Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation formed the basis of American federal government from June 12, 1776, to September 13, 1788, when the Congress of the Confederation resolved that the United States Constitution was ratified. Formally, a committee of thirteen delegates in the Second Continental Congress, representing all the states, drafted the Articles. John Dickinson ( 1732–1808 ) chaired the committee and kept the Congress informed of their work on the document, with Congress debating the specific provisions and proposals. Ratification of the Articles of Confederation required the agreement of all thirteen states; the first state to ratify was Virginia, on December 16, 1777, and the last was Maryland, on March 1, 1781. Despite the nearly five years between the initial draft presented to the Continental Congress in 1776 and ratification by Maryland in 1781, the document served as the de facto governing document without objection ( Jillson and Wilson 1994 ).

The major institutional instrument of the Articles of Confederation was a unicameral legislative body, the Congress of the Confederation, where all states were represented equally with a single vote for each. States sent from two to seven delegates to exercise their vote in the Congress. Appointments to Congress were made by state legislatures, and individual delegates could serve for no more than three years in a six-year period. In the event that a majority of delegates within a state delegation could not form a majority on a particular issue or bill, the state abstained on legislation. The presiding officer was regarded as the “president” of Congress but possessed no significant executive powers. The Articles also allowed for the Congress to exercise judicial functions; however, Congress rarely if ever acted as a judicial body.

The first page of the Articles of Confederation (1781), which was the first constitution of the United States. The Articles established a fairly weak federal government, leaving most essential powers in the states. After efforts to strengthen the Articles failed, nationalists drafted and ratified the Constitution of the United States.

The first page of the Articles of Confederation (1781), which was the first constitution of the United States. The Articles established a fairly weak federal government, leaving most essential powers in the states. After efforts to strengthen the Articles failed, nationalists drafted and ratified the Constitution of the United States.

The major institutional constraints of the Articles severely hampered the effectiveness of the national government. Historically, three major provisions are traditionally viewed as making day-to-day governing significantly difficult ( Jillson and Wilson 1994 ). First, most legislation required a supermajority (nine of thirteen states) in order to pass. Second, in order to amend the Articles, unanimous consent of all the states was necessary. Finally, the document had no enforcement provisions, meaning that the Congress was dependent on good will to enforce its laws and obtain military requisitions. The result was that the Congress and what constituted national government was weak and ineffective and ultimately conferred most significant powers on the states. On top of the general structural weakness, the unanimous consent requirement made the document nearly impossible to amend ( Dougherty 2001

For the most part, effective government was a rarity under the Articles of Confederation. Although the country was victorious in the Revolutionary War, the document and weak federal government frequently hindered the war effort. Essentially, because of noncompliance and the inability to form cohesive governing coalitions the Continental Army operated as thirteen separate armies rather than as a unified force ( Puls 2008 ). States frequently failed to fulfill requisitions and obligations when their contributions did not directly benefit them. Soldiers and generals were forced to acquire their own supplies and frequently made requests directly to the state governments ( Dougherty and Moeller 2012 ).

After the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, the Articles effectively broke down. What little cohesion had existed during the war came to an end. Congress requested millions for debt, infrastructure, and war reimbursements, but the state governments balked and sent nothing. Without purpose or power many states simply stopped sending delegations to the Congress, which consequently failed to achieve a quorum on many occasions. Many delegates, elected or appointed, refused to serve ( Dougherty and Moeller 2012 ). Foreign policy in the young nation, which faced commercial threats from piracy and military threats from abroad, was hampered by the lack of money, support, organization, and leadership. Thus, lacking efficacy, resources, and manpower, the federal government gradually ceased to operate at all.

While the federal government floundered, state governments thrived, at least in terms of powers. Under the Articles, the states operated with enormous amounts of autonomy. As guaranteed by Article II, “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence…. “The product of that autonomy was that states operated with little to no federal oversight and with varying degrees of success. States coined their own money, built their own infrastructure, and regulated as they saw fit. Although a few states with accumulated wealth or profitable enterprises were marginally successful, most states lacked the resources to govern. The best-known example of this failure is Shays's Rebellion, an armed insurrection in western Massachusetts. The state was unable to put down the rebellion, and the federal government was unable to offer support. Ultimately, private resources were secured to put down the rebellion ( Dougherty 2001 ). The failures of both the federal and state governments mobilized political support for change, culminating in the Annapolis Convention in 1786. There, delegates from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia authored a report that detailed the failings of the Articles of Confederation and called for a constitutional convention to be held the following May. As conditions deteriorated throughout the states the findings were largely validated, and support for a new constitutional convention in 1787 intensified.

SEE ALSO Constitution ; Constitutional Convention of 1787 ; Federalism, Theory of ; Federalism in American History ; Ratification of the US Constitution .


Dougherty, Keith L. Collective Action under the Articles of Confederation. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Dougherty, Keith, and Justin Moeller. “Constitutional Change and American Pivotal Politics.” American Politics Research 40, no. 6 (2012): 1092–120.

Geib, George W. “The Land Ordinance of 1785: A Bicentennial Review.” Indiana Magazine of History 81, no. 1 (1985): 1–13.

Jillson, Calvin, and Rick K. Wilson. Congressional Dynamics: Structure, Coordination, and Choice in the First American Congress, 1774–1789. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Puls, Mark. Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Justin A. Moeller
Eastern University