Study Guide

Articles of Confederation

By The Second Continental Congress, John Dickinson

Articles of Confederation Introduction

Nobody ever nails something on the first try (except for Django).

Most great ideas—from gadgets to governments—had a trial-and-error stage before they were perfected. The United States was no exception. The national pride we celebrate today on the 4th of July wasn't always a thing. America didn't become America The Beautiful overnight.

By now you've heard of a little event called the American Revolution, when a bunch of salty landowners, intellectuals and musketeers from the original thirteen American colonies got together and decided to kick the collective British butt off the continent.

Even after the Declaration of Independence was signed (7/4/1776, hecky yes) there were some big, lingering questions. What was the new nation going to be? Was it going to be a unified nation at all, or would each colony have its own independent government? Who was in charge of bringing snacks? Did we feel like something salty or something sweet? How about drinks—was Dr. Pepper good for everyone, or did we need to throw some 7-Up into the mix?

And oh yeah—how were we going to pay for this war we started?

The colonies (now the independent states) needed some kind of government to keep them working together during the war. So a group of delegates, or representatives, from each state assembled in a rarefied gentlemen's club called the Second Continental Congress. At a meeting in Philadelphia these men (yes, they were indeed all men and white and mostly old) drafted the Articles of Confederation, a document outlining the basic laws of the new United States of America.

But, pro-tip: don't get the Articles of Confederation confused with the Constitution.

The Second Continental Congress finished the new document on November 15th, 1777. The current Constitution didn't exist until a few years later (it was framed, or written, between 1787 and 89). But hey, don't worry too much about the dates. Just think of the Articles of Confederation as Friendster and the Constitution as Facebook.

One followed the other…and found a bit more success.

  

So why did this prototype United States only last a few years? Under the Articles of Confederation, the States were basically allowed to do whatever they wanted, except wage war or make alliances with other countries. The new national government didn't have much meat on its bones—it lacked a Supreme Court, a President, and an agency to collect taxes.

In fact, the whole tax-collection method was basically the honor system: states were supposed to send money to the national Congress on their own time. That's kind of like letting someone grade their own test.Maybe they'll do it…or maybe they'll just give themselves an A and move on.

Anyway, under the Articles of Confederation the recently liberated colonies didn't exactly thrive.

The new national Congress couldn't pay off debts from the Revolutionary War, which meant it couldn't pay the soldiers who risked their lives to fight the British. It had to print money when states didn't send in their taxes, causing inflation. The national currency, the "Continental," became worthless. (Source)

America couldn't even make trade agreements with other nations, because there was always the possibility that individual states might break the rules and back out of them. The result? The economy stunk like week-old unrefrigerated fish fingers, and veteran soldiers started to rebel against state governments, looking for their paychecks and a better deal.

People were even afraid that Britain or some other European country might try to sneak back in and re-conquer the feeble new nation. (Source)

Most historians consider the era of the Articles of Confederation as a kind of temporary lull in the history of the American government. After some rough and tumble years, this seed of the real 'Murica eventually grew up into something bigger and better.

And that, Shmoopers, is why people don't usually shoot off fireworks on November 15th (although, frankly, there's no bad day of the year for a fireworks display).

What is Articles of Confederation About and Why Should I Care?

As far as names for things go, "U.S.A." is almost as catchy as "Johnny Cash " "Vin Diesel" or "Yoko Ono."

It just sounds good. It's perfectly punctuated with a stern fist-rap on a hardwood table. It's the perfect number of syllables for chanting at World Cup soccer games. It's perfect for singing in triple meter time: you can even waltz to it. (Hey, back in the day the waltz was considered scandalous

And we can thank the old white men who wrote the Articles of Confederation for the name "The United State of America," which is laid out right in Article I, Sentence 1.

But let's talk about that "states" part of "United States of America" for a hot second.

Many countries have distinct regions with strong cultural identities (don't ever confuse a Sicilian with a Northern Italian, capisce?). But the U.S. is special for not only having strong state identities (don't y'all ever confuse a Georgian with a Oregonian—bless your heart) but also for having a tradition of strong local government.

Sure, the federal government's super-powerful today, but there's still quite a bit of decision-making left to governors and state legislatures. This can be traced back to the thinking behind the Articles of Confederation, which left all powers not specifically reserved for the federal government to the governments of the States. That idea even made it into the Constitution, in the form of the Ninth Amendment.

This whole states-versus-feds thing is a big—nay a huge—deal throughout American history. You want examples? We got 'em:

  • The Civil War—Southern states wanted to own slaves, but the federal government wanted to end slavery.
  • The Civil Rights Movement—the federal government wanted to make states with a history of racial segregation integrate schools and public services.
  • The LGBTQ Rights Movement—the Supreme Court voted to legalize gay marriage, but many Americans still believe that the states should have the authority to define marriage.
  • Abortion—it's legal nationwide, but some states constantly challenge its legality in court and try to create their own regulations.
  • Drug laws—several states have ignored federal law, which prohibits marijuana use, and voted to make it a legal substance.
  • Taxes—some current political candidates say the IRS, the primary tax-collection agency of the federal government, should be abolished and replaced with a more state-friendly system.

Sure, the Constitution created a powerful federal government. But the tug-of-war between states and the feds never went away, even after the Articles of Confederation got pushed aside. States' rights are as American as a triple-decker burger, truck shows, or a bald eagle flying over amber waves of grain while clutching the stars and stripes in his beak.

Articles of Confederation Resources

Websites

Our Documents
The official government archive page for the Articles of Confederation—with links to the transcript and other documents.

History Channel Summary of the Articles of Confederation
The makers of endless documentaries about Hitler and UFOs provide a solid overview of the how the early American government came to be. (How did Thomas Jefferson convince Virginia and Maryland to ratify the Articles of Confederation? Aliens.)

Movie or TV Productions

1776
It's a musical about the Continental Congress—watch Thomas Jefferson spontaneously burst into song.

The Road to Independence
This animated film prominently features John Dickinson, whom you don't hear from in most Revolutionary War movies.

Articles and Interviews

Yale Avalon: Thomas Jefferson on the Articles of Confederation
You don't get much closer than this: read Jefferson's take on the Articles from his autobiography, via Yale University's Avalon project.

Attempts to Revise the Articles of Confederation
The University of Wisconsin History Department has compiled a list of all the revision efforts leading up to the Constitutional Convention.

Video

The Articles of Confederation in One Minute
Check out the How it Happens channel for a short and sweet primer; the channel also has quick-hit videos on the Constitution and other U.S. History Topics.

Shays' Rebellion Video
For more on the economic problems created by the Articles of Confederation, see this short excerpt from the History Channel documentary on the subject, complete with dramatic music, reenactments, and a guy who looks remarkably like Woody Harrelson (at 4:58).

Audio

Founding Documents Podcast
Learn Out Loud presents a podcast overview of America's founding documents—good for learning about the powers of the Confederation Congress while running on the treadmill.

Images

The 1777 Draft
You can actually read the handwriting on this original copy of the Articles from Our Documents. They made the first "T" really, really big.

Library of Congress Copy of the Articles of Confederation
The LOC website shows one of the copies that was printed and distributed to the various states. Imagine getting one of these in the mail.