The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was the first written constitution of the United States. Written in 1777 and stemming from wartime urgency, its progress was slowed by fears of central authority and extensive land claims by states. It was not ratified until March 1, 1781.
Under these articles, the states remained sovereign and independent, with Congress serving as the last resort on appeal of disputes. Significantly, The Articles of Confederation named the new nation “The United States of America.” Congress was given the authority to make treaties and alliances, maintain armed forces and coin money. However, the central government lacked the ability to levy taxes and regulate commerce, issues that led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 for the creation of new federal laws under The United States Constitution.
From the beginning of the American Revolution, Congress felt the need for a stronger union and a government powerful enough to defeat Great Britain. During the early years of the war this desire became a belief that the new nation must have a constitutional order appropriate to its republican character.
A fear of central authority inhibited the creation of such a government, and widely shared political theory held that a republic could not adequately serve a large nation such as the United States. The legislators of a large republic would be unable to remain in touch with the people they represented, and the republic would inevitably degenerate into a tyranny. To many Americans, their union seemed to be simply a league of confederated states, and their Congress a diplomatic assemblage representing thirteen independent polities. The impetus for an effective central government lay in wartime urgency, the need for foreign recognition and aid and the growth of national feeling.
Who Wrote the Articles of Confederation?
Altogether, six drafts of the Articles were prepared before Congress settled on a final version in 1777. Benjamin Franklin wrote the first and presented it to Congress in July 1775. It was never formally considered. Later in the year Silas Deane, a delegate from Connecticut, offered one of his own, which was followed still later by a draft from the Connecticut delegation, probably a revision of Deane’s.
None of these drafts contributed significantly to the fourth version written by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, the text that after much revision provided the basis for the Articles approved by Congress. Dickinson prepared his draft in June 1776; it was revised by a committee of Congress and discussed in late July and August. The result, the third version of Dickinson’s original, was printed to enable Congress to consider it further. In November 1777 the final Articles, much altered by this long deliberative process, were approved for submission to the states.
Ratification of the Articles of Confederation
By 1779 all the states had approved the Articles of Confederation except Maryland, but the prospects for acceptance looked bleak because claims to western lands by other states set Maryland in inflexible opposition. Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Connecticut and Massachusetts claimed by their charters to extend to the “South Sea” or the Mississippi River.
The charters of Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Rhode Island confined those states to a few hundred miles of the Atlantic. Land speculators in Maryland and these other “landless states” insisted that the West belonged to the United States, and they urged Congress to honor their claims to western lands. Maryland also supported the demands because nearby Virginia would clearly dominate its neighbor should its claims be accepted.
Eventually Thomas Jefferson persuaded his state to yield its claims to the West, provided that the speculators’ demands were rejected and the West was divided into new states, which would be admitted into the Union on the basis of equality with the old. Virginia’s action persuaded Maryland to ratify the Articles, which went into effect on March 1, 1781.
Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation
The weakness of the Articles of Confederation was that Congress was not strong enough to enforce laws or raise taxes, making it difficult for the new nation to repay their debts from the Revolutionary War. There was no executive and no judiciary, two of the three branches of government we have today to act as a system of checks and balances. Additionally, there were several issues between states that were not settled with ratification: A disagreement over the appointment of taxes forecast the division over slavery in the Constitutional Convention.
Dickinson’s draft required the states to provide money to Congress in proportion to the number of their inhabitants, black and white, except Indians not paying taxes. With large numbers of slaves, the southern states opposed this requirement, arguing that taxes should be based on the number of white inhabitants. This failed to pass, but eventually the southerners had their way as Congress decided that each state’s contribution should rest on the value of its lands and improvements. In the middle of the war, Congress had little time and less desire to take action on such matters as the slave trade and fugitive slaves, both issues receiving much attention in the Constitutional Convention.
Article III described the confederation as “a firm league of friendship” of states “for their common defense, the security of their liberties and their mutual and general welfare.” This league would have a unicameral congress as the central institution of government; as in the past, each state had one vote, and delegates were elected by state legislatures. Under the Articles, each state retained its “sovereignty, freedom and independence.” The old weakness of the First and Second Continental Congresses remained: the new Congress could not levy taxes, nor could it regulate commerce. Its revenue would come from the states, each contributing according to the value of privately owned land within its borders.
But Congress would exercise considerable powers: it was given jurisdiction over foreign relations with the authority to make treaties and alliances; it could make war and peace, maintain an army and navy, coin money, establish a postal service and manage Indian affairs; it could establish admiralty courts and it would serve as the last resort on appeal of disputes between the states. Decisions on certain specified matters–making war, entering treaties, regulating coinage, for example–required the assent of nine states in Congress, and all others required a majority.
Although the states remained sovereign and independent, no state was to impose restrictions on the trade or the movement of citizens of another state not imposed on its own. The Articles also required each state to extend “full faith and credit” to the judicial proceedings of the others. And the free inhabitants of each state were to enjoy the “privileges and immunities of free citizens” of the others. Movement across state lines was not to be restricted.
To amend the Articles, the legislatures of all thirteen states would have to agree. This provision, like many in the Articles, indicated that powerful provincial loyalties and suspicions of central authority persisted. In the 1780s–the so-called Critical Period–state actions powerfully affected politics and economic life.
For the most part, business prospered and the economy grew. Expansion into the West proceeded and population increased. National problems persisted, however, as American merchants were barred from the British West Indies and the British army continued to hold posts in the Old Northwest, which was named American territory under the Treaty of Paris.
These circumstances contributed to a sense that constitutional revision was imperative. Still, national feeling grew slowly in the 1780s, although major efforts to amend the Articles in order to give Congress the power to tax failed in 1781 and 1786. The year after the failure of 1786, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia and effectively closed the history of government under the Articles of Confederation.
The Articles of Confederation Text
To all to whom these Presents shall come, we the undersigned Delegates of the States affixed to our Names send greeting.
Whereas the Delegates of the United States of America in Congress assembled did on the fifteenth day of November in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy seven, and in the Second Year of the Independence of America, agree to certain articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, in the words following, viz:
Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
The Stile of this confederacy shall be "The United States of America."
Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.
The said states hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defence, the security of their Liberties and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretence whatever.
The better to secure and perpetuate mutual friendship and intercourse among the people of the different states in this union, the free inhabitants of each of these states, paupers, vagabonds and fugitives from justice excepted, shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of free citizens in the several states; and the people of each state shall have free ingress and regress to and from any other state, and shall enjoy therein all the privileges of trade and commerce, subject to the same duties impositions and restrictions as the inhabitants thereof respectively, provided that such restriction shall not extend so far as to prevent the removal of property imported into any state, to any other state, of which the Owner is an inhabitant; provided also that no imposition, duties or restriction shall be laid by any state, on the property of the united states, or either of them. If any Person guilty of, or charged with treason, felony, — or other high misdemeanor in any state, shall flee from Justice, and be found in any of the united states, he shall, upon demand of the Governor or executive power, of the state from which he fled, be delivered up and removed to the state having jurisdiction of his offense. Full faith and credit shall be given in each of these states to the records, acts and judicial proceedings of the courts and magistrates of every other state.
For the more convenient management of the general interests of the united states, delegates shall be annually appointed in such manner as the legislature of each state shall direct, to meet in Congress on the first Monday in November, in every year, with a power reserved to each state, to recal its delegates, or any of them, at any time within the year, and to send others in their stead, for the remainder of the Year.
No state shall be represented in Congress by less than two, nor by more than seven Members; and no person shall be capable of being a delegate for more than three years in any term of six years; nor shall any person, being a delegate, be capable of holding any office under the united states, for which he, or another for his benefit receives any salary, fees or emolument of any kind.
Each state shall maintain its own delegates in a meeting of the states, and while they act as members of the committee of the states. In determining questions in the united states in Congress assembled, each state shall have one vote.
Freedom of speech and debate in Congress shall not be impeached or questioned in any Court, or place out of Congress, and the members of congress shall be protected in their persons from arrests and imprisonments, during the time of their going to and from, and attendance on congress, except for treason, felony, or breach of the peace.
No state, without the Consent of the united states in congress assembled, shall send any embassy to, or receive any embassy from, or enter into any conference agreement, alliance or treaty with any King prince or state; nor shall any person holding any office of profit or trust under the united states, or any of them, accept of any present, emolument, office or title of any kind whatever from any king, prince or foreign state; nor shall the united states in congress assembled, or any of them, grant any title of nobility.
No two or more states shall enter into any treaty, confederation or alliance whatever between them, without the consent of the united states in congress assembled, specifying accurately the purposes for which the same is to be entered into, and how long it shall continue.
No state shall lay any imposts or duties, which may interfere with any stipulations in treaties, entered into by the united states in congress assembled, with any king, prince or state, in pursuance of any treaties already proposed by congress, to the courts of France and Spain.
No vessels of war shall be kept up in time of peace by any state, except such number only, as shall be deemed necessary by the united states in congress assembled, for the defence of such state, or its trade; nor shall any body of forces be kept up by any state, in time of peace, except such number only, as in the judgment of the united states, in congress assembled, shall be deemed requisite to garrison the forts necessary for the defence of such state; but every state shall always keep up a well regulated and disciplined militia, sufficiently armed and accoutered, and shall provide and constantly have ready for use, in public stores, a due number of field pieces and tents, and a proper quantity of arms, ammunition and camp equipage. No state shall engage in any war without the consent of the united states in congress assembled, unless such state be actually invaded by enemies, or shall have received certain advice of a resolution being formed by some nation of Indians to invade such state, and the danger is so imminent as not to admit of a delay till the united states in congress assembled can be consulted: nor shall any state grant commissions to any ships or vessels of war, nor letters of marque or reprisal, except it be after a declaration of war by the united states in congress assembled, and then only against the kingdom or state and the subjects thereof, against which war has been so declared, and under such regulations as shall be established by the united states in congress assembled, unless such state be infested by pirates, in which case vessels of war may be fitted out for that occasion, and kept so long as the danger shall continue, or until the united states in congress assembled, shall determine otherwise.
When land-forces are raised by any state for the common defence, all officers of or under the rank of colonel, shall be appointed by the legislature of each state respectively, by whom such forces shall be raised, or in such manner as such state shall direct, and all vacancies shall be filled up by the State which first made the appointment.
All charges of war, and all other expences that shall be incurred for the common defence or general welfare, and allowed by the united states in congress assembled, shall be defrayed out of a common treasury, which shall be supplied by the several states in proportion to the value of all land within each state, granted to or surveyed for any Person, as such land and the buildings and improvements thereon shall be estimated according to such mode as the united states in congress assembled, shall from time to time direct and appoint.
The taxes for paying that proportion shall be laid and levied by the authority and direction of the legislatures of the several states within the time agreed upon by the united states in congress assembled.
The united states in congress assembled, shall have the sole and exclusive right and power of determining on peace and war, except in the cases mentioned in the sixth article — of sending and receiving ambassadors — entering into treaties and alliances, provided that no treaty of commerce shall be made whereby the legislative power of the respective states shall be restrained from imposing such imposts and duties on foreigners as their own people are subjected to, or from prohibiting the exportation or importation of any species of goods or commodities, whatsoever — of establishing rules for deciding in all cases, what captures on land or water shall be legal, and in what manner prizes taken by land or naval forces in the service of the united states shall be divided or appropriated — of granting letters of marque and reprisal in times of peace — appointing courts for the trial of piracies and felonies committed on the high seas and establishing courts for receiving and determining finally appeals in all cases of captures, provided that no member of congress shall be appointed a judge of any of the said courts.
The united states in congress assembled shall also be the last resort on appeal in all disputes and differences now subsisting or that hereafter may arise between two or more states concerning boundary, jurisdiction or any other cause whatever; which authority shall always be exercised in the manner following. Whenever the legislative or executive authority or lawful agent of any state in controversy with another shall present a petition to congress stating the matter in question and praying for a hearing, notice thereof shall be given by order of congress to the legislative or executive authority of the other state in controversy, and a day assigned for the appearance of the parties by their lawful agents, who shall then be directed to appoint by joint consent, commissioners or judges to constitute a court for hearing and determining the matter in question: but if they cannot agree, congress shall name three persons out of each of the united states, and from the list of such persons each party shall alternately strike out one, the petitioners beginning, until the number shall be reduced to thirteen; and from that number not less than seven, nor more than nine names as congress shall direct, shall in the presence of congress be drawn out by lot, and the persons whose names shall be so drawn or any five of them, shall be commissioners or judges, to hear and finally determine the controversy, so always as a major part of the judges who shall hear the cause shall agree in the determination: and if either party shall neglect to attend at the day appointed, without showing reasons, which congress shall judge sufficient, or being present shall refuse to strike, the congress shall proceed to nominate three persons out of each state, and the secretary of congress shall strike in behalf of such party absent or refusing; and the judgment and sentence of the court to be appointed, in the manner before prescribed, shall be final and conclusive; and if any of the parties shall refuse to submit to the authority of such court, or to appear or defend their claim or cause, the court shall nevertheless proceed to pronounce sentence, or judgment, which shall in like manner be final and decisive, the judgment or sentence and other proceedings being in either case transmitted to congress, and lodged among the acts of congress for the security of the parties concerned: provided that every commissioner, before he sits in judgment, shall take an oath to be administered by one of the judges of the supreme or superior court of the state, where the cause shall be tried, "well and truly to hear and determine the matter in question, according to the best of his judgment, without favour, affection or hope of reward:" provided also, that no state shall be deprived of territory for the benefit of the united states.
All controversies concerning the private right of soil claimed under different grants of two or more states, whose jurisdictions as they may respect such lands, and the states which passed such grants are adjusted, the said grants or either of them being at the same time claimed to have originated antecedent to such settlement of jurisdiction, shall on the petition of either party to the congress of the united states, be finally determined as near as may be in the same manner as is before prescribed for deciding disputes respecting territorial jurisdiction between different states.
The united states in congress assembled shall also have the sole and exclusive right and power of regulating the alloy and value of coin struck by their own authority, or by that of the respective states — fixing the standard of weights and measures throughout the united states — regulating the trade and managing all affairs with the Indians, not members of any of the states, provided that the legislative right of any state within its own limits be not infringed or violated — establishing or regulating post offices from one state to another, throughout all the united states, and exacting such postage on the papers passing thro' the same as may be requisite to defray the expences of the said office — appointing all officers of the land forces, in the service of the united states, excepting regimental officers — appointing all the officers of the naval forces, and commissioning all officers whatever in the service of the united states — making rules for the government and regulation of the said land and naval forces, and directing their operations.
The united states in congress assembled shall have authority to appoint a committee, to sit in the recess of congress, to be denominated "A Committee of the States," and to consist of one delegate from each state; and to appoint such other committees and civil officers as may be necessary for managing the general affairs of the united states under their direction — to appoint one of their number to preside, provided that no person be allowed to serve in the office of president more than one year in any term of three years; to ascertain the necessary sums of money to be raised for the service of the united states, and to appropriate and apply the same for defraying the public expences to borrow money, or emit bills on the credit of the united states, transmitting every half year to the respective states an account of the sums of money so borrowed or emitted, — to build and equip a navy — to agree upon the number of land forces, and to make requisitions from each state for its quota, in proportion to the number of white inhabitants in such state; which requisition shall be binding, and thereupon the legislature of each state shall appoint the regimental officers, raise the men and cloth, arm and equip them in a soldier like manner, at the expence of the united states; and the officers and men so cloathed, armed and quipped shall march to the place appointed, and within the time agreed on by the united states in congress assembled: But if the united states in congress assembled shall, on consideration of circumstances judge proper that any state should not raise men, or should raise a smaller number than its quota, and that any other state should raise a greater number of men than the quota thereof, such extra number shall be raised, officered, cloathed, armed and equipped in the same manner as the quota of such state, unless the legislature of such sta te shall judge that such extra number cannot be safely spared out of the same, in which case they shall raise officer, cloath, arm and equip as many of such extra number as they judge can be safely spared. And the officers and men so cloathed, armed and equipped, shall march to the place appointed, and within the time agreed on by the united states in congress assembled.
The united states in congress assembled shall never engage in a war, nor grant letters of marque and reprisal in time of peace, nor enter into any treaties or alliances, nor coin money, nor regulate the value thereof, nor ascertain the sums and expences necessary for the defence and welfare of the united states, or any of them, nor emit bills, nor borrow money on the credit of the united states, nor appropriate money, nor agree upon the number of vessels of war, to be built or purchased, or the number of land or sea forces to be raised, nor appoint a commander in chief of the army or navy, unless nine states assent to the same: nor shall a question on any other point, except for adjourning from day to day be determined, unless by the votes of a majority of the united states in congress assembled.
The congress of the united states shall have power to adjourn to any time within the year, and to any place within the united states, so that no period of adjournment be for a longer duration than the space of six Months, and shall publish the Journal of their proceedings monthly, except such parts thereof relating to treaties, alliances or military operations, as in their judgment require secrecy; and the yeas and nays of the delegates of each state on any question shall be entered on the Journal, when it is desired by any delegate; and the delegates of a state, or any of them, at his or their request shall be furnished with a transcript of the said Journal, except such parts as are above excepted, to lay before the legislatures of the several states.
The committee of the states, or any nine of them, shall be authorized to execute, in the recess of congress, such of the powers of congress as the united states in congress assembled, by the consent of nine states, shall from time to time think expedient to vest them with; provided that no power be delegated to the said committee, for the exercise of which, by the articles of confederation, the voice of nine states in the congress of the united states assembled is requisite.
Canada acceding to this confederation, and joining in the measures of the united states, shall be admitted into, and entitled to all the advantages of this union: but no other colony shall be admitted into the same, unless such admission be agreed to by nine states.
All bills of credit emitted, monies borrowed and debts contracted by, or under the authority of congress, before the assembling of the united states, in pursuance of the present confederation, shall be deemed and considered as a charge against the united states, for payment and satisfaction whereof the said united states, and the public faith are hereby solemnly pledged.
Every state shall abide by the determinations of the united states in congress assembled, on all questions which by this confederation are submitted to them. And the Articles of this confederation shall be inviolably observed by every state, and the union shall be perpetual; nor shall any alteration at any time hereafter be made in any of them; unless such alteration be agreed to in a congress of the united states, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every state.
And Whereas it hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent in congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said articles of confederation and perpetual union. Know Ye that we the undersigned delegates, by virtue of the power and authority to us given for that pur pose, do by these presents, in the name and in behalf of our respective constituents, fully and entirely ratify and confirm each and every of the said articles of confederation and perpetual union, and all and singular the matters and things therein contained: And we do further solemnly plight and engage the faith of our respective constituents, that they shall abide by the determinations of the united states in congress assembled, on all questions, which by the said confederation are submitted to them. And that the articles thereof shall be inviolably observed by the states we respectively represent, and that the union shall be perpetual.
In Witness whereof we have hereunto set our hands in Congress. Done at Philadelphia in the state of Pennsylvania the ninth day of July in the Year of our Lord one Thousand seven Hundred and Seventy-eight, and in the third year of the independence of America.