On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia made a motion in the Second Continental Congress that the colonies be independent from Great Britain. Committees were appointed to draft a declaration of independence, to open discussion with foreign countries, and to draft a form of confederation. Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, but continued to debate a constitution for the colonies until November 15, 1777, when the Articles of Confederation were approved. The Articles were then sent to the state legislatures for their unanimous ratification, which was not achieved until March 1, 1781.
The Articles created a loose confederation of sovereign states with a very weak central government. Most of the governing power was retained by the governments of individual states. Each state legislature determined how to elect up to seven delegates to represent it in Congress and each state, regardless of size or population, had one vote in the Confederation Congress. The only powers granted to Congress were the ability to declare war and make peace, to negotiate with foreign countries, to supervise affairs with Native Americans, and to appoint United States military and naval officers. Congress could also determine the value of coins and fix the standards of weights and balances and manage the postal service.
The national government was not allowed powers not explicitly granted it, and this weak structure of central government led to numerous problems, which became more evident as time passed. Limited in its abilities and governmental authority, Congress was unable to conduct business without the deliberate support of the states.
The inability of Congress to fund the national debt and enforce the treaty of 1783 eventually led to calls for reforms to the Articles of Confederation, which culminated in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The current United States Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation on March 4, 1789.
1. How many states were united under the Articles of Confederation?
2. Why would a printer in Virginia have printed a copy of the Articles? Think about who would have wanted copies of the Articles and where they would have gotten their copies.
1. Compare the Articles of Confederation to the United States Constitution. What are some of the biggest differences concerning the powers of Congress and states' representation in Congress?
2. What motivated the choices that the drafters of the Articles of Confederation made in creating this new government? What were they attempting to achieve? What did they want to avoid?
3. Compare this document to the Declaration of Independence. How did the ideas in the Declaration inform the creation of the Articles?
Publius 12, no. 4, The Continuing Legacy of the Articles of Confederation (Autumn 1982)
Conley, Patrick T., and John P. Kaminski, eds. The Constitution and the States: The Role of the Original Thirteen in the Framing and Adoption of the Federal Constitution. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1988.