The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, customarily referred to as the Articles of Confederation, was the first constitution of the United States of America and legally established the union of the states. The Second Continental Congress appointed a committee to draft the Articles in June 1776 and sent the draft to the states for ratification in November 1777. The ratification process was completed in March 1781, legally federating the sovereign and independent states, already cooperating through the Continental Congress, into a new federation styled the "United States of America". Under the Articles the states retained sovereignty over all governmental functions not specifically relinquished to the central government.
On June 12, 1776, a day after appointing a committee to prepare a draft declaration of independence, the Second Continental Congress resolved to appoint a committee of thirteen to prepare a draft of a constitution for a confederate type of union. The last draft of the Articles was written in the summer of 1777 and the Second Continental Congress approved them for ratification by the States on November 15, 1777, in York, Pennsylvania after a year of debate. In practice the final draft of the Articles served as the de facto system of government used by the Congress ("the United States in Congress assembled") until it became de jure by final ratification on March 1, 1781; at which point Congress became the Congress of the Confederation. The Articles set the rules for operations of the "United States" confederation. The confederation was capable of making war, negotiating diplomatic agreements, and resolving issues regarding the western territories. An important element of the Articles was that Article XIII stipulated that "their provisions shall be inviolably observed by every state" and "the Union shall be perpetual".
The Articles were created by the chosen representatives of the states in the Second Continental Congress out of a perceived need to have "a plan of confederacy for securing the freedom, sovereignty, and independence of the United States." Although serving a crucial role in the victory in the American Revolutionary War, a group of reformers, known as "federalists", felt that the Articles lacked the necessary provisions for a sufficiently effective government. Fundamentally, a federation was sought to replace the confederation. The key criticism by those who favored a more powerful central state (i.e. the federalists) was that the government (i.e. the Congress of the Confederation) lacked taxing authority; it had to request funds from the states. Also various federalist factions wanted a government that could impose uniform tariffs, give land grants, and assume responsibility for unpaid state war debts ("assumption".) Those opposed to the Constitution, known as "anti-federalists," considered these limits on government power to be necessary and good.[dubious ] Another criticism of the Articles was that they did not strike the right balance between large and small states in the legislative decision making process.[dubious ] Due to its one-state, one-vote plank, the larger states were expected to contribute more but had only one vote.
The Articles were replaced by the U.S. Constitution on June 21, 1788.
The political push for the colonies to increase cooperation began in the French and Indian War in the mid 1750s. The American Revolution in response to lack of elected representation in the British government, followed by the beginning of the American Revolutionary War in 1775 and a proclamation by the monarchy that Congress were traitors in rebellion, induced the various states to cooperate in declaring their independence from the British Empire. Starting 1775, the Second Continental Congress acted as the provisional national government that ran the war. Congress presented the Articles for enactment by the states in 1777, while prosecuting the American Revolutionary War.
Congress began to move for ratification of the Articles of Confederation in 1777:
"Permit us, then, earnestly to recommend these articles to the immediate and dispassionate attention of the legislatures of the respective states. Let them be candidly reviewed under a sense of the difficulty of combining in one general system the various sentiments and interests of a continent divided into so many sovereign and independent communities, under a conviction of the absolute necessity of uniting all our councils and all our strength, to maintain and defend our common liberties...
The document could not become officially effective until it was ratified by all thirteen colonies. The first state to ratify was Virginia on December 16, 1777. The process dragged on for several years, stalled by the refusal of some states to rescind their claims to land in the West. Maryland was the last holdout; it refused to go along until Virginia and New York agreed to cede their claims in the Ohio River Valley. A little over three years passed before Maryland's ratification on March 1, 1781.
Even though the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were established by many of the same people, the two documents are very different. The original five-paged Articles contained thirteen articles, a conclusion, and a signatory section. The following list contains short summaries of each of the thirteen articles.
- Establishes the name of the confederation as "The United States of America."
- Asserts the equality of the separate states with the confederation government, i.e. "Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated."
- Establishes the United States as a new nation, a sovereign union of sovereign states, united ". . . for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them . . . ," while declaring that the union is "perpetual," and can only be altered by approval of Congress with ratification by all the state legislatures.
- Establishes freedom of movement–anyone can pass freely between states, excluding "paupers, vagabonds, and fugitives from justice." All people are entitled to the rights established by the state into which he travels. If a crime is committed in one state and the perpetrator flees to another state, he will be extradited to and tried in the state in which the crime was committed.
- Allocates one vote in the Congress of the Confederation (United States in Congress Assembled) to each state, which was entitled to a delegation of between two and seven members. Members of Congress were appointed by state legislatures; individuals could not serve more than three out of any six years.
- Only the central government is allowed to conduct foreign relations and to declare war. No states may have navies or standing armies, or engage in war, without permission of Congress (although the state militias are encouraged).
- When an army is raised for common defense, colonels and military ranks below colonel will be named by the state legislatures.
- Expenditures by the United States will be paid by funds raised by state legislatures, and apportioned to the states based on the real property values of each.
- Defines the powers of the central government: to declare war, to set weights and measures (including coins), and for Congress to serve as a final court for disputes between states.
- Defines a Committee of the States to be a government when Congress is not in session.
- Requires nine states to approve the admission of a new state into the confederacy; pre-approves Canada, if it applies for membership.
- Reaffirms that the Confederation accepts war debt incurred by Congress before the Articles.
- Declares that the Articles are perpetual, and can only be altered by approval of Congress with ratification by all the state legislatures.
Still at war with Great Britain, the Founding Fathers were divided between those seeking a powerful, centralized national government, and those seeking a loosely-structured one. Jealously guarding their new independence, members of the Continental Congress arrived at a compromise solution dividing sovereignty between the states and the federal government, with a unicameral legislature that protected the liberty of the individual states. While calling on Congress to regulate military and monetary affairs, for example, the Articles of Confederation provided no mechanism to force the states to comply with requests for troops or revenue. At times, this left the military in a precarious position, as George Washington wrote in a 1781 letter to the governor of Massachusetts, John Hancock.
The End of the War
The Treaty of Paris (1783), which ended hostilities with Great Britain, languished in Congress for months because state representatives failed to attend sessions of the national legislature. Yet Congress had no power to enforce attendance. Writing to George Clinton in September 1783, George Washington complained:
Congress have come to no determination yet respecting the Peace Establishment nor am I able to say when they will. I have lately had a conference with a Committee on this subject, and have reiterated my former opinions, but it appears to me that there is not a sufficient representation to discuss Great National points.
The Articles supported the Congressional direction of the Continental Army, and allowed the 13 states to present a unified front when dealing with the European powers. As a tool to build a centralized war-making government, they were largely a failure: Historian Bruce Chadwick wrote:
George Washington had been one of the very first proponents of a strong federal government. The army had nearly disbanded on several occasions during the winters of the war because of the weaknesses of the Continental Congress. ... The delegates could not draft soldiers and had to send requests for regular troops and militia to the states. Congress had the right to order the production and purchase of provisions for the soldiers, but could not force anyone to supply them, and the army nearly starved in several winters of war.
The Continental Congress, before the Articles were approved, had promised soldiers a pension of half pay for life. However Congress had no power to compel the states to fund this obligation, and as the war wound down after the victory at Yorktown the sense of urgency to support the military was no longer a factor. No progress was made in Congress during the winter of 1783-1784. General Henry Knox, who would become the first Secretary of War under the Constitution, blamed the weaknesses of the Articles of the inability of the government to fund the military. The army had long been supportive of a strong union. Knox wrote:
The army generally have always reprobated the idea of being thirteen armies. Their ardent desires have been to be one continental body looking up to one sovereign. ... It is a favorite toast in the army, “A hoop to the barrel” or “Cement to the Union.”
As Congress failed to act on the petitions, Knox wrote to Gouverneur Morris, four years before the Philadelphia Convention was convened, “As the present Constitution is so defective, why do not you great men call the people together and tell them so; that is, to have a convention of the States to form a better Constitution.”
Once the war was won, the Continental Army was largely disbanded. A very small national force was maintained to man frontier forts and protect against Native American attacks. Meanwhile, each of the states had an army (or militia), and 11 of them had navies. The wartime promises of bounties and land grants to be paid for service were not being met. In 1783, Washington defused the Newburgh conspiracy, but riots by unpaid Pennsylvania veterans forced the Congress to leave Philadelphia temporarily.
Even after peace was achieved, the weakness of the government frustrated the ability of the government to conduct foreign policy. In 1786 Thomas Jefferson, concerned over the failure to fund a naval expedition against the Barbary pirates, wrote to James Monroe, "It will be said there is no money in the treasury. There never will be money in the treasury till the confederacy shows its teeth. The states must see the rod.”  Also, the Jay-Gardoqui Treaty with Spain in 1786 also showed weakness in foreign policy. In the treaty (which was never ratified due to its immense unpopularity) the US had to give up rights to the Mississippi River for 20 years which would have economically strangled the settlers west of the Appalachian Mountains. Finally, due to the Confederation's military weakness, they could not force the British out of the frontier forts (which the British promised they would leave in 1783). This violation of the Treaty of Paris was amended with Jay's Treaty in 1795 under the new constitution.
Taxation And Commerce
Under the articles, Congress could make decisions, but had no power to enforce them. There was a requirement for unanimous approval before any modifications could be made to the Articles. Because the majority of lawmaking rested with the states, the central government was also kept limited.
Congress was denied the power of taxation: it could only request money from the states. The states did not generally comply with the requests in full, leaving the Confederation Congress and the Continental Army chronically short of funds. As more money was printed, continental dollars depreciated. Washington in 1779 wrote to John Jay, serving as President of the Continental Congress, "that a wagon load of money will scarcely purchase a wagon load of provisions." Jay and the Congress responded in May by requesting $45 million from the states. In an appeal to the states to comply Jay wrote that the taxes were "the price of liberty, the peace and the safety of yourselves and posterity." He argued that Americans should avoid having it said "that America had no sooner become independent than she became insolvent" or that "her infant glories and growing fame were obscured and tarnished by broken contracts and violated faith." The states did not respond with the money requested.
Congress was also denied the power to regulate commerce, and as a result, the states maintained control over their own trade policy as well. The states and the national congress had both incurred debts during the war, and how to pay the debts became a major issue after the war. Some states paid off their debts; however, the centralizers favored federal assumption of states' debts.
Nevertheless, the Congress of the Confederation did take two actions with lasting impact. The Land Ordinance of 1785 established the general land survey and ownership provisions used throughout later American expansion. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 noted the agreement of the original states to give up western land claims and cleared the way for the entry of new states.