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

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 was made up of delegates from each of the thirteen colonies, and John Dickinson, representing Pennsylvania, was the committee chairperson. The committee was given the task to “prepare and digest the form of a confederation” for the national Congress which was forming. A draft of the document, written mainly by Dickinson, was presented to Congress on July 12, 1776.

articles of confederation
The articles of confederation was the document that was used before the US Constitution

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.

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 both submitted drafts, and the Connecticut delegation presented the third draft. John Dickinson wrote the fourth draft, and it was 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.

What is significant about Dickinson’s draft is that he named the nation being formed as 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. This arrangement of a union of states was proposed to be “a firm league of friendship with each other.”

The congressional delegates were able to reach 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 was 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.

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 came to a consensus and approved the Articles of Confederation. They were to be sent to the 13 states to be ratified.

ratification by 13 states
The Articles of Confederation was sent to the 13 states to be ratified.

The land issue continued to be an issue 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.

The State of 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. From the time 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 actively 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 Revolution by signing the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The Confederation Congress also developed an organized plan of settlement for the Northwest Territory.

Arc de Triomphe
The Paris Treaty was signed in 1783.

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 glaringly 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.

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 totally 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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