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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

Required Lecture LO I

Suggested Readings:

Suggested Viewing 

Study Guide

Learning Objective One: 

Discuss the introductory and background material leading to the development of the Articles of Confederation.

Lecture: LO1

On June 12, 1776, the Second Continental Congress named a thirteen man committee to draw up a federal constitution. By the following November, the Articles of Confederation were endorsed by the Continental Congress and submitted to the states for ratification.

The Articles of Confederation was mostly the work of John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. He referred to it as a "League of Friendship." Complete ratification of the Articles did not occur until March 1, 1781. It took five years to draw up the Articles and to have all 13 states approve them. This five year delay in drawing up and implementing a government indicates the lack of common unity between the states.

John Dickinson, author of the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union

A major complaint was that the land-blessed states could sell their trans-Allegheny tracts and thus pay off pensions and other debts incurred in the common cause. States without such holdings would have to tax themselves heavily to defray these obligations. It seemed only logical that the whole western area should be turned over to the central government which could dispose of the land for the "common benefit."

The delay was caused by Maryland's refusal to ratify the Articles until the seven landed states claiming western lands ceded them to the new government under the Articles. The six landless states argued that their more fortunate partners would not have retained possession of their western area if all the states had not fought together. 

At issue was a conflict between "landed" states, whose original charters granted them land west of the Appalachian Mountains (and in some cases to the Pacific Ocean), and the "landless" states, whose boundaries were clearly defined and finite. The situation was made even more complicated by the Proclamation of 1763, in which King George III dictated that land west of the Appalachian Mountains was off-limits to American settlers even if it was included in their colonial charters. Private speculators and corporations took advantage of this no-man's land to purchase property directly from Native Americans, banking on the fact that when the area was opened up, they would already own huge stakes of it.


The declaration of war complicated things further. Did the declaration of war return land to each state as originally chartered? Did the declaration of war automatically endow Congress, as the successor to the British king, with authority over the land referred to in the Proclamation of 1763? The "landless" states believed that the land belonged to Congress, and further bolstered their argument by claiming that disputed land should be shared by all the states. The "landed" states, which also happened to favor state sovereignty, argued that the declaration of war meant that each state returned to the sovereignty, rights, and privileges as granted in its original colonial charter. In other words, the "landed" states claimed the land as legally theirs.

The "landless" states had a variety of concerns regarding this situation. Primarily, they were concerned that influential speculators living within their states would lose the land they had purchased from Native Americans before the war. Additionally, Congress decided to allow soldiers to be compensated with land instead of cash, and "landless" states did not have the excessive land to give that states like Virginia and North Carolina did. This unfair economic advantage threatened the economic future of the "landless" states as well.


Fiercely jealous of the income potential of the "landed" states, "landless" states frequently argued that they would be swallowed up by their more powerful neighbors. "Landed" states could not only gain an economic advantage from the land, but with a broader base of income to draw revenue from, they could also use lower taxes to entice residents away from the "landless" states. The "landless" states would be left in an unfair position of being economically disadvantaged, and would be forced into a perpetual cycle of levying higher taxes on a increasingly smaller population until they went broke.


States like Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey claimed that Congress had to resolve the competing claims over western lands as part of the Articles of Confederation. Congress strongly resisted doing so, and individual "landed" states proceeded to deal with the land as though it belonged to them. Virginia even went so far as to hold trials to determine if the claims of speculation companies were legal. In all cases, Virginia determined that the land was unlawfully sold and purchased, and that any claims but those authorized by Virginia were worthless.


Finding no remedy in the Articles, Maryland withheld its signature in protest. Although this concerned the other states, the "landed states" still refused to give up their land to Congress. Instead, the solution was born out of military necessity. When the southern states began to feel the power of the British invasion late in the war, a French diplomat threatened to remove the protection of the French navy from Maryland's seas if Maryland did not sign the Articles. Meanwhile, some Virginians began to see that it would be more of a burden, and potentially bad for democracy, to have to govern over too much land. Around the same time as Maryland signed the Articles, Virginia ceded its land north of the Ohio River to Congress.


The Virginia cession of land is significant in that it allowed Congress to pass the Land Ordinance of 1784 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, both providing a process for the fair and equal entry of new states to the union. The cession also partially increased congressional authority in the acquisition of new lands. In conjunction with the clause relating to congressional jurisdiction over Native American tribes (who did not live in one of the states), Congress gained almost sole authority over land and issues west of the Appalachian Mountains.


Once approved, the creation of the new government under the Articles did little more than legalize what the Second Continental Congress had been doing since 1775. The Congress under the Articles of Confederation was organized in the same way and had the same powers as the Continental Congress . Each state was represented by not less than two or more than seven members, as it might choose, but no member could serve for more than three years in any six. That is, if a man were elected to Congress three years in a row, he was ineligible for re-election until three more years had passed .


Or, a delegate could serve every other year indefinitely. The objective of this provision was to prevent emergence of a class of professional office-holders at the national level who regarded public office as their personal property . Each state had one vote ; in the event of disagreement within a state delegation, the majority would control the state's v

ote. Nine of the 13 states were required for a decision on important matters such as making war or concluding treaties, borrowing money , and raising armed forces. Amending the Articles themselves required a unanimous agreement of Congress and of every one of the state legislatures, which was impossible to get.