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Congress Approves the Articles of Confederation: November 15, 1777

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise.

Trying to get the states to agree on a constitution for the new national government proved a difficult task. Having thrown off the British yoke, the states cherished their independence and feared giving too much power to a central government. In July 1776, John Dickinson introduced into Congress the draft of a constitution called the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. This constitution called for a unicameral legislature, called the Congress, to which states would yearly send delegates. It gave the new government power to declare war and make peace, conclude treaties, regulate the coining of money, and decide in disputes between states.

These were the powers the Articles would give the central government. More revealing are the powers the states retained in this their first “social contract.” The articles were drawn with special attention to state sovereignty. Article two stated that “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” To protect the sovereignty of each state, every state, whatever its population, received one vote in Congress. The articles granted Congress no power to collect taxes; instead, Congress had to rely on state contributions for its revenue. Nor did Congress have the power to place duties on foreign trade. Any important decisions—such as declaring war, making treaties, and borrowing money—had to garner the agreement of nine of the 13 states. Further, any change in the articles had to draw the unanimous consent of all the state legislatures.

First page of the Articles of Confederation
First page of the Articles of Confederation

On November 15, 1777, Congress approved the Articles of Confederation and submitted them to the state legislatures for approval. It wasn’t until February 1779 that all the states but one approved the articles. Maryland alone held out.

Why did Maryland prove intransigent? A powerful cadre of land speculators, who had formed the Illinois-Wabash company, had convinced the Maryland legislature to delay ratification of the Articles until the settlement of a land dispute with Virginia. Virginia laid claim to western lands stretching from her southern border northward, and westward indefinitely from the borders of Maryland and Pennsylvania. In the colonial period, the Illinois-Wabash Company had illegally purchased some of this western land from the Indians; now, because Virginia had refused to recognize the company’s title to the land, the company wanted Virginia to cede her western lands to Congress.

In response to the Illionis-Wabash company’s demands, Virginia sent out an expedition (in 1778, while the war still raged) under George Rogers Clark. Clark passed down the Ohio to the mouth of the Cumberland River, and then marched through the wilderness, seizing Kaskaskia, a British fort on the Mississippi in what is now southwestern Illinois. The following year, with the help of a Catholic priest, Clark’s company took the settlement of Vincennes on the Wabash River. Virginia used Clark’s expedition to validate her claim to the lands west of the Appalachians and south of the Ohio River.

While it was lobbying Congress to federalize the western lands, the Illinois-Wabash Company had entered into negotiations with Spain. The company proposed the separation of the lands west of the Appalachians from the United States, with their formation into a separate republic under the protection of the Spanish king. A few members of Congress who were members of the company supported this plan, as did the French minister in Philadelphia (a share-holder in the company). The conspiracy was discovered, however, and in 1781 Virginia offered to cede her western lands to the United States. Maryland, her chief objection removed, agreed to ratify the Articles of Confederation. The Articles went formally into effect on March 1, 1781, only seven months before Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

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