American Articles of Confederation


When researching the American revolutionary era, reference is often made to the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. (The complete name of the document.) I realized that I knew little about this first attempt to establish an American government. About all I knew was the over-generalization that the articles were inadequate because they didn’t establish an effective central government. This isn’t much to know about such an important national document. Attempting to create a government unlike any other in the world, based on revolutionary principals sounds like a daunting task to me. And it was. 

The effort to improve cooperation among the colonies actually began with the Albany Congress in 1754 when Benjamin Franklin proposed a collaboration to solve mutual problems. The colonies were still loyal to the Crown when the “Albany Plan” was adopted. However, the colonial relationship with the Crown began to rapidly deteriorate, and the “Albany Plan” became irrelevant. 

Increasing colonial disobedience was met with British measures to regain control. This only increased resistance and resulted in armed clashes. Revolution was in the air and the common man’s support for it was increasing. Events were outpacing the politicians so in 1775 the Second Continental Congress became the Provisional Government. 

The colonists needed to move from being “outlaws” to being a legitimate nation and they needed international recognition and foreign allies. Tom Paine’s “Common Sense” was demanding a formal declaration of American independence so the country could join the family of nations. He argued that all nations would be against the American struggle for independence without a declaration. 

Richard Henry Lee-Alpha History
Richard Henry Lee-Alpha History

On 7 June 1776 Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution in the Continental Congress declaring the “colonies independent.”  He also urged congress to resolve “to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances” and to prepare a plan of “confederation” for the newly independent states. Congress, to their credit, created three overlapping committees to draft the declaration, a model treaty, and articles of confederation. 

The 4 July 1776 Declaration of Independence announced the nation’s entry into the international system and the model treaty had been designed to establish relations and commerce with other nations. 

 Congress had appointed a 13-man committee on 12 June 1776 to draft a constitution for a union of the states. The first draft was submitted on 12 July 1776, and long and contentious debates began. Congress was forced by British forces to abandon Philadelphia in the winter of 1776 and in the fall of 1777, but the committee doggedly continued their work and presented the final draft of the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union on 15 November 1777. 

Consensus on the final draft had been achieved by inserting language guaranteeing each state’s sovereignty, leaving western land claims to individual states, voting in congress would en bloc by state, and establishing a single legislative body with limited powers. Changes to the Articles could only be made with the agreement of all 13 states. (Right away it is clear that such a system would have problems.) 

The Articles were sent to the states for ratification in late November 1777. Virginia was the first state to ratify on 16 December 1777, and 12 states had ratified by February 1779. Maryland was the lone holdout because they insisted that the landed states, such as Virginia and Massachusetts, cede their claims west of the Ohio River to the legislature. It took two years to get language that satisfied Maryland and they ratified on 2 February 1781. Congress had been using the Articles as its de facto frame for government but on 1 March 1781 the Articles were officially proclaimed as the law of the land. 

The Articles of Confederation contain a preamble, thirteen articles, a conclusion, and a signature section. The individual articles set the rules for current and future operations of the Confederation’s central government—the Congress. The document states that its provisions “shall be inviolably observed by every state” and that “the Union shall be perpetual.” 

Under the Articles the states retained sovereignty over all government functions not specifically given to the national Congress. The Congress could make war and peace, negotiate diplomatic and commercial agreements with foreign governments, and resolve inter-state disputes. Sounds like the Congress had lots of power, but it had no power to tax nor power to compel the states to live up to their obligations.  

Valley Forge Sentry
Valley Forge Sentry, 1777-78, By, Pinterest

This impotence was particularly visible by the state’s failure to support the army during the Revolutionary War. Even during the terrible winter at Valley Forge, the states did not step up to supply food, clothing, ammunition, arms, or pay. It was a miracle, and the generosity of Robert Morris, that allowed the army to survive and became effective. 

Following the war, independence had been won, but the country was recovering from the long and costly war. The new nation was weak and fragile with no guarantee that it would survive. Although the Articles were imperfect, they did provide initial stability and organization. 

Congress could not force the states to fund the Congressional promise to provide Continental soldiers and sailors with back pay, land grants, and life-time pensions. They hadn’t supported the military during the war and once the war ended, they felt no sense of urgency at all. During the war, General Henry Knox, who became the first Secretary of War under the Constitution, had openly blamed the weakness of the Articles for the lack of support for the military. Knox continued agitating for a constitutional convention until it finally happened. 

Complicating the military situation under the Articles, was the fact that the army was small, poorly equipped, and barely able to protect frontier settlers from Native American attack. The small army was unable to respond to any national emergency, such as Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts. Each state had a militia, but they kept tight control of them. Eleven states even had their own navy.  

Signing of Treaty of Paris 1783 by Benjamin West-British Delegation Refused to Pose
Signing of Treaty of Paris 1783 by Benjamin West-British Delegation Refused to Pose

Foreign Policy was also a disaster, especially without a strong military to back it up. The 1783 “Treaty of Paris,” which ended the Revolutionary War, was not ratified for months because Congressmen attended when they felt like it, and congress could rarely raise a quorum. The American military could not even force the British to withdraw from frontier forts on US soil. The British claimed they were delaying withdrawal because the Americans had not lived up to all provisions of the treaty. This problem was finally resolved in 1795 by “Jay’s Treaty” after the Constitution was adopted. 

In the Mediterranean Sea, the Barbary Pirates were collecting tribute from the US to permit safe passage of American vessels. The Barbary States acted with impunity because Congress failed to fund a Navy that could project power. 

The 1786 “Jay-Gardoqui Treaty” was another humiliation. It ceded use of the Mississippi River to the Spanish for 25 years, which would strangle American commerce in the western frontier. Luckily, Congress never got around to ratifying this abomination. 

Commerce was a big mess. Congress was denied any power to regulate trade or commerce, so each state set their own policies. This resulted in a hodge-podge of foreign and domestic agreements and restrictions. Also, the states and the Confederation had incurred large debts during the Revolutionary War. Some states paid but some did not. Federal assumption of all war debts became a major issue in the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention.  

Congress could make decisions but lacked any enforcement powers and was denied the power of taxation. It could only “request” money from the states, and the states never fully complied. To compensate, Congress printed more money, so the money became worthless. George Washington wrote to John Jay (President of the Congress) “that a wagon load of money will scarcely purchase a wagon load of provisions.” In response, Congress requested $45 million from the states. Despite an impassioned plea from Jay, the states did not respond with any funds. 

I have documented a litany of things that were wrong with the Articles, but it was an honest first attempt at establishing an entirely new and revolutionary concept of government. The new nation needed this shake-down period to figure out what worked and what didn’t. Two ordinances adopted under the Articles deserve mention because they worked well and had long-range positive impact on the country. 

The Land Ordinance of 1785 established land surveying practices and land ownership provisions to be used in the frontier land of the west and northwest. The survey system was based on establishing Townships (36 square miles), Sections (one square mile), and Quarter Sections (160 acres), and was carried forward to later expansion beyond the Mississippi River. This survey system is still in use today.  

Map of Northwest Territory Showing Present Day States
Map of Northwest Territory Showing Present Day States

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was an agreement of the original states to give up their northwestern land claims. It organized the Northwest Territory and set up a territorial government. It also set up protocols for the admission of new states and established the precedent that the national government was sovereign in westward expansion. Although the Confederation Congress debated admission of new states, none were admitted. 

Emergencies, such as Shays’ Rebellion and agitation by General Knox and other influential people resulted in the September 1786 Annapolis Convention which was attended by only five states. This convention did, however, call for a full Constitutional Convention. 

It had become obvious to most people that the Articles were not the answer for the country, so when the “big guns” who had produced the Declaration of Independence became interested in a Constitutional Convention it was convened on 25 May 1787. It was also obvious that just tweaking the Articles would not be enough, so they got down to the arduous work of composing an entirely new document. Drafts were debated and edited and on 17 September 1787 (A surprisingly brief time.) the convention delegates signed the Constitution of the United States of America. 

On 3 July 1788, New Hampshire ratified the Constitution becoming the ninth state to do so which officially established the new nation. By the end of July, 11 of the 13 states had ratified. On 13 September 1788, the Confederation Congress voted to implement the new Constitution and set the first Wednesday in February 1789 for the election of the first President of the United States. They also set the first Wednesday of March as the day the new government would take over and the Articles of Confederation would end. This was our first peaceful transfer of power, which even today is unique. 

Our Constitution is the basis of our greatness and is the envy of the world. It established a government unlike anything before or since. It is a wonderful hybrid that combines the best parts of a centralized government and a confederation and puts the people in charge. “Of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Established “under God,” this democracy “will never perish from the earth.” (President Lincoln had a way with words.) We are a truly free people. 

Thank God for our “imperfect” founders and those that followed!!! 

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