Context and Explanation for the Articles of Confederation

(Another one from before my citations epiphany.)

The decade following the Declaration of Independence saw an emerging need for large-scale organization among the thirteen American colonies now rebelling against England. The Articles of Confederation were a first attempt at a national government. The colonial legislatures realized that they needed to present a unified front in order for Parliament to take their grievances seriously. Forming an alliance, signified by a committee comprised of representatives from each colony, seemed like a natural way to proceed.

The Articles of Confederation outlined the rights and obligations between the member units (the thirteen colonies) and the committee (the Continental Congress). Most power was held by the legislatures in each colony, which were made up of representatives elected by those with the power to do so in their respective localities. Land ownership was a common per-requisite for both voting and running for office, similar to the situation in England. Thus, the majority of voters and the majority of politicians were men with a decent amount of wealth. The legislatures would appoint representatives to the Continental Congress, and expect said representatives to act in the best interests of the legislature and the colony.

This idea worked well up until 1776, when serious discussion of independence began to be entertained, and the Continental Congress realized that they were directing a war, but could not draft soldiers or raise the funds to supply them. The majority of the Continental Army consisted of local militias, unified by the personality of George Washington, who was generally well-liked and respected. As the war wore on, however, Washington’s requests to Congress for men and supplies were met by the Congress’s frustration at having to request funding from the state legislatures, which could take weeks in either direction since all messages had to be sent by horseback. This was of course assuming that the state legislatures were even willing and/or able to provide the funds, which they sometimes were not. Legislatures were happy to send what troops and funds they could when the war was local, but tended to be less forthcoming when the majority of the fighting was happening in another area. Independent or not, most colonists (politicians and voters included) considered themselves citizens of their colony first, and anything larger than that was an afterthought. Even assuming that Congress was granted the needed funds to supply the army, the funds were generally provided in Congress-sponsored paper currency, which few merchants were willing to accept over metal currency or even state-backed paper. The disastrous winter at Valley Forge was partly the result of Washington’s inability to purchase supplies from local merchants, not only from a lack of cash, but also from merchants’ refusal to accept payment in Continental currency.

After the war’s conclusion, the Articles of Confederation continued to be inadequate on the subject of foreign policy, since states had difficulty acting in concert with each other on almost any subject, and would frequently undermine each other’s authority. For instance, the Treaty of Paris ended the moratorium on importing British-made manufactured goods, threatening the budding manufacturing industries in the northern and middle colonies. Attempts to regulate trade in order to favour domestic production failed because while most of New England voted to pass an excise on imports, Connecticut decided to do the opposite in order to attract more trade and benefit its own merchant class.

The Federalist party sought a stronger central government that would be able to more effectively engage in taxation, military defense, and economic negotiations. Anti-federalists did not think this was necessary, and saw the Continental Congress as being of little use in peace-time. Eventually, the Federalists were able to convince enough members of Congress to ratify the Constitution, which gave more power to the central government and created a more unified whole.


4 thoughts on “Context and Explanation for the Articles of Confederation

  1. Question. “The colonial legislatures realized that they needed to present a unified front in order for Parliament to take their grievances seriously.” Are you saying that the colonies considered that Parliament might take up their grievances as an alternative to outright rebellion?


    • Yes. By appealing to Parliament (and the public) as loyal English subjects seeking their full rights as loyal English subjects, the colonial legislatures hoped that they’d be able to avoid the serious business of treason (a spiritual crime as well as political one, due to the divine right of kings) and the mess and violence of full-out warfare. Parliament effectively called their bluff, assuming that there wouldn’t be enough popular support for a rebellion to be successful.


  2. Isaac Kramnick’s introduction to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (London: Penguin Books, 1986). I used it as a source for my “Open Letter to the American People by a Theoretical New York Delegate to the Continental Congress”. I also discuss it further in my post about the Magna Carta, but I don’t think that’s what you’re looking for.


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