After 16 months of debate, the Continental Congress, sitting in its temporary capital of York, Pennsylvania, agrees to adopt the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union on this day in 1777. Not until March 1, 1781, would the last of the 13 states, Maryland, ratify the agreement.
In 1777, Patriot leaders, stinging from British oppression, were reluctant to establish any form of government that might infringe on the right of individual states to govern their own affairs. The Articles of Confederation, then, provided for only a loose federation of American states. Congress was a single house, with each state having one vote, and a president elected to chair the assembly. Although Congress did not have the right to levy taxes, it did have authority over foreign affairs and could regulate a national army and declare war and peace. Amendments to the Articles required approval from all 13 states. On March 2, 1781, following final ratification by the 13th state, the Articles of Confederation became the law of the land.
Less than five years after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, enough leading Americans decided that the system was inadequate to the task of governance that they peacefully overthrew their second government in just over 20 years. The difference between a collection of sovereign states forming a confederation and a federal government created by a sovereign people lay at the heart of debate as the new American people decided what form their new government would take.
In 1787, an extra-legal body met in seclusion during Philadelphia’s summer heat to create this new government. On March 4, 1789, the modern United States was established when the U.S. Constitution formally replaced the Articles of Confederation.
Between 1776 and 1789, Americans went from living under a sovereign king, to living in sovereign states, to becoming a sovereign people. That transformation defined the American Revolution.