The Articles of Confederation — America’s First Constitution

March 1, 1781–1789

The Articles of Confederation was America's first constitution. It was in effect from March 1, 1781, to March 4, 1789, when it was replaced by the United States Constitution.

John Dickinson, Illustration

John Dickinson, a delegate from Delaware, was the principal author of the draft of the Articles of Confederation. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Articles of Confederation Summary

As the delegates to the Second Continental Congress were drafting the Declaration of Independence, they were also developing a plan for unifying the 13 Colonies to defeat Great Britain. In the summer of 1776, a committee composed of one delegate from each colony drafted the Articles of Confederation — America’s first constitution. Although the document created a weak central government compared to the federal government established by the current Constitution, the Articles successfully created a “firm league of friendship” that guided the new nation through its early years.

Articles of Confederation Dates

  1. On June 11, 1776, the Second Continental Congress appointed a committee, composed of one representative from each colony, to draft a document forming a confederation of the 13 colonies.
  2. The Articles of Confederation were adopted by Congress on November 15, 1777.
  3. The Articles went into effect when they were ratified by the 13th and final state (Maryland) on March 1, 1781.
  4. In May 1787, following events such as Shays’ Rebellion, a convention was held in Philadelphia to revise the Articles. However, the convention resulted in the United States Constitution.
  5. The Articles were replaced by the Constitution on March 4, 1789.

Facts About the Articles of Confederation

  • John Dickinson, a delegate from Delaware, was the principal writer of the draft document.
  • As adopted, the articles contained a preamble and 13 articles.
  • The Articles established a Confederation Congress with each state having one vote.
  • Measures passed by Congress had to be approved by 9 of the 13 states.
  • It did not establish federal executive or judicial branches of government.
  • Each state retained “every Power…which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States.”
  • Provided Congress with the powers to conduct foreign affairs, declare war or peace, maintain an army and navy, print money, resolve disputes between states, and a variety of other lesser functions.
  • Denied Congress the power to collect taxes, regulate interstate commerce, and enforce laws.
  • All 13 states had to agree to any amendment of the federal government’s power.

Articles of Confederation — A Brief History of America’s First Constitution

The Articles of Confederation outlined the functions of the first national government of the United States, after gaining independence from Great Britain. The Articles created a limited central government that, to a certain extent, restricted individual states from conducting their own foreign diplomacy.

Albany Plan of Union

Just before the outbreak of the French and Indian War, the Albany Plan of Union was developed It was the first attempt to unite the colonies from New England to South Carolina. However, the plan was rejected for various reasons, including concerns the individual colonies had about granting authority to a central colonial government. 

However, as the American Revolution progressed and became the American Revolutionary War, many leaders recognized the benefits of a centralized government to coordinate the war effort. 

Benjamin Franklin, Portrait, Duplessis
Benjamin Franklin is widely recognized as the architect of the Albany Plan of Union. Image Source: Wikipedia.

New York’s Plan of Unification

In June 1775, the First New York Provincial Congress submitted a proposal for a united government to the Continental Congress. Like the Albany Plan, New York’s “Plan of Accommodation between Great Britain and America” acknowledged the authority of the British Crown, which was unpopular with the faction of Congress that leaned toward independence. 

Benjamin Franklin’s Articles of Confederation

Outside of the proceedings of Congress, some delegates explored the idea of a permanent union between the colonies, other than the temporary Continental Congress. 

Benjamin Franklin drafted a plan titled “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.” Although key delegates such as Thomas Jefferson endorsed Franklin’s proposal, it faced opposition. Franklin introduced his plan to Congress on July 21, emphasizing it should be considered a draft, which should be revised at a later date. The delegates agreed and decided to set the plan aside at that time.

Congress Agrees on Independence

Ultimately, Congress adopted Virginia’s “Resolution for Independence,” which was introduced by Richard Henry Lee on June 7, 1775. Also known as the “Lee Resolution,” it proposed three important initiatives:

  1. Called for Congress to declare independence.
  2. Form foreign alliances.
  3. Prepare a plan to unite the colonies.
Richard Henry Lee, Illustration
Richard Henry Lee. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Committee of Thirteen

On June 11, Congress set up three committees — one for each of the initiatives. The committee assigned to “prepare a plan to unite the colonies” is known as the “Committee of Thirteen.” It included one delegate from each state:

  1. John Dickinson, Pennsylvania, Chairman
  2. Samuel Adams, Massachusetts
  3. Josiah Bartlett, New Hampshire
  4. Button Gwinnett, Georgia
  5. Joseph Hewes, North Carolina
  6. Stephen Hopkins, Rhode Island
  7. Robert R. Livingston, New York
  8. Thomas McKean, Delaware
  9. Thomas Nelson, Virginia
  10. Edward Rutledge, South Carolina
  11. Roger Sherman, Connecticut
  12. Thomas Stone, Maryland
  13. Francis Hopkinson, New Jersey
Roger Sherman, Founding Father, Illustration
Roger Sherman. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Committee Introduces the Articles of Confederation

On July 22, the committee presented its report to Congress. The Articles included. 

  • A government consisting solely of a unicameral legislature without an executive or judicial branch.
  • It would have limited powers to deal with foreign affairs, defense, and treaty-making.
  • The government did not have the authority to levy national taxes or regulate interstate trade. 
  • Any laws it created were nonbinding unless states chose to enforce them. 

The Articles were intended to balance the political ideas embraced in the American Revolution, such as “No Taxation Without Representation” and the necessity of conducting the war. However, there were significant issues that needed to be addressed, including:

  1. Representation. The issue was resolved by giving all states equal status and one vote.
  2. Appropriation. This was settled by having states contribute money to Congress based on the value of privately owned land. 
  3. Control of western lands. Some states, like Virginia, claimed large territories that stretched across the frontier, to the west. Others, like Maryland, had no claims and insisted that such territories should be ceded to Congress beforehand. This issue was not resolved until much later.

The issues postponed the final debates on the Articles of Confederation until October 1777.

Congress Agrees to the Articles of Confederation

By October 1777, the situation was urgent, as British forces had captured Philadephia in September, forcing the members of Congress to flee to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and then to York, Pennsylvania. On November 15, 1777, During the sessions in York, the delegates finally agreed to a framework for the Articles of Confederation. 

Congress forwarded the Articles to the states for ratification in late November. While most delegates recognized the Articles as a flawed compromise, they believed it was preferable to having no formal national government at all.

12 States Ratify the Articles of Confederation

Virginia led the way by ratifying the Articles of Confederation on December 16, 1777. Subsequently, other states followed suit during the early months of 1778. However, when Congress reconvened in June 1778, it was revealed that Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey had not succeeded in ratifying the Articles. 

The Articles required unanimous approval from all states, and the states that were holding out insisted the others needed to abandon their western land claims before they would ratify the document. 

Ultimately, with the war at a crucial point, the “landed” states — those with western land claims, like Virginia — indicated they would cede the lands. New Jersey and Delaware were satisfied and agreed to the terms of the Articles.

  • New Jersey ratified the Articles on November 20, 1778.
  • Delaware ratified the Articles on February 1, 1779. 

Maryland’s Path to Ratification

Maryland was not convinced the states would follow through on ceding lands and was the last holdout to ratify the Articles of Confederation.

Maryland’s reluctance was frustrating to the other state governments. Some even passed resolutions in favor of establishing a national government without Maryland. 

However, some politicians, like Congressman Thomas Burke of North Carolina, argued against such a measure. Burke and others insisted that without the unanimous approval of all 13 States, the nation would be vulnerable, divided, and susceptible to foreign interference and manipulation.

In 1780, British forces carried out raids on Maryland towns located along the Chesapeake Bay, alarming state officials. Maryland responded by contacting the French Minister, Anne-César De la Luzerne, and requesting French naval support. Luzerne responded by encouraging Maryland to ratify the Articles of Confederation. 

Virginia’s Governor, Thomas Jefferson, also agreed to cede all western land claims to Congress.

Finally, the Maryland legislature ratified the Articles of Confederation on March 1, 1781. On that date, the Articles of Confederation formally transformed the United States from a collection of 13 loosely connected states into a confederation government

Thomas Jefferson, Painting, Rembrandt Peale
Thomas Jefferson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation

Unfortunately, the Articles did not grant Congress the necessary authority to force the states to comply with its decisions, including the provisions in the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

The Treaty of Paris allowed British creditors to sue debtors for pre-Revolutionary debts, a clause many state governments simply ignored. In response, British forces continued to occupy forts in the Great Lakes Region. 

Additional issues that were caused by the weakness of the Articles of Confederation included:

  • Without the ability to raise funds, the Confederation Congress was financially limited and dependent on the states for revenue, and the States often failed to provide funds.
  • States also disregarded laws meant to standardize interstate commerce. 
  • Congress did not have the power to regulate foreign trade, allowing nations like Britain to impose trade restrictions without fear of retaliation. 
  • Congress had no way to force states to provide military forces during a time when the military was needed to deal with Indian unrest in the Northwest Territory.

Similar issues, along with the Confederation government’s inadequate response to Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts, convinced national leaders of the need to make changes to the Articles of Confederation. This ultimately led to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, which drafted the Constitution of the United States.

Constitutional Convention, Signing the Constitution, Christy
This painting depicts the signing of the U.S. Constitution in Philadephia. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Accomplishments Under the Articles of Confederation

Despite its limited authority, the Confederation Congress was able to accomplish some important feats that led to the growth and development of the nation.

1783 Treaty of Paris

The 1783 Treaty of Paris was one of a series of treaties, collectively known as the Peace of Paris, or the Treaty of Versailles of 1783, that established peace between Great Britain and the allied nations of France, Spain, and the Netherlands. The Treaty of Paris was negotiated as a separate treaty between Great Britain and the United States, the primary provisions of the Treaty of Paris established the independence of the United States and ended hostilities between the two nations. Other provisions dealt with defining borders, restitution for Loyalist property confiscated by Americans during the war, the return of slaves confiscated by the British, and the removal of British troops from American soil. Congress ratified the treaty on January 14, 1784.

Ordinance of 1784

The Ordinance of 1784 was a bill passed by the Congress of the Confederation that served as an initial blueprint for governing the territory Britain ceded to the United States after the American Revolutionary War.

Land Ordinance of 1785

The Land Ordinance of 1785 was a bill passed by the Congress of the Confederation. It made adjustments to the Ordinance of 1784 and introduced squares. If first divided the land into six-mile-square townships. It also required the land to be surveyed and for some of it to be given to veterans of the Continental Army.

Northwest Ordinance of 1787

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, also known as the Ordinance of 1787, set up the rules and guidelines for governing the Northwest Territory, including a bill of rights and prohibition of slavery. It also set up the process for a territory to become a state and join the Union, with equal status to the 13 Original States.

Presidents Under the Articles of Confederation

The following men served as President from 1781 to 1789 under the Articles of Confederation. The position was officially called “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.” 

Contrary to some sources, these men did not hold the office of President of the United States. It was an entirely different office. 

Thomas McKean, Portrait
Thomas McKean was President of Congress when the British surrendered, ending the Siege of Yorktown. Image Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art.
  1. Samuel Huntington served from March 2, 1781, to July 6, 1781, when he retired.
  2. Thomas McKean served from July 10, 1781, to October 23, 1781. During his term as President, Congress received the news of the British surrender at Yorktown.
  3. John Hanson was the first President to serve a full term and served from November 5, 1781, to November 3, 1782. Hanson is sometimes referred to as the first President of the Confederation Congress. However, he is recognized as the third President by the Office of the Historian of the United States House of Representatives.
  4. Elias Boudinot was President from November 4, 1782, to November 3, 1783. During his term, the British evacuated Charleston in January 1783, and the Treaty of Paris of 1783 was signed in September 1783, which officially ended the American Revolutionary War.
  5. Thomas Mifflin was President from November 3, 1783, to November 30, 1784. During his term, George Washington resigned from the army. On December 23, 1783, in a ceremony in Annapolis, Maryland, Washington handed his commission and resignation speech to Mifflin.
  6. Richard Henry Lee served from November 30, 1784, to November 4, 1785.
  7. John Hancock was appointed President and held the title from November 23, 1785, to June 6, 1786. However, Hancock was ill and he could not perform the duties of the office. His duties were carried out by David Ramsay from November 23, 1785, to May 15, 1786, and then by Nathaniel Gorham from May 15 to June 5, 1786. Ramsay and Gorham were Chairman of the Confederation Congress.
  8. Nathaniel Gorham served as President from June 6, 1786, to November 2, 1786.
  9. Arthur St. Clair served as President and served from February 2, 1787, to October 5, 1787.
  10. Cyrus Griffin was the last President of the Congress Assembled and served from January 22, 1788, to March 2, 1789.

Articles of Confederation Significance

The Articles of Confederation are important to United States history because they served as the first Consitution of the United States. Although the Articles had many weaknesses, the Confederation Congress was able to make some key legislative decisions that helped the nation develop. Ultimately, the lessons learned during the time the nation operated under the Articles helped develop its replacement, the United States Constitution.

Thomas Mifflin, Illustration
Thomas Mifflin. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Articles of Confederation APUSH, Review, Notes, Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Articles of Confederation, the Confederation Congress, and the Confederation Era for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Articles of Confederation Definition APUSH

The Articles of Confederation is defined as the first written constitution of the United States, adopted in 1781. The articles established a weak federal government with limited powers, with most decision-making power reserved for the individual states. The articles were in effect until 1789 when they were replaced by the United States Constitution.

Articles of Confederation Video — Explained for APUSH and AP Gov

This video from Heimler’s History discusses the Articles of Confederation, one of the Foundational Documents for APUSH and AP Gov.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Articles of Confederation — America’s First Constitution
  • Date March 1, 1781–1789
  • Author
  • Keywords Articles of Confederation, Articles of Confederation APUSH, Articles of Confederation Definition, Articles of Confederation Summary, Articles of Confederation History, Articles of Confederation Accomplishments, Articles of Confederation Significance
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update October 27, 2023