John Hanson, Etching

John Hanson was the first President under the Articles of Confederation. This etching of Hanson is based on a portrait painted by Charles Willson Peale (Source: Public Domain).

Congress of the Confederation, 1781–1789


The Congress of the Confederation was the governing body of the United States under the Articles of Confederation from 1781 until 1789.



The Confederation Congress was the successor to the Second Continental Congress and was established by the Articles of Confederation. The Articles of Confederation were adopted by the Second Continental Congress of November 1, 1777, and ratified on March 1, 1781.

The Confederation Congress included all members of the Second Continental Congress. Unfortunately, it also had the same limited powers as the Second Continental Congress. The role of taxation and policy-making was left to the individual states. This led to a decade of instability in the economy and also social unrest and class conflict.

Once the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, the United States took control of the land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. However, there were various claims to the land. Not only did the Indians living there claim the territory, but also states like Connecticut and Virginia. One of the major accomplishments of the Confederation Congress was the development of legislation that provided guidelines for adding states to the union and property ownership.

Ordinance of 1784

Since the Confederation Congress could not easily raise money through taxes, it intended to sell the land in what was known as the Ohio Country. This would give Congress money to operate and pay its debts. Unfortunately, there were already squatters in the Ohio Country, and there was a concern in Congress that the squatters might attempt to form their own country, west of the Appalachians. The Congress negotiated with the Indian tribes and states for sole possession of the land. However, as negotiations were going on, Congress passed the Ordinance on April 23, 1784.

It was written by Thomas Jefferson, with help from Jeremiah Townley Chase of Maryland and David Howell of Rhode Island. It called for the land that lay west of the Appalachian Mountains, north of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River to be divided into 10 states, which would start out as territories. Once the population reached a certain point, each of them could become states, with the same rights as the original 13 colonies.

In the original draft, Jefferson included a clause that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude after 1800 in the Northwest Territory. Unfortunately, Jefferson’s attempt to make the new states free for all was voted down by one vote and removed from the Ordinance.

Land Ordinance of 1785

The Northwest Ordinance did not lay out how the land would be distributed in the Northwest Territory, and it became an issue as the Indians and states began to cede their claims to the land. The Land Ordinance of 1785 addressed the issue and was passed on May 20, 1785. Once again, Thomas Jefferson devised the plan, which established guidelines for setting up townships and laid the foundation for the land ownership system in the United States. It also provided instructions on how to reserve portions of townships for those who had served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

Despite the new regulations, squatters were still moving into the Northwest Territory, while many Indian tribes also refused to leave.

Northwest Ordinance of 1787

On July 13, 1787, the Northwest Ordinance was passed. It was developed by Thomas Jefferson, Nathan Dane, Manasseh Cutler, and Rufus King, and set established new steps for how each territory could become a state. In addition, the Northwest Ordinance included six Articles that expanded and revised previous legislation. Perhaps most important was Article 6, which banned slavery and involuntary servitude in Northwest Territory.

Constitutional Convention of 1787

In the years following the American Revolution, there was a growing divide. Some people wanted a strong, centralized government, and they were known as Federalists. People that believed more in individual liberties and state sovereignty were known as Anti-Federalists. The political division resulted in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which took place in Philadelphia from May 14 to September 17.

George Washington was elected president of the Convention. 55 of 70 delegates appointed by the states attended the Convention. Rhode Island chose not to attend and did not send any delegates.

The Convention was originally called to revise the Articles of Confederation. However, there was fierce debate over the proposed solutions, including James Madison’s “Virginia Plan.” Although progress was made on many issues, it became apparent through the debate the divide between the northern states and southern states was more significant than differences between individual states.

On July 24, a Committee of Detail was formed, which was tasked with drafting a Constitution. They used parts of the Virginia Plan, modifications to the Virginia Plan that had been proposed earlier by the Convention, and other sources, including the Articles of Confederation, to write the first draft. The Committee reviewed the document, section by section, from August 6 through September 10. When they were finished, a Committee of Style was set up to help clean up and polish the document.

The United States Constitution was signed by 39 delegates from the 12 states on September 17. On September 28, Congress voted to send the proposed Constitution to the states for ratification. Delaware was the first to vote in favor of the Constitution on December 7, 1787, and it officially became legal when New Hampshire ratified it on June 21, 1788. The Constitution was certified by the Confederation Congress on September 13, 1788, and the first Presidential Election was held, starting on December 15, 1788.

On March 4, 1789, the new federal government officially began to operate and the members of the First United States Congress were seated at Federal Hall in New York City. After Congress counted the votes of the Electoral College, it certified that George Washington had been elected as the first President of the United States and John Adams as the First Vice-President of the United States. Adams was sworn in on April 21 and Washington was sworn in on April 30.

Presidents of the United States in Congress Assembled

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

John Hanson was the first President and served from November 5, 1781, to November 4, 1782.

Elias Boudinot was the second President and served from November 4, 1782, to November 3, 1783.

Thomas Mifflin was the third President and served from November 3, 1783, to June 3, 1784.

Richard Henry Lee was the fourth President and served from November 30, 1784, to November 23, 1785.

John Hancock was appointed the fifth President and served 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 12, 1786, and then Nathaniel Gorham from May 15 to June 5, 1786. Ramsay and Gorham were chairmen of the Confederation Congress.

Nathaniel Gorham was appointed the sixth President and served from June 1786 to November 13, 1786.

Arthur St. Clair was appointed the seventh President and served from February 2, 1787, to October 29, 1787.

Cyrus Griffin was appointed the eighth President and served from January 22, 1788, to March 4, 1789.


The Confederation Congress was important because it served as the government of the United States under the Articles of Confederation. It was the government when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, and it was the government at the time the Treaty of Paris was signed. The members of the Confederation Congress also oversaw the organization of the Northwest Territory and the development of the United States Constitution.


Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Congress of the Confederation, 1781–1789
  • Coverage 1781–1789
  • Author
  • Keywords Congress of the Confederation, Articles of Confederation,
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date January 18, 2022
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 14, 2022
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