A Firm League of Friendship - Northern Illinois University

A Firm League of Friendship:
The Articles of Confederation
Artemus Ward
Dept. of Political Science
Northern Illinois University
[email protected]
• The colonies finally agreed to act
collectively in the face of British
government decisions that
threatened their livelihood.
• The structure of the Continental
and Confederation Congress
under the Articles of
Confederation allowed individual
states to preserve their
autonomy, which was
particularly important for
southern states that sought to
preserve slavery.
• The “ineffectiveness” of the
Articles can be viewed as the
logical, by design, outcome of
states’ rights, anti-federalists
who had little use for collective
action beyond matters of foreign
war and peace.
Collective Action
• Since at least 1754, Benjamin
Franklin had been urging the
colonies to act in concert to
collectively solve local
• Two decades later,
representatives from the 13
American colonies comprised
a Continental Congress and
began meeting in 1774.
• Two years later they declared
independence from England.
• The Declaration made plain that
the 13 states were “united” in
declaring independence and
pledging to fight together.
• This unanimity, however, said
little about the general legal
authority of the Continental
Congress in any future situation
in which the newly independent
states might seek to disagree
among themselves, or where
one or more states might seek
to leave the alliance after
independence had been won.
• In short, the Declaration only
committed the 13 states to
independence and nothing
Declaration of
13 Sovereign States
• The opening passages of the Articles of Confederation variously described the
arrangement among the states as a “confederacy,” “confederation,” or “firm
league of friendship with each other.”
• Article II: ”Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and
every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly
• Article III: “The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship
with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and
their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other,
against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on
account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever."
• Legally, the words “confederacy,” “confederation,” and “league” all connoted the
same thing: The “United States” would be an alliance, a multilateral treaty of
sovereign nation-states.
• Moreover, the word “retains” strongly suggested that each state was already
sovereign and had been so since independence.
• Each state chose and sent their own delegates (up to 7), set their pay, told them
how to vote, and could recall them at will.
• Each state had one vote, 9 votes were required to pass legislation, and unanimity
was required to amend the Articles.
Key Provisions
• Article IV: established equal treatment and freedom of
movement for inhabitants of each state except for “paupers,
vagabonds, and fugitives from justice.” It also provided for
extradition from criminal matters.
• Article VI: empowered congress to conduct foreign affairs
(political and commercial) and to declare war. It prohibited
states from foreign affairs, war, and from maintaining standing
armies (but required they have ready militias).
• Article VIII: stipulated that congressional expenditures would be
paid by funds raised by state legislatures and apportioned based
on real property values of the states.
• Article IX: empowered congress to declare war, enter into
treaties, raise armies and navies, resolve disputes between
states, coin money, establish a post office, and conduct Indian
Congress of the Confederation (1781-1789)
• Congress was initially effective at guiding the states through the
final stages of the revolutionary war. It set up committees on
war, foreign affairs, and finance.
• Once the war ended, it quickly declined in importance and the
turnover rate for delegates was high as work in state
government was preferred by those who might serve.
• Yet there were 2 important acts that Congress passed during
1. Land Ordinance (1785) and Northwest Ordinance (1787) –
established federal control of the Northwest Territory (land
west of Pennsylvania and north of the Ohio river) with the
understanding that new states would be created—all of them
without slavery. Ultimately, the land was divided among Ohio,
Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota.
2. Philadelphia Convention (1787) – all states agreed to a
convention to amend the Articles.
Articles: A Lack of Means
• Although on paper Congress under the Articles
enjoyed some important powers, it had no effective
means of carrying them out.
– It could not directly tax individuals or legislate upon them;
– It had no explicit “legislative” or “governmental” power to
make binding “law” enforceable in state courts;
– It lacked broad authority to set up its own general courts;
– It could not regulate foreign or interstate commerce;
– and it could raise troops and money only by
“requisitioning” contributions from each state. On paper,
such requisitions were “binding.” In practice, they were
mere requests. It was said, Congress “may declare every
thing, but do nothing.”
• Congress could not draft and pay soldiers
and instead had to ask the states to send
troops and pay them.
• Congress promised revolutionary war
soldiers a pension but the states refused
to pay when the war ended.
• When Congress tried to print its own
money it quickly depreciated and
became worthless.
• The Treaty of Paris (1783) which formally
ended the war, languished for months as
state delegates failed to attend
congressional sessions.
• The states failed to fund a naval
campaign to defend American interests
against Barbary pirates on the high seas.
Fatal Omission
• By 1787, the Confederation was in shambles.
• Various states failed to honor requisitions, enacted laws
violating duly ratified treaties, waged unauthorized local wars
against Indian tribes, and maintained standing armies without
congressional permission—all in plain contravention of the
• As James Madison noted, the “fatal omission” of the Articles
was its failure to give Congress any power of “coercion” over the
states. He said this arose naturally “from a mistaken confidence
that the justice, the good faith, the honor, the sound policy” of
the assemblies reflected both their own “enthusiastic virtue”
and their “inexperience of the crisis” the war brought. In short,
the heady patriotism of revolution led to the naïve notion that
state legislators and their constituents would nobly comply with
the wishes of Congress.
Why Scrap the Articles?
• Of course the initial charge of the delegates to the
1787 Philadelphia convention was to amend the
Articles. But they quickly knew that was going to be
• Why? Because the closing passage (Article XIII) of
that document required that any amendment would
have to be agreed to by all 13 state legislatures.
• Every time the Confederation Congress had
previously proposed amendments, one or more
states had said no. Even Rhode Island refused to send
delegates to Philadelphia.
• Thus, the new Constitution would go into effect after
only 9 of the 13 states agreed and it could be
amended by ¾ of the states.
• The colonies only agreed to act collectively because
each felt their livelihoods was under threat from
• After the war, Congress was ineffective and weak
under the Articles of Confederation—which was
arguably by design.
• Because the Articles were essentially impossible to
amend, the Philadelphia delegates (all reformers) had
little choice but to create a new collective agreement.

similar documents