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What are the Articles of Confederation?

By Kevin Dowd
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Articles of Confederation comprised the first constitution of the first 13 states of the United States. It included a preamble, 13 articles, and a conclusion. In June of 1776, the Second Continental Congress appointed a committee, led by Delaware representative John Dickinson, to determine a structure for the constitution. It was adopted on 15 November 1777, but was not ratified until 1 March 1781.

Essentially, the Articles of Confederation established the nation as the United States of America. It granted each state its own freedoms and power in regards to anything not expressly determined as the federal government’s responsibilities. States were bound in a "firm league of friendship with each other," with respect to issues of war and defense. It allowed for the free movement of people between states, and the promise of one vote per state in Congress. Each state was allowed between two and seven representatives, each of whom was not allowed to serve more than three out of six years.

It became the job of the central government to declare war, conduct foreign relations, determine the value of money, control the expansion of the western territories, and settle disputes between states. The document outlined the rules of naming military ranks in times of war, and established the precedent that money for the federal government should be raised by each individual state. Generally, the Articles of Confederation required that nine states needed to approve the admission of another state to the confederacy. Also, it permitted alterations to the document only if all the states ratified the changes.

This loose confederation of states was weak under the Articles of Confederation. The United States broke away from England and entered into a war with them because the government was too powerful. Therefore, the document established a weak central government and strong state governments. No nation could, however, endure such a configuration of power.

The central government was powerless to force states to supply it with money or troops. It could not even regulate trade efficiently. The states were given too much power and the federal government not enough. Another main defect in the Articles of Confederation was representation — all the states had one vote. While the small states benefited, the large ones suffered.

As a result, the Articles of Confederation were ineffective. A Constitutional Convention was held between May and June of 1787 to revise the document. It continued to be the law of the land until 1789, when the new Constitution of the United States was ratified.

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Discussion Comments
By anon312249 — On Jan 06, 2013

Is there a fun and easy way to memorize this?

By BabaB — On Sep 21, 2011

I personally think that states should have rights about things that involve different circumstances from state to state. For example, business regulations, building regulations and such.

But basic education, health regulations and insurance and social programs like Social Security and Medicare should be under the jurisdiction of the federal government. Everyone deserves equality for these rights. If these programs are run by the different states, there is way too much discrepancy in quality of the programs.

By BoniJ — On Sep 20, 2011

Can anybody give me a list of the pros and cons of the Articles of Confederation? I have an essay coming up in my AP history class, and I could really use some pointers. This article is a good overview, but if anybody could give me a more detailed take on the pros and cons that would be very helpful. Thanks!

By SZapper — On Sep 20, 2011

@Azuza - I think it's interesting that they don't really put much emphasis on the Articles of Confederation in school. I know I don't really remember learning about them!

Also, just because it didn't work back then doesn't mean that giving the states more rights won't work now. You have to admit that the federal government is a bureaucratic mess these days. Maybe if they gave a little bit more power back to individual states it would do some good.

By Azuza — On Sep 19, 2011

I think that conservatives who go on and on about the states having more power and the federal government having less need a history lesson! Obviously it didn't work when our country was founded, why would it work now?

I really don't see how a "Confederation of States" could be effective in the long run. Imagine how difficult it would be if every state had their own unique set of laws and the states only came together to defend the country? I think in the last few hundred years most people have come to think of themselves as Americans first and citizens of their particular state second!

By ElizaBennett — On Sep 19, 2011

@MissDaphne - The word "states" that we use today is a big clue. As the word is used internationally, a "state" is actually an independent sovereign nation! The colonies had each been founded for different reasons, under different circumstances, with different values, and each thought of itself as a separate country. They weren't ready to let go of that idea until they absolutely had to.

Something that a lot of people don't realize about the US Constitution is that a lot of the ideas are British! The British do not have a written constitution, but they do have a bill of rights. The colonists didn't necessarily feel that all monarchy was tyranny, just the particular king they were under at that time. They felt that they were being denied their appropriate rights as Englishmen. Englishmen thought of themselves as a free people, in stark contrast to a more authoritative state like France.

The English had actually had their own bloodless revolution less than a century before, in 1683, in which the nobles in power had essentially fired the king (James II) then interviewed a new king, negotiated a contract with him, and hired him (William, the husband of James's daughter Mary - they reigned together.) Kind of gave the colonists the idea that you could fire your king!

By MissDaphne — On Sep 19, 2011

Something I've never understood about the weakness of the Articles of Confederation is didn't they *know* it was weak? I get that they were concerned about too powerful a central government, but how did they think that they could be one country and not have anything holding them together?

They had just been through a war together. It's strange that they couldn't come together right at the end of the war - you'd think that would be unifying.

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