Government and Politics

Declaration of Independence

What were the Articles of Confederation?

This American document was the forerunner to the U.S. Constitution (1788). Drafted by the Continental Congress at York, Pennsylvania, on November 15, 1777, the Articles of Confederation went into effect on March 1, 1781, when the last state (Maryland) ratified them. The articles had shortcomings that were later corrected by the Constitution: They provided the states with more power than the central government, stipulating that Congress rely on the states both to collect taxes and to carry out the acts of Congress.

It is largely thanks to Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804) that the articles were thrown out: realizing they made for a weak national government, Hamilton led the charge to strengthen the central government—even at the expense of the states. Eventually, he won the backing of George Washington (1732–1799), James Madison (1751–1836), John Jay (1745–1829), and others, which led to the convening of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, where the ineffectual Articles of Confederation were thrown out and the Constitution was drafted.

One lasting provision of the Articles of Confederation was the ordinance of 1787. Signed in an era of westward expansion, the ordinance set the guidelines for how a territory could become a state: A legislature would be elected as soon as the population had reached 5,000 voting citizens (which were men only), and the territory would be eligible for statehood once its population had reached 60,000.


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