The Articles of Confederation were the original constitution of the United States and were developed and adopted during the conflict with Great Britain. In 1776, the delegates of the thirteen colonies met as a Continental Congress to adopt the Declaration of Independence and plan the Revolutionary War (1776–1783). Led by John Dickinson of Delaware and Pennsylvania, the Congress formed a committee to draft the articles that would guide the new nation.
The document was ratified July 9, 1778, by ten of the original thirteen colonies. New Jersey later ratified the Articles of Confederation on November 26, 1778, and Delaware followed on February 23, 1779. Maryland ratified them two years later on March 1, 1781, after seeking concessions from several large states, including any claims on lands to Maryland’s west. With the Revolutionary War’s resolution in April 1783, numerous interest groups began to call for revision of the Articles.
Article II included the foundational principle of the document: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” The Articles, thus, granted the national government limited powers and made it fiscally dependent on the former colonies, now states, which also controlled the militia.
The Articles constituted the U.S. Congress as a single branch of government, and each state selected congressional delegates, who voted as states, not as individuals. Measures needed nine of thirteen votes to pass Congress, but any fundamental alterations in national policy or changes to the Articles required a unanimous vote. Several attempts to change the Articles prior to the adoption of the new Constitution were prevented by a single state.
The weak central government created under the Articles contributed to significant financial trouble for the new nation because states could not be compelled to pay their debts. Without necessary resources, the government could not address economic and military challenges—from the encroachments of the British on the borders set by the Treaty of Paris (1783) to those of the Spanish on the southern borders of the United States and raids by Native Americans on the western frontier. The United States also possessed only limited power to regulate commerce and resolve tariff wars between the states. Inflation and an economic depression after the Revolutionary War led to new efforts to revise the Articles.
In January 1786,Virginia called for a meeting of the states in Annapolis to discuss modifying the Articles, but only five states attended. In 1787, the Congress convened in Philadelphia to draft amendments. Only Rhode Island did not attend. After determining that the Articles of Confederation were insufficient for guiding the new nation, the Philadelphia convention proposed a new constitution, and a protracted struggle between Federalists and Anti-Federalists erupted. Ratification presented an early constitutional crisis for the new republic, but after extensive debate, the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787.
- Articles of Confederation, n.d., www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/ar/91719.htm. Bloom, Allan, ed. Confronting the Constitution. Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 1990.
- Bradford, Melvin E. Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993.
- Jensen, Merrill. The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970.
- McDonald, Forest. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1985.