The Articles of Confederation; Our First Constitution

articles of confederation

Before the U.S. Constitution was put into effect in 1789, another document outlined how our government was meant to function: the Articles of Confederation.

The Articles of Confederation acted as our government's first constitution. Its primary objectives were to establish the independence and sovereignty of the states, while also establishing a central government that only received powers considered to belong to a king or parliament.

However, the Articles of Confederation was only implemented for about nine years before it was replaced by the Constitution that frames our government today. So how effective was this document, why was it replaced, and how does it impact us today? We invite you to continue reading to learn more!

A New Government for a New Nation

The battles of Lexington and Concord heralded the beginning of the American Revolutionary War in 1775. The phrase, “the shot heard around the world,” famously refers to the importance of the thirteen colonies challenging the army of the King of England. The colonies were independent, yet their leaders recognized they must work together for the common cause of fighting Great Britain. Four months after Lexington and Concord, they sent representatives to Philadelphia to form a convention called the Second Continental Congress. Peyton Randolph was elected its president, and important Founders at the Congress included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.

A year later, this Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence to establish the new nation and logically document and explain the reasons for breaking away from Great Britain. The Second Continental Congress was also responsible for raising money and troops for an army.

The colonists understood that they must unite if they were to survive. The delegates in Pennsylvania debated plans to unite the colonies and create a national government that could provide for national security.

Eight days after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania introduced a proposal to unify the colonies. (Each colony had a delegate; Dickinson was the principal writer.) Dickinson proposed these “Articles of Confederation” which provided for a central government with the power to control foreign policy, resolve border disputes, and provide for natural defense, but many delegates were worried that the plan would make the government too powerful.

The delegates debated how to amend the plan for the next year, and in the summer of 1777, they agreed on a final draft. However, the Articles would still not go into effect until all thirteen new states agreed. On December 16, 1777, Virginia became the first state to ratify the Articles.

While the Declaration of Independence established a new nation, the Articles of Confederation formally united the first states and defined how they would work together as a “confederation”. The Confederation was a political alliance of the separate states. Each state retained its rights and authority within its boundaries. The central government (Congress) had less authority than the states. The Articles also declared that the new American nation would be called “The United States of America”.

The Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation became America’s first constitution. A constitution is the supreme law that establishes rules about how that country is supposed to be governed. There are thirteen sections in the Articles of Confederation. These sections indicate how the new union of the thirteen states was to operate.

Many Americans were still wary of a strong central government. The tension between independent states and the central government was constant. The second article declared, “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”

The primary purpose of the Articles of Confederation was to unite the states to ensure their survival by providing for national defense. It gave the federal government the power to declare war if nine or more states approved. The federal government could receive ambassadors from other countries and establish a post office. Instead of national elections for a president, he was appointed by the delegates from the state legislatures for a one-year term. (Delegates served a minimum of one year with a three-year maximum. The Articles of Confederation were established to continue into the future and could only be amended by Congress, subject to ratification by all the states.)

Fighting the Revolutionary War & Afterwards

The Articles of Confederation were inadequate because they did not provide for a strong president (only a one-year term at the cost of continuity of leadership). There was no power to enforce laws or to assess taxes to pay for the expenses of the government. This was revealed even before the Articles were ratified and went into effect in 1778. (Nine years later, the Constitutional Convention led to a much better way to govern the United States.)

Throughout the War of Independence, General Washington constantly struggled to have enough money, materials, and men to fight the war successfully. Since the Articles of Confederation did not provide Congress with the means to raise money, the Continental Army often went hungry, and the soldiers went months (and sometimes years) without being paid. During the winter of 1777 to 1778, while encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, conditions were so bad that the men often had to wrap their feet in rags because there were no shoes to be worn. Men enlisting to fight for their new country were often expected to bring their own firearms because Congress couldn’t provide the funds to manufacture muskets and bayonets. One of the most important contributions made toward American independence was the money the French brought with them when they became allies of the new country. French supplies and arms were as crucial as American bravery in achieving victory at Yorktown in 1781.

In the immediate years following the defeat of the British Army, until the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, General Washington had to keep the Continental Army organized and intact in case fighting resumed. The continual shortage of payment and supplies almost resulted in mutiny. The officers of the Army were ready to march on Congress and demand their back pay. Only the swift and decisive leadership of General Washington averted what would have been a disaster had the mutiny actually occurred.

A Failure or a Beginning?

The events of the Revolutionary War revealed that the Articles of Confederation were too weak as a constitution to hold thirteen strong-willed and independent-minded states together in a single effective union once the common threat posed by the British Army had been removed.

Under the Articles of Confederation, the United States Congress was able to address the competing land claims of the various former colonies to territories west of the existing thirteen states. The most significant and important piece of legislation to be enacted under the Articles of Confederation was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which was one of the four “Organic Laws of the United States,” as designated by congress in 1958. To learn more about the Northwest Ordinance, read our blog about it here!

To be fair, the Articles of Confederation was flawed, but it was not a failure. It was not satisfactory in providing the necessary organization and structure to ensure the long-term success of the newly independent United States of America. Adopting the Articles of Confederation was a necessary step in the right direction and a true and authentic effort to find the right balance between the authoritarian actions of King George and the British Parliament and the sincere desires of each new state, so that we might enjoy the fullest measure of freedom possible.

To learn more on this topic, a full text with more information about the Articles of Confederation is provided in Session 5 of FreedomCivics® – Foundations of American Government.

FreedomCivics® is a 20-session curriculum that includes discussion questions, activities, resources, quizzes, and a final exam. For more information about the course, please visit or contact us with the information below.

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