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The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (commonly referred to as the Articles of Confederation) was the first governing constitution of the United States of America. The Articles' ratification (proposed in 1777) was completed in 1781, and legally united what were originally several sovereign and independent states, allied under the Articles of Association into a new sovereign federation styled the "United States of America". Under the Articles (and the succeeding Constitution) the states retained sovereignty over all governmental functions not specifically relinquished to the central government. Though called a "confederation," the terminology of the day makes this synonymous with what today is understood as a federal government, a usage similar to that of the Canadian and Swiss confederacies.

The last draft of the Articles was written in the summer of 1777 and adopted by the Second Continental Congress on November 15, 1777 in York, Pennsylvania after a year of debate. In practice the final draft of the Articles served as the system of government used by the Congress ("the United States in Congress assembled") until it became de jure by final ratification on March 1, 1781; at which point Congress became the Congress of the Confederation. The Articles set the rules for operations of the "United States" confederation. The confederation was capable of making war, negotiating diplomatic agreements, and resolving issues regarding the western territories. An important element of the Articles was that Article XIII stipulated that "their provisions shall be inviolably observed by every state" and "the Union shall be perpetual".

The Articles were created by the chosen representatives of the states in the Second Continental Congress out of a perceived need to have "a plan of confederacy for securing the freedom, sovereignty, and independence of the United States." Although serving a crucial role in the victory in the American Revolutionary War, a group of reformers, known as "federalists", felt that the Articles lacked the necessary provisions for a sufficiently effective government. Fundamentally, a federation was sought to replace the confederation. The key criticism by those who favored a more powerful central state (i.e. the federalists) was that the government (i.e. the Congress of the Confederation) lacked taxing authority; it had to request funds from the states. Also various federalist factions wanted a government that could impose uniform tariffs, give land grants, and assume responsibility for unpaid state war debts ("assumption".) Another criticism of the Articles was that they did not strike the right balance between large and small states in the legislative decision making process. Due to its one-state, one-vote plank, the larger states were expected to contribute more but had only one vote. The Articles were replaced by the United States Constitution.


Background Edit

The political push for the colonies to increase cooperation began in the French and Indian Wars in the mid 1750s. The opening of the American Revolutionary War in 1775 induced the various states to cooperate in seceding from the British Empire. The Second Continental Congress starting 1775 acted as the confederation organ that ran the war. Congress presented the Articles for enactment by the states in 1777, while prosecuting the American Revolutionary war against the Kingdom of Great Britain.


Ratification Edit

Congress began to move for ratification of the Articles in 1777:

"Permit us, then, earnestly to recommend these articles to the immediate and dispassionate attention of the legislatures of the respective states. Let them be candidly reviewed under a sense of the difficulty of combining in one general system the various sentiments and interests of a continent divided into so many sovereign and independent communities, under a conviction of the absolute necessity of uniting all our councils and all our strength, to maintain and defend our common liberties...


The document could not become officially effective until it was ratified by all of the thirteen colonies. The first state to ratify was Virginia on December 16, 1777. The process dragged on for several years, stalled by the refusal of some states to rescind their claims to land in the West. Maryland was the last holdout; it refused to go along until Virginia and New York agreed to cede their claims in the Ohio River valley. A little over three years passed before Maryland's ratification on March 1, 1781.


Article summaries Edit

Even though the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were established by many of the same people, the two documents were very different. The original five-paged Articles contained thirteen articles, a conclusion, and a signatory section. The following list contains short summaries of each of the thirteen articles.

  1. Establishes the name of the confederation as "The United States of America."
  2. Asserts the equality of the separate states with the confederation government, i.e. "Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated."
  3. Establishes the United States as a new nation, a sovereign union of sovereign states, united ". . . for their common defense, 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 . . . ," while declaring that the union is "perpetual," and can only be altered by approval of Congress with ratification by all the state legislatures.
  4. Establishes freedom of movement–anyone can pass freely between states, excluding "paupers, vagabonds, and fugitives from justice." All people are entitled to the rights established by the state into which he travels. If a crime is committed in one state and the perpetrator flees to another state, he will be extradited to and tried in the state in which the crime was committed.
  5. Allocates one vote in the Congress of the Confederation (United States in Congress Assembled) to each state, which was entitled to a delegation of between two and seven members. Members of Congress were appointed by state legislatures; individuals could not serve more than three out of any six years.
  6. Only the central government is allowed to conduct foreign relations and to declare war. No states may have navies or standing armies, or engage in war, without permission of Congress (although the state militias are encouraged).
  7. When an army is raised for common defense, colonels and military ranks below colonel will be named by the state legislatures.
  8. Expenditures by the United States will be paid by funds raised by state legislatures, and apportioned to the states based on the real property values of each.
  9. Defines the powers of the central government: to declare war, to set weights and measures (including coins), and for Congress to serve as a final court for disputes between states.
 10. Defines a Committee of the States to be a government when Congress is not in session.
 11. Requires nine states to approve the admission of a new state into the confederacy; pre-approves Canada, if it applies for membership.
 12. Reaffirms that the Confederation accepts war debt incurred by Congress before the Articles.

Still at war with the Kingdom of Great Britain, the Framers were divided between those seeking a powerful, centralized national government, and those seeking a loosely-structured one. Jealously guarding their new independence, members of the Continental Congress arrived at a compromise solution dividing sovereignty between the states and the federal government, with a unicameral legislature that protected the liberty of the individual states. While calling on Congress to regulate military and monetary affairs, for example, the Articles of Confederation provided no mechanism to force the states to comply with requests for troops or revenue. At times, this left the military in a precarious position, as George Washington wrote in a 1781 letter to the governor of Massachusetts, John Hancock.

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