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Presentation U.S. History Primary Source Timeline

Policies and Problems of the Confederation Government


In 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to create a plan for a central government. The committee quickly wrote the Articles of Confederation, which created a loose alliance of the states. While the Articles were drafted quickly, ratification of them was delayed until 1781. The primary sticking point concerned disagreements about how to deal with the western lands claimed by several states. The states without such claims argued that the western lands should be owned by the national government. The states with land claims were reluctant to give up their claims. When Virginia finally gave up most of its claims to western lands, the Articles of Confederation were adopted.

The Articles of Confederation created a union of sovereign states. An assembly of delegates acted on behalf of the states they represented. Because the smaller states feared the domination of the larger ones, each state had one vote in the Confederation Congress, regardless of its size or population. Any act of Congress required the votes of nine of the thirteen states to pass.

Congress claimed the following powers: to make war and peace; conduct foreign affairs; request men and money from the states; coin and borrow money; regulate Indian affairs; and settle disputes among the states. Enforcing laws, regulating commerce, administering justice, and levying taxes were powers reserved to the states. Representatives were forbidden to serve in Congress more than three years to avoid formation of a political elite. Even with these limits on its powers, the Confederation Congress achieved some remarkable successes during its short life. Some of these successes can be seen in the documents linked on the right.

For additional documents related to these topics, search using such key words as confederationConfederation CongressArticles of Confederation, Land Ordinance of 1785, Northwest Ordinance of 1787Treaty of Paris (1783), and the terms found in the documents.