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The Articles of Confederation Summary
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The Articles of Confederation is a historical document outlining the original framework for the American government. The final version of the document was written by the members of the Continental Congress and published in 1777, although both Benjamin Franklin and John Dickinson submitted early drafts of the document to the Congress in 1775. Although the document provided an important starting point for governance, many aspects of the text proved to be insufficient for creating a strong, central government, and the document was later replaced by the U.S. Constitution.
The document contains thirteen separate articles describing the powers of the central government and individual states. In Articles I through V, the writers of the document officially name the union of the thirteen original colonies the “United States of America,” and claim that the individual states of the union are sovereign entities and retain all rights that are not expressly outlined in the Articles, but that they are also mutually obligated to protect each other in the event of attack from foreign powers.
The first five articles also establish open borders within the United States, and prohibit individual states from levying tariffs and duties or restricting the free movement of people in and out of the state. Likewise, every state is also obligated to extradite individuals who are wanted for crimes in other states.
The writers also explain that each state will be allowed between two to seven congressional delegates with term limits of three years each, that each state will only have one vote in Congress, and that individual states are free to form their own state legislatures to decide matters of internal governance. Congressional delegates are prohibited from making money while serving their term, and must not be prosecuted for free speech and debate in Congress.
Next, Articles VI to X outline additional restrictions on the states with regards to foreign relations and taxation. The articles prohibit individual states from entering into alliances or treaties with foreign countries, declaring war on foreign powers, keeping or commissioning battleships, and maintaining military forces beyond a small militia as required for the state’s defense. The only time when states may engage in wars not ordered by the national government is when they are attacked by pirates.
In addition to the exclusive right to enter into treaties, impose duties on foreign nations, and declare war, the national government also has the right to impose taxes on the states in order to raise money for national defense and other necessary expenses, and the taxes will be levied in proportion to the total value of each state’s land.
The articles also establish the role of Congress as the legal arbiter of boundary and jurisdiction disputes between individual states, and of conflicting land grants to private individuals by two or more states. Congress also has the sole power to coin currency and determine its value, regulate trade and commerce, deal with foreign Indian nations, create national courts to prosecute piracy and other crimes committed on the high seas, regulate post offices, and appoint navy officers. The articles also give Congress the right to create a national “Committee of States” to serve as a temporary government when Congress is not in session, to which each state will have one delegate. The Committee of States will be able to exercise Congressional powers as agreed upon by at least nine states.
Finally, Articles XI to XIII wrap up the document by leaving open the possibility of Canada joining the union, but stating that the admittance of all other colonies or territories into the union must be agreed upon by at least nine states. The last three articles also clarify that all money borrowed by Congress becomes part of the national debt, that all states of the Union agree to abide by the rules laid out in the Articles, and that any amendment to the Articles must be approved by Congress and ratified by the state legislatures of all thirteen states.
The Articles of Confederation was created in order to establish a coherent system of government for the newly formed United States. A recurring theme in the document is states’ rights, and the division of power between the states and the central government. Since the American founding fathers wrote the document in the shadow of British tyranny, they were wary of giving too much power to the central government and instead created a loose association of states that retained the right to regulate much of their own affairs. The system of government described in the Articles also underrepresented more populous states and had no mechanism to balance the conflicting political and economic interests of the individual states. Although the Articles was notable for creating a rough, early framework for American government, it ultimately failed because it did not allocate enough power to the central government.