The Articles of Confederation: America’s First Constitution

Detail of the Articles of Confederation, ratified March 1, 1781 - National Archives

By John Morrison

Amid the chaos of the Revolutionary War, which pitted 13 separate entities against a common enemy, it became apparent that the colonies’ different agendas were stalling military success. At the same time, the “free and independent states,” as labeled in the Declaration of Independence, feared yielding too much power to a central government. A year in the writing and four years in the ratifying, the Articles of Confederation was the compromise that established our first national government. For that reason, some argue the first president of the United States was not George Washington but rather Samuel Huntington of Scotland, who served as the president of Congress in 1781 when the colonies first became a nation.

Article 1 of the recently ratified Articles of Confederation simply stated, “The Style of this confederacy shall be ‘The United States of America.'” A dozen articles followed that reaffirmed states’ powers and a willingness to create commonality. This established delegated powers for the federal government and reserved powers retained by the states.

Legislative procedures gave each state one vote, required a “super majority” on important issues, and established requirements for representatives. Regulations for trade (domestic and international) and the creation of a national currency helped stabilize the economy. The Articles of Confederation also allowed the burgeoning nation to request soldiers and funds from the states; however, there was nothing that required the states to honor those requests, which often went unfulfilled. Therefore, the first attempt at a national government lacked enough power to be effective, which ultimately led to calls, first for revision and then for replacement at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

John Morrison teaches US history at Moran Middle School in Wallingford, is a participant in the Teaching American History program of the US Department of Education, and a Civil War re-enactor with Company F 14th Connecticut Volunteer Regiment. He holds a BA from New England College as well as an MA and Sixth Year Professional Diploma from Southern Connecticut State University.

Learn More


National Archives. “Articles of Confederation (1777),” 2012. Link.
Yale Law School. “The Avalon Project: Articles of Confederation, March 1, 1781,” 2008. Link.


United States Constitution Bicentennial Commission of Connecticut, and Connecticut Humanities Council. 350 Years of Connecticut Government. a Search for the Common Good. Teacher’s Manual. Hartford, CT: Connecticut Consortium for Law-Related Education, 1991.
Callahan, Kerry P. The Articles of Confederation: A Primary Source Investigation into the Document That Preceded the U.s. Constitution. New York, NY: Rosen Primary Source, 2003.
Feinberg, Barbara Silberdick. The Articles of Confederation: The First Constitution of the United States. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2002.


Laurens, Henry. “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union Between the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Caralina, South-Carolina and Georgia.” Connecticut Courant and Hartford Weekly Intelligencer (1774-1778), January 6, 1778, sec. ProQuest - Hartford Courant Historical Newspaper database - Available through

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