Articles of Confederation

Articles of Confederation
Articles page1.jpg
Page I of the Articles of Confederation
CreatedNovember 15, 1777
RatifiedMarch 1, 1781
LocationNational Archives
Author(s)Continental Congress
SignatoriesContinental Congress
PurposeFirst constitution for the United States; replaced by the current United States Constitution on March 4, 1789

The Articles of Confederation, formally the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, was an agreement among the 13 original states of the United States of America that served as its first constitution.[1] It was approved, after much debate (between July 1776 and November 1777), by the Second Continental Congress on November 15, 1777, and sent to the states for ratification. The Articles of Confederation came into force on March 1, 1781, after being ratified by all 13 states. A guiding principle of the Articles was to preserve the independence and sovereignty of the states. The weak central government established by the Articles received only those powers which the former colonies had recognized as belonging to king and parliament.[2]

The Articles formed a war-time confederation of states, with an extremely limited central government. While unratified, the document was used by the Congress to conduct business, direct the American Revolutionary War, conduct diplomacy with foreign nations, and deal with territorial issues and Native American relations. The adoption of the Articles made few perceptible changes in the federal government, because it did little more than legalize what the Continental Congress had been doing. That body was renamed the Congress of the Confederation; but Americans continued to call it the Continental Congress, since its organization remained the same.[2]

As the Confederation Congress attempted to govern the continually growing American states, delegates discovered that the limitations placed upon the central government rendered it ineffective at doing so. As the government's weaknesses became apparent, especially after Shays' Rebellion, some prominent political thinkers in the fledgling US began asking for changes to the Articles. Their hope was to create a stronger national government. Initially, some states met to deal with their trade and economic problems. However, as more states became interested in meeting to change the Articles, a meeting was set in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787. This became the Constitutional Convention. It was quickly realized that changes would not work, and instead the entire Articles needed to be replaced.[3] On March 4, 1789, the government under the Articles was replaced with the federal government under the Constitution.[4] The new Constitution provided for a much stronger federal government by establishing a chief executive (the President), courts, and taxing powers.

Background and context

The political push to increase cooperation among the then-loyal colonies began with the Albany Congress in 1754 and Benjamin Franklin's proposed Albany Plan, an inter-colonial collaboration to help solve mutual local problems. Over the next two decades, some of the basic concepts it addressed would strengthen; others would weaken, especially in the degree of loyalty (or lack thereof) owed the Crown. With civil disobedience resulting in coercive and quelling measures, the passage of what the colonials referred to as the intolerable acts in the English Parliament, and armed skirmishes which resulted in dissidents being proclaimed rebels. These actions eroded the number of Crown Loyalists (aka Tories amongst the colonials and together with the highly effective propaganda campaign of the Patriot leaders, they caused an increasing number of colonists to begin agitating for independence from the mother country. In 1775, with events outpacing communications, the Second Continental Congress began acting as the provisional government that would run the American Revolutionary War and gain the colonies their collective independence.

It was an era of constitution writing—most states were busy at the task—and leaders felt the new nation must have a written constitution; a "rulebook" for how the new nation should function. During the war, Congress exercised an unprecedented level of political, diplomatic, military and economic authority. It adopted trade restrictions, established and maintained an army, issued fiat money, created a military code and negotiated with foreign governments.[5]

To transform themselves from outlaws into a legitimate nation, the colonists needed international recognition for their cause and foreign allies to support it. In early 1776, Thomas Paine argued in the closing pages of the first edition of Common Sense that the "custom of nations" demanded a formal declaration of American independence if any European power were to mediate a peace between the Americans and Great Britain. The monarchies of France and Spain in particular could not be expected to aid those they considered rebels against another legitimate monarch. Foreign courts needed to have American grievances laid before them persuasively in a "manifesto" which could also reassure them that the Americans would be reliable trading partners. Without such a declaration, Paine concluded, "[t]he custom of all courts is against us, and will be so, until, by an independence, we take rank with other nations."[6]

Beyond improving their existing association, the records of the Second Continental Congress show that the need for a declaration of independence was intimately linked with the demands of international relations. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution before the Continental Congress declaring the colonies independent; at the same time he also urged Congress to resolve "to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances" and to prepare a plan of confederation for the newly independent states. Congress then created three overlapping committees to draft the Declaration, a Model Treaty, and the Articles of Confederation. The Declaration announced the states' entry into the international system; the model treaty was designed to establish amity and commerce with other states; and the Articles of Confederation, which established "a firm league" among the thirteen free and independent states, constituted an international agreement to set up central institutions for the conduct of vital domestic and foreign affairs.[7]

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