Articles of Confederation

The Foundations of the Constitution: The Articles of Confederation


The Articles of Confederation represent a pivotal era in American history, serving as the young nation’s first constitution during the critical years following the Declaration of Independence in 1776. This treatise aims to delve deeply into the origins, structure, implementation, criticism, transition, and legacy of the Articles of Confederation.The Articles of Confederation were drafted during a time of significant uncertainty and hope. The thirteen original colonies, having recently broken free from the British Empire’s rule, were navigating the treacherous waters of newfound sovereignty and shared governance. This document was a crucial first attempt at creating a framework to govern the disparate states, providing insights into the challenges and aspirations of the founding generation.

The purpose of this treatise is multifold: it seeks to elucidate the historical context within which the Articles were drafted; explore the Articles’ structure and content; analyze its operation and inherent issues; examine the transition from the Articles to the U.S. Constitution, and evaluate the legacy and impact the Articles have had on American governance and constitutionalism.

This comprehensive exploration will foster a deeper understanding of the Articles of Confederation’s role and significance, thereby contributing to the broader knowledge base of American history and political theory. The treatise will be structured in a logical and coherent manner, allowing readers to follow the narrative of the Articles from inception to legacy, while engaging with critical analysis and evaluation at each stage.

Historical Context

Understanding the Articles of Confederation requires a deep dive into the historical milieu that gave rise to this pivotal document. Colonial America, in the 18th century, was a complex tapestry of different cultures, economies, and governmental systems, all operating under the overarching dominion of the British Crown.

The mid-18th century witnessed escalating tensions between the Thirteen Colonies and Britain, primarily over issues of taxation without representation and political self-determination. These conflicts eventually culminated in the Revolutionary War, a watershed event that fundamentally altered the trajectory of American history.

Simultaneously, the intellectual climate of the time was characterized by the Enlightenment, a movement that emphasized reason, individualism, and skepticism towards authority. Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Montesquieu greatly influenced American intellectuals and political leaders. Their ideas on social contract, separation of powers, and individual rights provided the theoretical underpinnings for the political experimentation that would soon unfold in the colonies.

As the Revolutionary War raged, there was a pressing need for a structured government that could handle the administrative and military demands of the conflict while ensuring a united front among the colonies. The Continental Congress, a convention of delegates from the Thirteen Colonies, assumed this role. Recognizing the necessity for a more formalized and structured system of governance, the Congress began drafting the Articles of Confederation in 1776.

The Articles were conceived as a wartime instrument, providing the fledgling nation with legal and administrative scaffolding to navigate through the uncertainties of the Revolutionary War. Given the colonies’ shared distrust of centralized authority, stemming from their experiences under British rule, the Articles deliberately established a confederation of sovereign states held together by a weak central government.

This design reflected the delicate balance the drafters sought to achieve between preserving state autonomy and fostering national unity. The historical context within which the Articles were drafted and implemented profoundly influenced their structure, operation, and eventual reception, laying the groundwork for the political developments that would follow in the coming decades.

Drafting and Ratification Process

The Articles of Confederation were conceived in the crucible of revolutionary fervor and the pressing need for a cohesive governmental structure. The Continental Congress initiated the drafting process in 1776, in the throes of the Revolutionary War.

During these tumultuous times, figures like John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, and Roger Sherman played crucial roles in crafting the language and structure of the Articles. Dickinson, often called the “Penman of the Revolution,” drafted the initial version, which underwent multiple revisions and modifications by other delegates in the Congress.

The process was characterized by vigorous debate and compromise. The drafters grappled with divergent interests and visions regarding the new nation’s governance. A significant point of contention was the balance between state sovereignty and the powers conferred to the central government. The delegates were wary of creating a strong central authority, mindful of their recent experiences with the British monarchy. Thus, the Articles intentionally established a government where the states retained most of their sovereignty, conferring limited powers to the central authority.

The ratification process was equally complex and protracted. The Articles were submitted to the states for ratification in 1777, and the process extended until 1781. The delay was due to various factors, including disputes over western land claims. Some states were reluctant to ratify the Articles without a resolution to these claims, leading to prolonged negotiations and adjustments to the document.

Eventually, with the final ratification by Maryland on March 1, 1781, the Articles of Confederation became the de facto constitution of the new United States of America. This legal framework would guide the nation through the remainder of the Revolutionary War and the initial years of independence, marking a significant chapter in American constitutional history.

Structure of the Articles

The Articles of Confederation comprised a Preamble and thirteen Articles, each elucidating various aspects of the confederation’s structure and function. The Preamble set the tone, declaring the states’ collective independence and their commitment to form a “firm league of friendship” for mutual defense and welfare.

The following thirteen Articles outlined the confederation’s principal components and mechanisms. Article I named the confederation ‘The United States of America’. Article II affirmed the sovereignty of each state, emphasizing their retained freedoms, independence, and power, except for those expressly delegated to the confederation.

Articles III to VI delineated the confederation’s responsibilities and functions, including providing for common defense, resolving disputes among states, and conducting foreign affairs. These Articles also established a framework for admitting new states into the confederation and facilitating cooperation among the states in defense and trade.

Article VII outlined the appointment process for military officers, while Article VIII addressed the financial contributions expected from each state to support the confederation. Articles IX and X conferred specific powers to Congress, including the authority to declare war, manage foreign affairs, and resolve disputes among states.

Article XI invited Canada to join the confederation, should it choose to. Article XII acknowledged the confederation’s debt, pledging repayment. Finally, Article XIII addressed the Articles’ ratification process and amendment procedure.

The structure of the Articles reflected the founders’ cautious approach to central governance, emphasizing state sovereignty and limited federal powers. This structure, while prudent given the prevailing distrust of centralized authority, also harbored inherent weaknesses that would later necessitate the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. The Articles created a government that was, by design, limited in its ability to enforce laws, raise revenue, and maintain order, which led to various challenges in its implementation and operation.

Implementation and Operation

The implementation of the Articles of Confederation provided the fledgling United States with a governmental framework during a pivotal period, encompassing the end of the Revolutionary War and the early years of nation-building.

The Articles’ first years of operation saw notable successes, despite inherent limitations. One significant achievement was the conclusion of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which officially ended the Revolutionary War and recognized American independence. The Confederation Congress effectively negotiated this treaty, navigating complex diplomatic waters to secure favorable terms for the new nation.

Moreover, the period under the Articles witnessed the implementation of the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. These legislations structured the orderly sale and development of Western lands, establishing a systematic approach to territorial expansion and state admission. They also set important precedents, including the prohibition of slavery in the Northwest Territory and provisions for public education.

However, the Articles’ operational years were also marked by significant challenges. The central government struggled with financial instability due to its inability to levy taxes directly. Without a reliable revenue source, the Confederation accrued substantial debts, which it struggled to service, thereby leading to domestic and international credibility issues.

The Confederation also grappled with internal conflicts among states and was unable to effectively address Shays’ Rebellion in 1786–87, exposing its military and enforcement limitations. The lack of a robust executive branch and judiciary further hampered the central government’s capacity to implement policies and resolve disputes, creating an environment of legal and administrative uncertainty.

These challenges eventually prompted calls for revising or replacing the Articles, leading to discussions and conventions that ultimately resulted in the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and 1788, respectively.

Criticism and Issues

The Articles of Confederation, while revolutionary, were not without their critics. One of the most glaring issues was economic weakness. With no power to tax, the Confederation government could not amass the revenue necessary to fund its operations or pay off wartime debts. This inability placed a significant financial strain on the fledgling nation, creating instability and uncertainty both domestically and abroad.

The military constraints under the Articles were also palpable. Without a standing army, the nation was vulnerable to external threats and internal insurrections. The Confederation’s impotence during Shays’ Rebellion underscored this vulnerability, highlighting the need for a more robust federal military establishment to maintain order and security.

The delicate balance of state sovereignty and collective unity was another critical area of tension and criticism. While the Articles sought to preserve state autonomy, the resultant weak central authority struggled to execute essential functions, including regulating commerce, conducting foreign policy, and ensuring consistent legal standards across states.

The lack of executive power further exacerbated these issues. Without a strong executive branch, the Confederation lacked decisive leadership and administrative efficiency. This absence hindered the government’s ability to enforce laws and coordinate effectively among states, leading to a fragmented and inconsistent policy landscape.

These and other criticisms were not merely academic or theoretical; they had tangible impacts on the lives of early Americans and the trajectory of the young nation. The Articles’ limitations influenced debates and discussions among the founding generation, eventually culminating in the decision to convene the Constitutional Convention in 1787, setting the stage for the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.

Transition to the Constitution

The Articles of Confederation laid the foundational structure for American governance, but the limitations became apparent with time. The push for change started gaining momentum, leading to a series of discussions and conventions that would eventually culminate in a new constitution.

The Annapolis Convention in 1786 marked a significant step in this direction. Although initially called to discuss trade and navigation issues, the delegates quickly realized that broader constitutional reform was necessary. The convention ended with a call for a grand convention to amend the Articles.

In 1787, the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia with the ostensible aim of amending the Articles of Confederation. However, it soon became evident that a new constitution was needed to address the myriad issues facing the confederation. Key figures in this transition included James Madison, often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution”, and Alexander Hamilton, a staunch advocate for a strong central government.

The delegates deliberated on various proposals, ultimately crafting a document that established a federal government with three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. This new structure provided checks and balances, ensuring no single branch could dominate the others.

The Federalist Papers, written primarily by Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay, played a pivotal role in the ratification debates. These essays defended the proposed constitution and explained its structure and purposes, providing invaluable insights into the framers’ intentions and the document’s fundamental principles.

The ratification process was arduous, with intense debates in each state. Critics, known as Anti-Federalists, were concerned about the strong central government and the lack of a bill of rights. Eventually, compromise was reached, leading to the Constitution’s ratification in 1788 and the promise of a forthcoming Bill of Rights, which was adopted in 1791.

Legacy and Long-term Impact

Though short-lived, the Articles of Confederation left an indelible mark on American governance and constitutionalism. Their legacy is evident in the nation’s political DNA, shaping discussions around federalism, state rights, and governance structures.

The Articles offered invaluable lessons to the founding generation, serving as a practical guide for what worked and what required improvement in the realm of governance. Their emphasis on state sovereignty and fear of centralized power informed the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, contributing to the unique federal system adopted by the United States.

The Constitution, while addressing the weaknesses of the Articles, incorporated their foundational principles of confederation and limited government. The balance between state and federal powers remains a pivotal aspect of American governance, engendering continuous debate and legal interpretation to this day.

The Northwest Ordinance, enacted under the Articles, had a lasting impact on the nation’s territorial expansion and state admission processes. Its provisions, including those related to public education and slavery prohibition in the Northwest Territory, reflected progressive values that would become integral to American identity and policy.

Additionally, the Articles’ legacy is manifest in the ongoing discourse around states’ rights, local governance, and resistance to federal overreach. The principles embedded in the Articles continue to resonate in contemporary political debates, reflecting the enduring relevance and impact of this foundational document.

In understanding the Articles of Confederation, one gains insight into the challenges, compromises, and visions that shaped the United States. While they were ultimately replaced, the Articles provided the scaffolding upon which the nation was built, offering crucial lessons and guiding principles that continue to influence American constitutionalism and governance.


The Articles of Confederation constitute a seminal chapter in American history, embodying the hopes, challenges, and lessons of a nascent nation navigating the path of independence and self-governance. Through a detailed exploration of its inception, structure, implementation, criticisms, and eventual transition to the Constitution, this treatise has sought to elucidate the Articles’ multifaceted legacy and enduring impact.

The Articles were both a product and a reflection of their time, encapsulating the revolutionary spirit and the pragmatic compromises that defined the American founding. While they had notable shortcomings, the Articles provided a necessary framework for governance during a critical period, facilitating diplomatic successes, territorial organization, and the cultivation of a collective identity among the thirteen sovereign states.

Furthermore, the lessons gleaned from the Articles’ limitations and challenges were instrumental in shaping the U.S. Constitution. The balance between state and federal powers, the emphasis on limited government, and the commitment to democratic principles can all trace their roots back to the deliberations and experiences under the Articles of Confederation.

Understanding the Articles is imperative for anyone seeking to comprehend the complexities and nuances of American constitutional history. They represent not merely a historical artifact but a testament to the nation’s journey, struggles, and continuous evolution towards a more perfect union. The Articles of Confederation, with their strengths and weaknesses, are an integral part of the tapestry of American history, offering enduring insights and perspectives for scholars, students, and citizens alike.


Primary and secondary sources have provided invaluable insights and perspectives for this treatise. Essential references include:

  • The Articles of Confederation. (1777). Original document.
  • Madison, J., Hamilton, A., & Jay, J. (1788). The Federalist Papers.
  • Jensen, M. (1940). The New Nation: A History of the United States during the Confederation, 1781-1789.
  • Main, J. T. (1974). The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781-1788.
  • Morris, R. (1961). The Forging of the Union, 1781-1789.

For a comprehensive understanding, readers are encouraged to explore these works and other scholarly articles, books, and primary source collections related to the Articles of Confederation and early American history.

Is weak government best for the preservation of democracy?

“The government which governs least, governs best.”

–Thomas Jefferson

In declaring themselves free from the tyrannical rule of England the colonists set out to create a new nation free of the rule of a strong central government. As most colonists identified themselves as citizens of their state or colony and not the colonies or nation as a whole, states rights became an important feature in the new government. The Articles of Confederation brought the colonies together as a loose confederation with states rights being considerably more important than the power of the federal government. This confederation of failed due to structural reasons.

Articles of Confederation, was the basic law of the country from its adoption in 1781 until 1789, when it was superseded by the U.S. Constitution.

Under the articles, the nation was a confederacy, league of independent states, each with a single vote. The unicameral legislature had little power and all states were equal, thus giving the larger states a proportional disadvantage based upon their size.

The Congress, or central government, made up of delegates chosen by the states, was given the power to conduct foreign affairs, make treaties, declare war, maintain an army and a navy, coin money, and establish post offices.

The new nation did have a few successes among them:

  • The negotiation of the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War.
  • Guiding the young nation through the critical period at its birth.
  • The passage of the Northwest Ordinance, which provided for orderly admission of states to the Union.

Measures passed by Congress, however, required the approval of 9 of the 13 states. The Congress was severely limited in its powers.

  • It could not raise money by collecting taxes;
  • it had no control over foreign commerce;
  • it could pass laws but could not force the states to comply with them. Thus, the government was dependent on the willingness of the various states to carry out its measures, and often the states refused to cooperate.
  • In addition, the articles were virtually impossible to amend, so problems could not be corrected.

These defects provided an insurmountable barrier to effective constitutional government. Several failures illustrated the new governments weakness. These failures included:

  • The inability to pay off the debt from the war collectively thus appearing less like a nation in they eyes of the world. It also hurt our ability to borrow money.
  • Discord among states who began taxing each other. This led to an overall slump in the national economy and, eventually, a depression.
  • The government was powerless to put down Shay’s Rebellion, a farmers revolt.

The nation’s leaders realized that a stronger central administration was needed if the United States was to survive. In 1787 the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia to draw up a constitution, which was adopted in 1789.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation served primarily as the United States’ first constitution, providing a framework for governance during and immediately after the American Revolutionary War. The document sought to establish a “firm league of friendship” among the thirteen sovereign states. Its main purposes included:

  • Fostering Cooperation: The Articles aimed to facilitate cooperation and alliance among the independent states for mutual defense and shared welfare.

  • Conducting Foreign Affairs: With a unified front, the Confederation could engage in diplomacy, form alliances, and negotiate treaties with foreign powers.

  • Providing a Legal Framework: The Articles offered a basis for a federal government, albeit with limited powers, to legislate on specific issues that affected all states.

  • Resolving Disputes: The document provided mechanisms to resolve disputes and disagreements between states, maintaining harmony and order within the Confederation.

  • Coordinating Collective Action: It enabled the states to act collectively during wartime, including raising an army and navy, and addressing issues that individual states could not handle alone.

The Articles of Confederation had several weaknesses that hindered effective governance:

  • Lack of Central Authority: The federal government had limited powers, with no executive branch to enforce laws or a judiciary to interpret them.

  • Financial Issues: Without the ability to tax, the government struggled to raise revenue, leading to significant debt and financial instability.

  • Military Constraints: The Articles did not provide for a standing army, making the nation vulnerable to external threats and internal insurrections.

  • No Regulation of Commerce: The federal government couldn’t regulate trade between states or with foreign nations, leading to economic disparities and conflicts among states.

  • Difficult Amendment Process: Any amendments required unanimous consent from all thirteen states, making it nearly impossible to reform or adapt the Articles as needed.

The Articles of Confederation were replaced due to their inherent weaknesses and the need for a stronger federal government. The inability to raise revenue, enforce laws, and coordinate effectively among the states led to internal and external challenges. The critical turning point was Shays’ Rebellion in 1786-87, which the weak federal government could not effectively address. This event, among others, highlighted the need for a more robust framework, leading to discussions and conventions that eventually resulted in the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and 1788, respectively.

The Articles of Confederation significantly influenced the U.S. Constitution by serving as a learning experience for the nation’s founders. The weaknesses and challenges encountered under the Articles informed the drafting of the Constitution in several ways:

  • Federalism: The Constitution adopted a federal system, balancing power between the states and the federal government, learning from the excessive state sovereignty under the Articles.

  • Strong Central Authority: The Constitution established a stronger central government with executive, legislative, and judicial branches to address the Articles’ lack of effective central authority.

  • Taxation and Revenue: Learning from the financial struggles under the Articles, the Constitution gave the federal government the power to tax and raise revenue.

  • Commerce Clause: To avoid economic conflicts among states, the Constitution empowered Congress to regulate interstate and international trade.

  • Amendment Process: The Constitution provided a more flexible amendment process, allowing for adaptability and reforms without requiring unanimous consent from all states.

The Articles of Confederation played a crucial role during the American Revolutionary War by serving as the official government document, guiding the colonies through this turbulent period. It facilitated a coordinated response against the British Crown, helping in organizing military efforts, diplomacy, and finances. The Articles helped establish the Continental Army, allowed Congress to form alliances, and borrow money from foreign nations. However, its weaknesses, like the inability to levy taxes, led to financial difficulties in funding the war, necessitating the reliance on state contributions and loans.

The Articles of Confederation addressed western territories through pivotal legislation like the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The Land Ordinance established a systematic approach to developing and selling land in the West, creating townships and setting aside land for public education. The Northwest Ordinance outlined the process for admitting new states into the Union and set the precedent for the prohibition of slavery in new territories, promoting civil liberties and public education in these regions.

Under the Articles of Confederation, disputes between states were resolved by Congress, which acted as a sort of mediator or arbitrator. States could bring their disputes to Congress, which had the authority to hear and amend the issues. However, due to the weak nature of the central government, the enforcement of these resolutions was often inconsistent. The lack of a federal judiciary also meant there was no system for legal adjudication at the national level, leading to difficulties in dispute resolution.

Despite its weaknesses, the government under the Articles of Confederation had several achievements. First, it successfully led the colonies through the Revolutionary War and facilitated the Treaty of Paris in 1783, recognizing American independence. Second, it passed significant legislations like the Land Ordinance of 1785 and Northwest Ordinance of 1787, setting principles for western settlement and state admission. Lastly, the Articles provided a foundational experience of self-governance, teaching valuable lessons that informed the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.