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

The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was written by the members of the Second Continental Congress. It was the forerunner to the United States constitution. The Continental Congress approved it on November 15, 1777, and then sent it to the states to be ratified.

When Was The Articles Of Confederation Ratified?

After all thirteen states approved it, it came into effect on March 1, 1781. Despite not having a working governing charter through most of the Revolutionary War years, Congress acted as if the Articles of Confederation were in force. The Articles legalized what the Continental Congress was already doing.

The Authors of the Articles of Confedration

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.

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 was 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 that Congress took serious deliberation. A fifth and then a sixth draft were written as the results of 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.

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

Ratification of the Articles of Confederation

After the Articles of Confederation was approved in 1777, it was then sent to the thirteen states to be ratified. It took a long time for Congress to approve the draft John Dickinson submitted. Part of the problem was 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. When these state issues were cleared up, Congress came to a consensus and approved the Articles to send to the states. However, the land issue continued to be an issue during the ratification process and delayed the final ratification for several years.

A month after Congress submitted the Articles, Virginia was the first state to ratify it. By November of the next 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 of the landed states would follow through with this promise. Maryland ratified the Articles in early February 1781, and 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, it operated as if it was 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. Under the Articles, Congress negotiated treaties with foreign powers and concluded the Revolution with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The Confederation Congress also developed an organized plan of settlement for the Northwest Territory.

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 properly within a short time.

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.

Quite different from the government under the Articles, the new national government was a strong federal government, a bicameral legislature, and separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Nearly two years of difficult work went into the drafting of this new charter.

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


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