Home Articles of Confederation An Overview of the Articles of Confederation

An Overview of the Articles of Confederation

An Overview of the Articles of Confederation

An Overview of the Articles of Confederation


The Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1777 and ratified in 1781, served as the first written constitution of the United States. They represented the initial attempt by the newly independent colonies to establish a unified government. While the Articles marked a significant step in the nation’s history, they also revealed inherent weaknesses that would ultimately lead to their replacement by the U.S. Constitution. In this overview, we will explore the key features, strengths, and weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.

Key Features of the Articles of Confederation

1. A Loose Confederation: The Articles created a loose confederation of sovereign states rather than a strong central government. Each state retained its sovereignty and independence.

2. Limited Central Authority: The central government under the Articles was intentionally weak. It consisted of a unicameral legislature known as the Continental Congress, which had limited powers, such as conducting foreign affairs and declaring war.

3. Equal Representation: Each state had one vote in the Continental Congress, regardless of its size or population. This equal representation reflected the desire to prevent larger states from dominating smaller ones.

4. No Executive or Judiciary: The Articles did not establish an executive branch or a federal judiciary. There was no president or federal courts to enforce laws or settle disputes between states.

5. Amendment Process: Amending the Articles required unanimous consent from all thirteen states, making it exceedingly difficult to make changes.

Strengths of the Articles of Confederation

1. Treaty of Paris (1783): The Articles of Confederation were in place when the Treaty of Paris was negotiated, formally ending the American Revolutionary War and recognizing the independence of the United States from Britain.

2. Land Ordinance of 1785: The Articles facilitated the creation of the Land Ordinance of 1785, which established a system for surveying and selling western lands, contributing to westward expansion.

3. Northwest Ordinance of 1787: The Articles also led to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which provided a framework for the orderly admission of new states to the Union, guaranteeing certain rights and prohibiting slavery in the Northwest Territory.

Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation

1. Lack of Central Authority: The central government had little power to enforce its laws or taxation. It depended on voluntary contributions from the states, which often fell short.

2. Financial Instability: The inability to tax and the lack of a national currency led to financial instability and economic problems. The country faced massive war debt, which it struggled to repay.

3. Ineffective Foreign Relations: The United States had difficulty negotiating with foreign nations and enforcing treaties. The absence of a strong central authority hindered diplomacy.

4. Shays’ Rebellion (1786): A rebellion by indebted farmers in Massachusetts highlighted the weakness of the central government and its inability to maintain order within the states.

5. Inability to Regulate Commerce: The central government could not regulate interstate or foreign trade effectively, leading to trade disputes and economic conflicts among the states.


The Articles of Confederation were a crucial step in the formation of the United States, providing a framework for the young nation to function during its early years. However, the weaknesses and limitations of the Articles ultimately led to their downfall. Recognizing the need for a stronger central government, the framers of the U.S. Constitution convened the Constitutional Convention in 1787, which produced the Constitution we know today. The lessons learned from the Articles of Confederation shaped the development of the American system of government, emphasizing the importance of a balanced federal structure with a more robust central authority.

The Articles of Confederation was the United States of America’s first legislative doctrine responsible for outlining both the processes and fundamentals of government since becoming an independent, autonomous nation; the result of defeating the British troops in the Revolutionary War in 1776. Prior to 1776, political leaders and citizens alike were dissatisfied with the lack of rights allowed to the American colonies under the rule of the British monarchy. Only after gaining their independence did they rename themselves “The United States of America.”

On June 12th, 1776, the Articles of Confederation was assigned to be drafted by a committee put together by the Second Continental Congress. John Dickinson, the appointed head of this drafting committee, had already gained some notoriety as a result of his initial public refusal to sign the Declaration of Independence. Dickinson had concluded that the Declaration of Independence removed too much power from the Government.

Though Dickinson drafted an initial version of the Articles of Confederation, which ensured the existence of a strong central government, as well as equal representation amongst the states, the remainder of the committee modified the Articles of Confederation prior to sending it to the individual states for ratification. In that version, the central Government relinquished all control over the states with the exception of the regulation of currency and the appointment of both the military and postal services. In addition, the Government was allowed control over affairs with the Native Americans, establishing a monetary system, and controlling the nation’s involvement in foreign affairs.

Still reeling from the effects of monarchical rule, the citizens and political leaders of the United States of America were extremely apprehensive to emulate any type of government that even remotely resembled the British monarchy. The United States had just gained their independence from England and they were hesitant to relinquish it to any semblance of the central government. As a result, the Articles of Confederation was an extremely anti-government document, which limited the power of government in any matter regarding each individual State. For example, each State was to be considered a sovereign entity in and among itself, impervious to neither taxation nor representation by a central government.

The Articles of Confederation implemented what might be considered the earliest form of democracy. Though the central Government was unable to levy taxes from the individual states, it still retained the ability to propose foreign treaties and alliances, as well as create currency, but only with the support of at least nine out of the thirteen states.

In addition, the Articles of Confederation stated that the central Government was allowed control over not only the delineation of State borders but also the dealings in the western territories.

The focus of the Articles of Confederation’s limitation of a central government’s power was not a coincidence. The resentment of both the British and their monarchical form of government on the part of the citizens of the United States of America was apparent. Inspired not to repeat the woes of a totalitarian government, the authors of the Articles of Confederation created a doctrine that shifted the power from a centralized government onto the individual states, thus ensuring the exclusion of future tyranny.