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This Day in History: The Articles of Confederation, effectively the first American Constitution

On this day in 1781, the Articles of Confederation are finally ratified by the American colonies. These Articles were effectively our first Constitution.


Of course, by this date in 1781, the Revolution had been ongoing for nearly six years. Indeed, most of the Revolution was fought without any sort of national charter in place. The Articles of Confederation officially came into play only at the end of the war. Even then, they would be rather short-lived, staying in effect for slightly more than seven years before the U.S. Constitution would be ratified.

American Bicentennial Issue: Articles of Confederation stamp

The Articles traveled a rough path toward ratification.


Early in the Revolution, the colonies were focused on administration of the war. They had formed a Continental Congress, but that body was a provisional one, born of necessity. At some point, the colonists understood that they would need something more permanent. Thus, when a committee was appointed to draft the Declaration of Independence on June 11, 1776, the Congress waited only one day before appointing a committee to draft a new plan of government. The committee was composed of one delegate from each colony.


The document was drafted in about a month, but Congress did not approve it for more than a year afterwards. On November 15, 1777, congressional delegates finally gave the Articles their approval. These Articles created a very weak national government. Each state explicitly retained “its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right” unless otherwise expressly delegated. Congress was so limited in its power that it had trouble collecting taxes and often could not keep the states from going their own way.


Indeed, both before and after the Articles were ratified, the weakness of America’s national government often undermined the Revolutionary war effort.


Nevertheless, copies of the Articles were printed and distributed to the colonial legislatures, along with a letter urging them to ratify. The Articles could not officially go into effect until all thirteen colonies had unanimously approved the new form of government.


Ten states ratified the Articles within about eight months, but three states were more reluctant: New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.


New Jersey finally ratified on November 26, 1778, a little more than a year after Congress first proposed the Articles. Delaware ratified nearly 6 months later, on May 5, 1779. Maryland took nearly two more years. That state’s ratification on March 1, 1781 would finally put the document into effect.


Maryland’s hesitation was due to specific concerns about unsettled territory in the west. Some states believed they held colonial claims on the West, dating back a few hundred years. But Maryland believed that those lands should be used for the national benefit, and it proposed early on that western territories should eventually be admitted into the Union as independent states.


Maryland eventually ratified the Articles for two reasons: First, the state’s coast was being raided. Maryland asked France for help, but France wanted Maryland to ratify the Articles. Second, Virginia gave up some of its western land claims, thus easing some of Maryland’s concerns about the western territories.


Perhaps it is appropriate that one of the few lasting achievements of the Congress under the Articles of Confederation was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. That document laid the groundwork for admitting portions of the western territory as new states, rather than adding them to existing ones.


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