The Articles of Confederation was a legal document designed to prevent government tyranny. No fat-cat monarchs allowed, basically. As such, the laws contain an appeal to Enlightenment ethical ideas.
For example, Article 3 promises that the government will provide for "common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare" (3.1). These prescriptions are straight out of John Locke's social contract theory. Locke, a big influence on American thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, believed that the role of government was to protect the safety and wellbeing of citizens while respecting their natural rights. (Source)
Also pay attention to how the above sentence uses a kind of list format to enumerate, or name, the powers and purpose of the government. The "list" rhetoric of the Articles often shines through in the form of anaphora, or repetition of words. For example, check out the entirety of Article 6. Just about every sentence in this section belongs with "no state," causing the writing to take on a repetitive—but clear—structure.
It's sort of like a Buzzfeed listicle (7 Crazy Powers of the Confederation Congress!). This language reflects the goal of specificity and objectivity, both considered characteristics of ethical rhetoric.
The introduction and conclusion to the document also say that the delegates are acting in accordance with God's wishes, reinforcing the document's claim to moral legitimacy. "It hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures […] to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union" (13.3).
In other words, God told them to sign this document. As far as ethics go, there was no higher authority for the colonists than the Almighty. Remember, this was before the 1st Amendment was a thing, so the phrase "separation of church and state" hadn't quite made it into the national playbook.
It's pretty simple. The Articles of Confederation consists of thirteen short sections (which—surprise—are labeled "Articles I-XIII"), plus a preamble (or introduction) and conclusion. Easy-peasy lemon squeezy.
The thirteen articles are broken down into clauses, or sentences, which each detail a law of the new government. It doesn't get much more straightforward for that—well, unless you have a King. Like other legal charters, such as the Constitution and the attached Bill of Rights, the Articles of Confederation were written to be as concise and organized as possible. Since the United States was supposed to be a "perpetual," (Conclusion.3) or permanent union.
The preamble to the Articles of Confederation announces the purpose of the document: to provide for a union between the thirteen former British colonies.
The main body of the text specifies what the new government can or cannot do. It details everything from "the stile of the confederacy" (1.1) to laws regarding war and relations with the American Indians. But the key point here is that most governing powers are left to the states.
What isn't in the Articles of Confederation is just as important as what is—for example, under this document, the national government didn't even have the ability to collect taxes, only ask for them nicely.
Claiming God as their witness, the delegates signed the document and sent it to the states. They only had to wait four years for each state to agree to abide by the rules of the new union. Even while some states were still on the fence, the document was the effective charter of government for the nation.
This text isn't exactly a romantic poem, Shmoopers. Organization is the key word to keep in mind when reading legal documents from early American history (that includes the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence). To keep the government charter as organized as possible, the drafters of the Articles of Confederation divided the text into Articles with subsidiary clauses.
Clauses function sort of like paragraphs: they express one idea about what the government can or can't do. They are usually written as single sentences. For a good example, check out Article 5, clause 4. "In determining questions in the United States in Congress assembled, each State shall have one vote." (5.4). Remember: one sentence/clause equals one rule.
The bad news is that a bunch of the clauses in the Articles run much longer than this one. Take a look, if you dare, at 9.3. This clause lays out the procedure for resolving a legal dispute between states. The one sentence, one rule maxim of legal writing means that every exception, loophole, and clarification for a rule has to be covered in the clause.
That means packing a lot of detail in a single sentence, which translates to a lot of commas, colons, and semicolons. This kind of exhaustive writing is not what you would find in a popular novel…unless you're talking about Infinite Jest.
This style is similar to how modern legislation is drafted; legal documents in today's Congress, just like in the Second Continental Congress, are usually written and amended by committee (remember, John Dickinson's first draft ended up being heavily revised). Don't look for the individual voice of a speechwriter or the flowery phrases of a Thomas Jefferson in this text.
So why is it the Articles of Confederation? Why not the Articles of Union or the Articles of Bromance?
As we noted in our handy-dandy Glossary section, the word "confederation" implies an alliance of independent entities coming together for a common purpose. Using the word Confederation reinforced the notion that this was supposed to be a government by the states, for the states. Remember, the national government of the Confederation was designed to remain relatively weak.
Later, when Southern states seceded and kicked off the Civil War, their choice of name—the Confederate States of America—was deliberately chosen to emphasize state autonomy. As a result of that decision, today the words "Confederacy" and "Confederation" are associated with secession and the legacy of Southern slavery.
Not a whole lot in this case. Unlike the Constitution, which starts off with a poetic Preamble, the Articles of Confederation simply begin with a salutation, or greeting, from the delegates of the various states: "To All to whom these presents shall come" (Intro.1).
Sounds sort of like a letter from Santa…
The Conclusion to the text states that the "Great Governor of the World"—i.e., God—has inspired the delegates of Congress to ratify, or agree to, the completed Articles of Confederation. (Remember, this was before that key phrase "separation of church and state" had entered the national vocabulary.)
The last section also promises the "faith of our respective constituents" (Conclusion.2), meaning that the citizens of the various states are required to abide by the rules established in the document, and to go along with the decisions made by Congress.
Finally, it promises a "perpetual" union (Conclusion.3), or one that will last forever. Even though the Articles themselves got chucked, that clause proved accurate: the United States is still alive and kicking.
There's some pretty tongue-twisting language in the Articles of Confederation, not to mention a bunch of lengthy legal clauses full of semicolons that seem to simply go on; and on; and on; and on; and on.
But once you get past the stiff style of the 1770s, this document's pretty short and sweet. Just think of it as the Diet Constitution.
Monarchies (6.1, 6.3)
"Great Governor of the World," a.k.a. God (Conclusion.1)
Native American Tribes (6.5, 9.5)
Alexander Hamilton (The Federalist Papers: Number 15) (Paragraph 3. Sentence 1), (7.1) )
George Washington (Letter to James Warren) (Paragraph 2. Sentence 4)
Abraham Lincoln (First Inaugural Address) (Paragraph 17. Sentence 3) )
Texas v. White
In this 1869 case, the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal for states to secede from the union, and all legislative action taken by Southern states during the Civil War was null and void.
The Articles of Confederation were drafted in York, Pennsylvania (current pop. about 45,000). Sometimes Yorkers use this fact to claim their town was the nation's first capital. (Source)
During the Revolutionary War, the British burned down John Dickinson's house in Pennsylvania, considering him the "ruler of America." He later enlisted in the Delaware militia at the lowest rank—private. What's worse than going after the wrong guy? Finding out there is no one guy. (Source)
Benjamin Franklin was elected unanimously by the Pennsylvania Assembly to represent his state in the Second Continental Congress. He had returned from a trip to England one day before the vote. Rumor has it that he dropped the mic and the quill. (Source)
A fringe history theory holds that John Hanson, whom some historians speculate had African ancestry, was not only the "first president," but the first African-American President. Unlike the real first African-American president, he didn't get his own Nas song. (Source)
By law, all 13 states had to agree to any measure to amend the Articles of Confederation. Under the Constitution, only three quarters of the states (38 out of 50) have to agree. The young nation truly was 13 going on 38. (Source)