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Student Background on the Articles of Confederation

On 12 June 1776, three weeks before the proclamation of independence, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to draft articles of government for a "firm league of friendship" of the thirteen divergent states. The Articles of Confederation were presented to Congress on July 12, however the frame of government proposed for a perpetual union by the committee appeared to many of the delegates as too centralized.

The kind of government which would be established to replace the British system was as vital to delegates as independence itself. Representatives of the states in the Second Continental Congress wanted to prevent the reappearance of any centralized authority which they associated with the British governmental system.

After prolonged discussion which centered on issues of representation, taxation, control of western lands, and the power of states, delegates agreed upon a confederate system which placed limited power in the hands of a central government. The Articles of Confederation became the framework for a government at war and were sent to the states for approval in 1777; however, they were not ratified until 1781, when the troubling issue of western lands was finally settled.

The decentralized government established under the Articles of Confederation was the product of forces which brought about the American Revolution.

  • The legislature consisted of a one-house Congress composed of no less than two nor more than seven representatives from each state.
  • In the Continental Congress, each state had one vote.
  • There were strict term limits placed on members of Congress.
  • No one could be a member for more than three out of six years and all delegates were subject to recall by their respective states.
  • Congress could declare war, make peace, enter into treaties and alliances, manage relations with Indian nations, establish standard weights and measures, coin money, borrow on the credit of the United States, settle differences between two or more states, establish a postal system, support a military force requested by the states, and appoint a Commander in Chief.
  • Articles VIII specified that expenses "incurred for the common defense and welfare" were to be paid by the national government. States, however, were asked to contribute rather than required to pay allotments into the national treasury. Congress was further weakened by a requirement that major legislation, including bills relating to finance, be passed by a two-thirds vote.

Amendments to the Articles required a unanimous vote of the states which was virtually impossible to obtain due to separate interests among the states. Ultimately, tensions within government and society led to the calling of a special convention in Philadelphia.