{ subscribe_url: '/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/law.php' }

The Articles of Confederation: The First Constitution of the United States

The following is a guest post by James Martin, a Collections and Outreach Specialist, in observation of Constitution Day on September 17, 2011.

The need for a united policy during the War of Independence led the thirteen states to draft and approve an organic document for a national government.  In 1776, the Continental Congress created a committee to draft such a document.  In 1777, the committee reported a draft that had been prepared by Delegate John Dickinson.  After a period of debate and addition of amendments, the text was approved by the Congress and submitted to the states for ratification.  Unlike the current Constitution, all thirteen states had to approve the Articles before it would be in effect.  A number of years elapsed between the approval of the draft of the Articles of Confederation by the Continental Congress in late 1777 and the ratification by the final state in 1781.

Articles of Confederation

Under the Articles of Confederation, the power of the national government was exclusively centered in the Congress.  The Congress, called the “Congress of the Confederation” under the Articles, was based upon the institutions of the Second Continental Congress and, as such, was a unicameral body where each state had one vote.  The Articles provided for the annual appointment of delegates to the Congress, for the recall of delegates, and for the minimum and maximum number of delegates that would make up each state’s delegation.  In addition, provision was made for term limits for delegates.  Delegates were granted protection from arrest for activities arising from their official duties under a Speech and Debate Clause, a practice which was continued in the current Constitution.  The Congress was to meet annually and provision was made for the creation of a Committee of the States to conduct business when the Congress was not in session.

The Articles provided for no permanent national judiciary, although the Congress was given sole jurisdiction in matters of boundary disputes between states, and as part of the war powers it was given the power to create courts to determine prize cases (cases related to the capture of enemy commercial vessels on the high seas).  No national executive was created; instead, after the ratification of the Articles in 1781, the Congress annually elected an individual who served as the President of the Congress.  The position had no broad executive powers, however.

As with the current Constitution, the Articles envisioned a level of comity between the states.  The Articles provided that “the free inhabitants of each of these states, paupers, vagabonds and fugitives from Justice excepted, shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of free citizens in the several states.”  In addition, citizens were allowed the right to freely move with their property between the states.  Clauses governing extradition and the full faith and credit of public proceedings were also included.

In some ways the powers granted to the Congress under the current Constitution and the Articles are similar.  Both provide that the Congress has the sole authority for declaring war (although the Articles allowed for the States to wage war in instances of immediate invasion when the Congress was not in session).  Both provide that the national government would conduct foreign affairs, although the Articles allowed for states to send and receive embassies with the approval of Congress.  Both allow the Congress to set a system of uniform weights and measurements and to set standards for uniform coinage.  The Confederation Congress could also regulate interstate movement of the mails.

However, while the Articles provided that the Congress would have the power to pay the debts of the national government, it did not provide for a means for that body to directly raise revenue.  Although the Congress had certain authority which could be used to regulate the economy, it lacked enforcement power.  In addition, because of the perceived weakness of the national government, the diplomatic standing of the nation suffered.  The new nation was unable to compel the removal of British forces from the territory north of the Ohio River as required by the Treaty of Paris.   These and other shortcomings resulted in proposals to amend the Articles, which ultimately led to the Constitutional Convention of the summer of 1787.

It is worth noting that the government created by the Articles did have a lasting impact.  The Congress was able to successfully resolve disputes over the division of the western lands that had been surrendered by Great Britain after Independence.  The Land Ordinance of 1785 (laws passed by the Continental and Confederation Congresses are called ordinances) and the resulting North West Ordinance of 1787 are the most long lasting as they provided for the disposition of public lands and procedures for organizing territorial governments in the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains.  The framework established by these Ordinances was to be used later in the history of the country.  In addition, the Congress, in establishing the Federal Court of Appeals to resolve prize cases, provided a precedent for the establishment of the later Federal court system.  Finally, although the Articles have not often been cited in subsequent legal opinions, the idea that the union formed by them was “perpetual,” as set forth in Article XIII, was cited in dicta by Chief Justice Samuel Chase in the opinion of the Supreme Court in Texas v. White, 74 U.S. 700, 725 (1868).

2 Comments

  1. Claire
    December 27, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    what was the necessary amount of states that need to approve new legislation to be passed by the continental congress? For amendments to the articles
    all the states had to approve, but what about for new legislation? In addition to the treaty of Paris and the two land ordinances, was there any other legislation that was passed under the articles of confederation?

  2. Claire
    December 27, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    What was the required amount of states that had to approve new legislation to be passed by the continental congress? All the states needed to approve for amendments to the articles, but what about new legislation? In addition to the treaty of Paris and the two land ordinances did any other legislation get passed?

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.