’s draft of the Articles of Confederation was based on his earlier Albany Plan.

Using the Albany Plan as the basis, Franklin presented a draft of the Articles of Confederation to Congress in July 1775. 

Another contributor to early versions of the Articles was Silas Deane, Connecticut, who also submitted a draft later in 1775.

Drafts of the Articles of Confederation

By the time the Articles of Confederation were approved by Congress, six separate drafts had been submitted. Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane proposed drafts, and the Connecticut delegation presented the third draft. 

John Dickinson wrote the fourth draft, and with this version Congress took serious deliberation. Finally, a fifth and then a sixth draft was written due to the lengthy debate on Dickinson’s original draft.

United States flag
John Dickinson’s draft of the Articles of Confederation referred to the new nation being formed as the United States of America.

What is significant about Dickinson’s draft is that he named the new nation being formed the United States of America. 

His version provided a congress representative from the states based on population and gave the national government the powers not designated to the states. 

State Governments

The state governments were given powers above the national government, not “expressly delegated to the United States.” 

Dickinson’s national charter created a decentralized and limited unicameral national government with the greater powers in the state governments’ hands. 

United States Congress
Dickinson’s draft proposed a unicameral national government as opposed to the bicameral legislature that we have today.

This arrangement of a union of states was proposed to be “a firm league of friendship with each other.” 

The congressional delegates reached a consensus on the Articles of Confederation wording when state sovereignty was guaranteed. 

Voting in Congress would be en bloc by each state. The Articles consisted of four sections:

  • a preamble
  • thirteen articles
  • a conclusion
  • a signatory section. 

Sadly for him, John Dickinson was no longer serving in Congress when the Articles of Confederation he wrote were approved in late 1777.

When Were the Articles of Confederation Ratified?

It took a long time for Congress to approve the draft John Dickinson submitted. Of course, it didn’t help that Congress had to relocate twice during the deliberations to flee from the British Army during the American Revolutionary War. 

redcoat soldiers
Congress was forced to relocate on two occasions to escape the British army during the Revolutionary War.

Major sticking points among the state delegates were the issues of land claims and state sovereignty. 

Finally, in 1777, when the state issues cleared up, Congress reached a consensus and approved the Articles of Confederation. They were to be sent to the 13 states to be ratified.

The land issue continued to be contentious during the ratification process and delayed the final ratification for several years.

The States Ratified the Articles of Confederation

A month after Congress submitted the Articles, Virginia was the first state to ratify it. By November of the following year, all the states except Delaware and Maryland had also ratified the Articles. 

Maryland monument
Maryland initially refused to ratify the Articles of Confederation.

Delaware ratified the Articles in February 1779, leaving only the State of Maryland. 

The State of Maryland refused to sign the Articles because of the issue over western land claims. Maryland made it clear that it would not ratify the Articles until the states with western land claims ceded them to the nation. 

It took two years for Maryland to be satisfied that all landed states would follow through with this promise. Finally, Maryland ratified the Articles in early February 1781. 

On March 1, 1781, Congress officially declared the Articles of Confederation to be in force as the nation’s governing charter.

The United States Under the Articles of Confederation

Little changed for Congress with the adoption of the Articles as the law of the land. When Congress presented the Articles to the states, the country acted as if it was already law. 

The official adoption of the Articles merely legalized what Congress had already been doing. 

The name of Congress was changed to the Congress of the Confederation, but Congress continued to be popularly called the Continental Congress. 

Treaties and Settlements

Under the Articles, Congress negotiated treaties with foreign powers and concluded the American Revolutionary War by signing the Treaty of Paris in 1783. 

Eiffel Tower
The Articles of Confederation granted Congress the power to negotiate treaties with foreign nations such as the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War.

The Confederation Congress also developed an organized settlement plan for the Northwest Territory.

Limitations of the Articles of Confederation

For the most part, the limitations placed on the United States’ national government made it incapable of effectively governing the country. 

It became evident that major changes needed to be made to the Articles for the national government to function correctly and these necessary changes to be made quickly.

Making Space for the Constitutional Convention

A few years after the Articles were adopted, representatives of some of the central states met to work out some trade and economic issues. As news of this meeting spread, more states also wanted to join the meeting.

The hope was to make changes to the Articles to make the government stronger, and a meeting for this purpose was set for May 25, 1787. 

Independence Hall in Philadelphia
The United States Constitution was signed at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

At this meeting, it became evident that simple changes to the Articles would not be enough, and it was agreed that a new national charter needed to be created. 

This group became the Constitutional Convention, and work began drafting a new national government.

US Constitution Replaces Articles of Confederation

Quite different from the government under the Articles, the new national government was a strong federal government, a bicameral legislature, and had separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches. 

Nearly two years of difficult work went into drafting the new charter. 

On March 4, 1789, the Articles of Confederation were replaced with the United States Constitution.

Watch the following video that summarizes the Articles of Confederation:

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