Articles of Confederation


After gaining independence from Great Britain, the United States was operating under the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.”  Under the Articles, the states retained sovereignty over all governmental functions that were not relinquished to the federal government. 

The Articles of Confederation was the first constitution of the United States and it was in force from March 1, 1781, to June 21, 1788.  However, the Articles of Confederation had many inherent weaknesses.  Under the Articles, there was no separation of powers.  The central government was weak since the majority of the power rested with the states and Congress was not given the power to tax.. The Articles of Confederation called for unanimous approval of the states to change or amend the Articles, and for the approval by 9 of the 13 states to pass all major laws.  This proved to be cumbersome. Moreover, the fact that the Congress did not have the power to regulate commerce caused competition as well as diplomatic issues between states. 

In an effort to bring about change, 55 delegates began gathering almost daily in the State House in Philadelphia beginning on May 25, 1787 in order to revise the Articles of Confederation.   However, by the middle of June, it became clear to the delegates that rather than a mere amendment to the Articles of Confederation, they would have to write an entirely new document that clearly defines and separates the powers of the central government, the powers of the states, the rights of the people and how the representatives of the people should be elected.

By 1787, a document incorporating these provisions was created and on September 17, 1787, the delegates of the Constitutional Convention met to sign the document they had created.  Of the 55 people who attended the Convention, only 39 signed on the document. Some left as the Convention progressed, whereas others refused to sign in protest.  Since Rhode Island refused to send a delegate, no representative from Rhode Island signed the document.  In addition to the 39 delegates, the convention’s secretary William Jackson also signed the document, not as a delegate, but in attestation of the document’s signing.

The Constitution was finally adopted by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and later ratified by special conventions in each of the then-existing thirteen American states.  Today, the United States Constitution is the supreme law of the United States of America.