The Articles of Confederation were the United States of America’s first attempt at a formal, written constitution. The first draft of this document was written by John Dickinson, author of the ‘Olive Branch petition’, however Dickinson’s objection to independence saw him removed from Congress in late 1776, shortly after he penned the draft. Dickinson’s text underwent almost a year of discussion and debate, and it had changed markedly by the time Congress passed it in November 1777. This was only the first stage in ratification, however: for the Articles of Confederation to be enacted all 13 states would have to ratify separately. This long process of to-and-fro between the thirteen states and Congress took just over three years. In most cases, individual states refused to ratify until their claims to western territories had been negotiated and settled with other states.
That the title of this document used the term ‘confederation’ gives a clue about its content. The Articles were very much a loose affiliation between thirteen separate, sovereign states; indeed Article II specifically describes them as such. The union created is described in Article III as a “firm league of friendship”. The Congress formed by the Articles is not a national government as such but an umbrella government, possessing some responsibilities and concurrent powers with the 13 states but having no coercive authority over them. For example, Congress alone had the ability to declare war – but it had no capacity to demand that the states supply troops or equipment. Congress had no capacity to tax so its costs had to be met by requisitions from the states, which could be delayed or withheld. And although Congress was nominated as the ‘court’ by which the states could resolve disputes, it had no coercive power or jurisdiction over any of the states. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress was nominally an important body but in reality it was beholden to the states for authority, respect and revenue. In the desperate 1780s, the Confederation Congress would prove to be virtually powerless, a “half-starved limping government” according to Washington (1784).
It was not surprising that the states constructed a constitution that would allow this situation to develop – after all, had they not instigated a revolution against a strong central power? Such a weak confederation might have worked had there been a stronger sense of national unity and co-operation between the states in the first place. Benjamin Franklin had signalled the need for greater American unity as early as the Albany Plan of 1754 (see cartoon, above) but little have eventuated. In the years before 1776 the thirteen American colonies continued their long tradition of paranoid superstition, xenophobia and competition for territory. They managed to unite for war and revolution but had not yet established enough common ground to co-operate with each other – at least not without strong, central institutions. Under the Articles states were effectively left to their own devices, returning to border disputes, land grabs and internecine squabbling, with no strong national authority to intervene or negotiate. So, while it is often said that the Articles of Confederation were a ‘failure’, it is perhaps more true that they permitted the 13 infant states to ensure the new nation would fail. By the mid-1780s it was clear that something would need to be done to rectify this imbalance between states’ rights and the national interest.