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Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation was the first governing document of the United States of America. The second Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union on November 15, 1777. Submitted to the states for ratification two days later, the Articles of Confederation were accompanied by a letter from Congress urging that the document

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 . . . [2]

Although Congress debated the Articles for over a year, they requested immediate action on the part of the states. On February 5, 1778 South Carolina became the first state to ratify the Articles of Confederation. However, three-and-a-half years passed before ratification on March 1, 1781. Later that year, John Hanson was elected as President of Congress, a legislative position, not an executive one. After Hanson had completed his term in office, some began to refer to its holders as Presidents of the United States in Congress assembled. Despite the way this name is phrased, this position cannot be construed as being a head of state, and is not related to the Presidency established by the Constitution.

Still at war with the Kingdom of Great Britain, the colonists were reluctant to establish another powerful national government. Jealously guarding their new independence, the Continental Congress created a loosely structured unicameral legislature that protected the liberty of the individual states at the expense of the nation. While calling on Congress to regulate military and monetary affairs, for example, the Articles of Confederation provided no mechanism to ensure states complied 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 Treaty of Paris (1783), ending hostilities with the United Kingdom, 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. [3]

In May 1786, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina proposed that Congress revise the Articles of Confederation. Recommended changes included granting Congress power over foreign and domestic commerce, and providing means for Congress to collect money from state treasuries. Unanimous approval was necessary to make the alterations, however, and Congress failed to reach a consensus.

Finally, Alexander Hamilton invited state representatives to convene in Philadelphia to discuss improvements to the federal government. After debate, Congress endorsed the plan to revise the Articles of Confederation on February 21, 1787.

Although ultimately supplanted by the United States Constitution, the Articles of Confederation provided stability during the American Revolutionary War years. Most importantly, the experience of drafting and living under this initial document provided valuable lessons in self-governance and somewhat tempered fears about a powerful central government. Still, reconciling the tension between state and federal authority continued to challenge Americans from the 1832 Nullification crisis to the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 US 483 1954 decision.

Table of contents


New Hampshire

Massachusetts Bay

Rhode Island and Providence Plantations[?]


New York

New Jersey





North Carolina

South Carolina



  1. Library of Congress: "Today in History: November 15" (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/nov15) - the November 29 revision of this article was pretty much copied from here.
  2. Monday, November 17, 1777 (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc00941))), Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. A Century of Lawmaking, 1774-1873 (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lawhome)
  3. Letter George Washington to George Clinton (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mgw:@field(DOCID+@lit(gw270170))), September 11, 1783. The George Washington Papers, 1741-1799 (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/gwhome)
  4. http://earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/milestones/articles/cover

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