Articles of Confederation, in U.S. history, ratified in 1781 and superseded by the Constitution of the United States in 1789. The imperative need for unity among the new states created by the American Revolution and the necessity of defining the relative powers of the Continental Congress and the individual states led Congress to entrust the drafting of a federal constitution to a committee headed by John Dickinson. In the Articles of Confederation submitted by the committee to the Second Continental Congress on July 12, 1776, three points provoked much argument—the apportionment of taxes according to population, the granting of one vote to each state, and the right of the federal government to dispose of public lands in the West. After several revisions were made, however, this constitution, comprising a preamble and 13 articles, was adopted by Congress on Nov. 15, 1777. In their final form, the Articles retained the vote by states, but based the apportionment of taxes on the value of buildings and land, and specified that no state should be deprived of territory for the benefit of the United States.
The preamble and Article 1 established a perpetual union of the Thirteen Colonies under the style of the United States of America. Article 2 asserted that each state retained its sovereignty and every right not expressly delegated to the central government, while Article 3 characterized the confederation as a
"league of friendship,"
for common defense. In Article 4, the free inhabitants of each state were granted the privileges of free citizens in all the states, extradition was provided for, and it was stipulated that full faith and credit be given the records, acts, and judicial proceedings of the courts of one state by the courts of every other state.
Article 5 provided that each state send annually not less than two nor more than seven delegates to Congress, though each state was to have only one vote. Article 6 left the conduct of war to Congress, and Article 7 empowered the state legislatures to appoint military officers up to and including the rank of colonel. Article 8 provided that the charges of war and other expenses incurred for the common defense should be defrayed out of a common treasury.
Besides placing the conduct of foreign affairs in the hands of Congress, Article 9 authorized a system of settling disputes between states, granted Congress partial control over the currency, sanctioned the establishment of post offices by Congress, and established the Committee of the States, with one delegate from each state, to sit in recess of Congress. The authority of the central government was drastically restricted by this article, which forbade Congress to engage in war, negotiate treaties or alliances, coin money, emit bills of credit, or borrow and appropriate money without obtaining the consent of a majority of the states.
Provisions for the functioning of the Committee of the States and for the possible admission of Canada were made in Articles 10 and 11. Article 12 stated that pecuniary obligations of Congress were to be deemed a charge against the United States. Article 13 stipulated that the Articles of Confederation were to be unanimously ratified by the states before going into effect and that no alteration could be made unless agreed to both by Congress and by the legislature of every state.
By 1779 all the states had ratified the Articles except Maryland, which refused its assent until states claiming territory NW of the Ohio River relinquished their claims, thus guaranteeing the equitable right of all states to the Western lands. When New York, followed by Virginia and Connecticut, offered to cede to Congress its claims to Western territory, Maryland ratified (Mar. 1, 1781) the articles.
While this constitution was a contribution to the techniques of government and a step toward national unity, most American historians hold that the Articles of Confederation proved wholly unsatisfactory because of the subordinate position occupied by the central government. Congress, dependent upon the states for its funds and for the execution of its decrees, became a legislative-executive body attempting to reconcile the policies of the various states. It could not extend its jurisdiction to individuals, command respect abroad by stabilizing credit, unify foreign and domestic policies, pass navigation regulations, or enforce treaty obligations.
Because of its inherent weaknesses, the government commanded little respect, and its prestige was further diminished by its inability to cope with internal uprisings such as Shays's Rebellion. Many capable statesmen who held key posts—e.g., Robert Morris, John Jay, and Benjamin Lincoln—were thwarted by this organization of government, while others, equally able, shunned service in Congress in favor of state politics. The unanimity rule enabled one state to prevent the passage of a measure desired by all the others. Thus, New York alone blocked the establishment of a vitally important tariff.
When it became apparent that government under the Articles of Confederation was, in the words of George Washington,
"little more than the shadow without the substance,"
agitation for a stronger federal government began. This agitation resulted in the Annapolis Convention of 1786 and the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787, which drafted the Constitution of the United States. Perhaps the most significant event of the Confederation period was the adoption of the Ordinance of 1787 concerning the Northwest Territory.
See A. Nevins, The American States during and after the Revolution, 1775–1789 (1924, repr. 1971). A more favorable view of the Articles of Confederation is given in the scholarly studies of M. Jensen, The Articles of Confederation (1940, repr. 1963) and The New Nation (1950, repr. 1962). See also study by S. A. Pleasants 3d (1968).