Articles of Confederation
The Articles of Confederation are one of the constitutional influences featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy.
Government Pre-Adoption of Articles of Confederation
From September 5, 1774, to March 1, 1781, the Continental Congress functioned as the provisional government of the United States. Delegates to the First (1774) and then the Second (1775–1781) Continental Congress were chosen largely through the action of committees of correspondence in various colonies rather than through the colonial or later state legislatures.
In no formal sense was it a gathering representative of existing colonial governments; it represented the dissatisfied elements of the people, such persons as were sufficiently interested to act, despite the strenuous opposition of the loyalists and the obstruction or disfavor of colonial governors.
The process of selecting the delegates for the First and Second Continental Congresses underscores the revolutionary role of the people of the colonies in establishing a central governing body. Endowed by the people collectively, the Continental Congress alone possessed those attributes of external sovereignty which entitled it to be called a state in the international sense, while the separate states, exercising a limited or internal sovereignty, may rightly be considered a creation of the Continental Congress, which preceded them and brought them into being.
Articles of Confederation
The Articles of Confederation was an agreement among the 13 original states of the United States of America that served as its first constitution. It was approved, after much debate (between July 1776 and November 1777), by the Second Continental Congress on November 15, 1777, and sent to the states for ratification. The Articles of Confederation came into force on March 1, 1781, after being ratified by all 13 states.
A guiding principle of the Articles was to preserve the independence and sovereignty of the states. The federal government received only those powers which the colonies had recognized as belonging to king and parliament.
The Articles formed a war-time confederation of states, with an extremely limited central government. While unratified, the document was used by the Congress to conduct business, direct the American Revolutionary War, conduct diplomacy with foreign nations, and deal with territorial issues and Native American relations.
The adoption of the Articles made few perceptible changes in the federal government, because it did little more than legalize what the Continental Congress had been doing. That body was renamed the Congress of the Confederation; but Americans continued to call it the Continental Congress, since its organization remained the same.
What was in the Articles of Confederation?
The Articles of Confederation contain a preamble, thirteen articles, a conclusion, and a signatory section. The individual articles set the rules for current and future operations of the confederation’s central government.
Under the Articles, the states retained sovereignty over all governmental functions not specifically relinquished to the national Congress, which was empowered to make war and peace, negotiate diplomatic and commercial agreements with foreign countries, and to resolve disputes between the states. The document also stipulates that its provisions “shall be inviolably observed by every state” and that “the Union shall be perpetual”.
Establishes the name of the confederation with these words:
“The stile of this confederacy shall be ‘The United States of America.’”
Asserts the sovereignty of each state, except for the specific powers delegated to the confederation government:
“Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated.”
Declares the purpose of the confederation:
The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, 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, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.”
Elaborates upon the intent “to secure and perpetuate mutual friendship and intercourse among the people of the different States in this union,” and to establish equal treatment and freedom of movement for the free inhabitants of each state to pass unhindered between the states, excluding “paupers, vagabonds, and fugitives from justice.” All these people are entitled to equal rights established by the state into which they travel. 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 (the “United States in Congress Assembled”) to each state, which is entitled to a delegation of between two and seven members. Members of Congress are to be appointed by state legislatures. No congressman may serve more than three out of any six years.
No state or official may:
- declare war
- conduct foreign political or commercial relations.
- accept foreign gifts or titles, and granting any title of nobility is forbidden to all.
- form any sub-national groups.
- tax or interfere with treaty stipulations already proposed.
- wage war without permission of Congress, unless invaded or under imminent attack on the frontier
- maintain a peacetime standing army or navy, unless infested by pirates, but every State is required to keep ready, a well-trained, disciplined, and equipped militia.
Whenever an army is raised for common defense, the state legislatures shall assign military ranks of colonel and below.
Expenditures by the United States of America will be paid with funds raised by state legislatures, and apportioned to the states in proportion to the real property values of each.
Powers and functions of the United States in Congress Assembled the sole and exclusive right and power to:
- determine peace and war
- exchange ambassadors
- enter into treaties and alliances, with some provisos
- establish rules for deciding all cases of captures or prizes on land or water
- grant letters of marque and reprisal (documents authorizing privateers) in times of peace;
- appoint courts for the trial of pirates and crimes committed on the high seas; to establish courts for appeals in all cases of captures, but no member of Congress may be appointed a judge
- set weights and measures (including coins)
- serve as a final court for disputes between states.
- The court will be composed of jointly appointed commissioners or Congress shall appoint them. Each commissioner is bound by oath to be impartial. The court’s decision is final.
- regulate the post offices
- appoint officers in the military
- regulate the armed forces
The United States in Congress assembled may appoint a president who shall not serve longer than one year per three-year term of the Congress. Congress may request requisitions (demands for payments or supplies) from the states in proportion with their population, or take credit.
Congress may not declare war, enter into treaties and alliances, appropriate money, or appoint a commander in chief without nine states assented. Congress shall keep a journal of proceedings and adjourn for periods not to exceed six months.
When Congress is in recess, any of the powers of Congress may be executed by “The committee of the states, or any nine of them”, except for those powers of Congress which require nine states in Congress to execute.
If “Canada” (as the British-held Province of Quebec was also known) accedes to this confederation, it will be admitted. No other colony could be admitted without the consent of nine states.
Reaffirms that the Confederation accepts war debt incurred by Congress before the existence of the Articles.
Declares that the Articles shall be perpetual, and may be altered only with the approval of Congress and the ratification of all the state legislatures.
Previous Constitutional Influence: Declaration of Independence