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Articles of Confederation

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Description: First written blueprint for organizing a compact of the American colonies.


Significance: The Articles of Confederation provided the first American system of government, although they did not create a judicial system. They also were a precursor to the Tenth Amendment.


Drafted in stages from 1776 to 1777 but not ratified until 1781, the Articles of Confederation extended and revised the existing understanding of diffused authority and state autonomy. Richard Henry Lee, Samuel Adams, John Dickinson, and Roger Sherman, among others, assisted in the drafting of the document. Although regarded in 1781 as a reliable constitution, the accepted modern view of the articles is that they were a dismal failure in all respects. The articles could not provide for a system of popular rule or supply the young regime with the security measures that were needed to ensure its survival. The critics of the articles usually cite the plan's inability to endow a national government with the power to levy taxes or regulate commerce, thereby discouraging all efforts at national cohesion. The articles, in other words, embodied the political tensions within American politics during the period between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention. The articles possessed the means for affirming popular rule, diffusing political authority, and allowing for a system of government. As in the case of the Declaration of Independence, the articles perpetuated the original design for the territorial division of the country, into independent and sovereign states, a “perpetual union.” Article II described the nature of the alliance: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by the Confederation expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled.” Articles III and IV, antecedents of the Tenth Amendment, affirmed the nature of their “league of friendship” and provided for the extradition of fugitives. Article V presented a system of representation for the states in Congress that allowed for each state to have no less than two and no more than seven delegates. Articles VI and VII concerned limitations on the states regarding the conducting of foreign affairs and national security. Article VIII detailed how the costs of war would be defrayed and Article IX outlined the powers of Congress, the only branch of government established by the document. The last four articles discussed various aspects of the “perpetual” union. The articles confirmed the centrality of the states, thus placing the relationship between the governed and the government at the state level instead of the national level. The articles also provided that the respective states, not the federal government, would protect citizens’ privileges and immunities. As a genuine precursor to the Tenth Amendment (which reserved for the states or the people those powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution), the articles limited the power of the federal government and strengthened state prerogatives.



Further Reading

  • Hoffert, Robert W. A Politics of Tension: The Articles of Confederation and American Political Ideas. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1991.
  • Jensen, Merrill. The Articles of Confederation. 1940. Reprint. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970.
  • Moore, Wayne D. Constitutional Rights and Powers of the People. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.