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Articles of Confederation

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noun (used with a plural verb)
the first constitution of the 13 American states, adopted in 1781 and replaced in 1789 by the Constitution of the United States.
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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022

MORE ABOUT ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION

What are the Articles of Confederation?

The Articles of Confederation were the first constitution of the 13 independent American colonies. They were in effect from 1781 until 1787.

A constitution is a document that establishes the laws and principles of a country. In its history, the United States has had two constitutions.

The Articles of Confederation served as the first constitution, declaring that the confederacy of the former 13 colonies would be called “The United States of America.” The Articles of Confederation consisted of 13 articles that gave powers to a national government, which was led by Congress. These powers included the ability to engage in foreign relations, declare war, determine the value of coins minted in the US, borrow money, and appoint military officers. According to the articles, every state would have a single vote in Congress.

By design, the Articles of Confederation established a very limited federal government. Rather than establish an independent country as we would think of it, the Articles of Confederation stated that the states would form a “league of friendship” and would agree to defend each other from attack. The federal government had no executive leader and disputes would be settled by courts composed of randomly chosen members of Congress rather than federal judges.

The Founding Fathers would later be very unsatisfied with the Articles of Confederation. The national government it created had no power to tax citizens, regulate interstate commerce, or force the individual states to contribute to the military. By all accounts, the Articles of Confederation were a failure.

Today, the Articles of Confederation are kept in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The document has had no legal power since 1787.

Why is Articles of Confederation important?

The Articles of Confederation were written in 1776 and 1777 by a committee appointed by the Second Continental Congress, with John Dickinson of Delaware acting as the main writer. Congress passed the articles in 1777, but the states didn’t ratify them until 1781. Even at the time, states and delegates were unhappy with portions of the Articles of Confederation. 

While they did settle the disputes over land claims among the states and established the territorial governments out west, the Articles of Confederation were incapable of creating a strong, unified central government. It was eventually replaced with the Constitution of the United States, the document that serves as the  fundamental law of the country today.

Ultimately, the Articles of Confederation served one important purpose: they created a national government that was so poor that it motivated political leaders to do better. Using what they learned from the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation, the delegates later drafted a constitution that made a more powerful yet still limited central government.

Did you know ... ?

According to the Articles of Confederation, Canada (yes, all of Canada) could freely choose to become the 14th state of America without needing the approval of any of the states. Canada was the only territory given this special treatment.

What are real-life examples of Articles of Confederation?

OurDocuments.gov

Pictured above is the upper half of the Articles of Confederation. The original document kept in the National Archives is actually six scrolls of parchment sewn together.

For most Americans, the Articles of Confederation are a neat bit of American history.

 

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

The Articles of Confederation established a national government that was too powerful.

How to use Articles of Confederation in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for Articles of Confederation

Articles of Confederation

pl n
the agreement made by the original 13 states in 1777 establishing a confederacy to be known as the United States of America; replaced by the Constitution of 1788
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for Articles of Confederation

Articles of Confederation

An agreement among the thirteen original states, approved in 1781, that provided a loose federal government before the present Constitution went into effect in 1789. There was no chief executive or judiciary, and the legislature of the Confederation had no authority to collect taxes.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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