This Day In History: March 1

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On March 1, 1781, the Articles of Confederation are finally ratified. Congress had signed the Articles and sent them to individual states for ratification on November 15, 1777, after 16 months of debate. Bickering over land claims between Virginia and Maryland delayed final ratification for almost four more years.

Maryland finally approved the Articles on March 1, 1781, affirming the Articles as the outline of the official government of the United States. The nation was guided by the Articles of Confederation until the implementation of the current U.S. Constitution in 1789.

The Continental Congress drafted the Article of Confederation in a disjointed process that began in 1776. The same issues that would later dog the Constitutional Convention of 1787 befuddled the Congress during the drafting. Large states wanted votes to be proportional according to population, while small states wanted to continue with the status quo of one vote per state. Northern states wished to count the southern states’ slave population when determining the ratio for how much funding each state would provide for Congressional activities, foremost the war. States without western land claims wanted those with claims to yield them to Congress.

In November 1777, Congress put the Articles before the states for ratification. As written, the Articles made the firm promise that “Each state retains its sovereignty.” Western claims remained in the hands of the individual states and states’ support to Congress was determined based only on their free population. Each state carried only one vote.

Virginia was the only state to ratify the Articles by the 1778 deadline. Most states wished to place conditions on ratification, which Congress refused to accept. Ten further states ratified during the summer of 1778, but small states with big neighbors and no land claims—Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland—still refused. Maryland held out the longest, only ratifying the Articles after Virginia relinquished its claims on land north of the Ohio River to Congress. The Articles finally took effect on March 1, 1781.

The problematic Articles of Confederation remained the law of the land for only eight years before the Constitutional Convention rejected them in favor of a new, more centralized form of federal government. They crafted the current U.S. Constitution, which took effect in 1789, giving the federal government greater authority over the states and creating a bicameral legislature.