How the Articles Worked    

Articles of Confederation Basics

The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (to give their full name) were drafted by the Continental Congress which met at the outbreak of the American Revolution.  They were ratified and took effect on March 1, 1781.  They remained in force for eight years and three days, until March 4, 1789, on which day they were superseded by the Constitution of the United States (COTUS), which is still in effect.

The Articles provided for a federal government of limited power under a unicameral (single house) Congress.  There was no President of the United States.  (Congress did however have a presiding officer called a President; see Presidents of Congress.) Each state had one vote in Congress, but multiple representatives who would combine to cast that vote.  The representatives were called delegates.

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Congress had the power to declare war, raise an army and navy, appoint army and navy officers, make peace, appoint and receive ambassadors, and enter into treaties with foreign countries.  Congress had less power over domestic affairs.  It could operate a mint, fix standards of weights, measures, and coinage, manage relations with American Indians who were “not members of any of the States”, and operate a post office.

The most critical omission in the powers of Congress was that it had no power to tax.  It could borrow money, and spend money, but it could not tax.  It could only ask the states for money, or ask the states to retire the debts it had incurred.  If Congress asked the states for money, it was to ask “in proportion to the value of all land within each State”.

The Articles provided for a limited federal judiciary.  Congress could appoint courts “for the trial of piracies and felonies committed on the high seas”, for hearing appeals concerning war captures, and for settling state boundary disputes.  State courts would handle everything else.

There were few restrictions on state governments, except that they could not conduct their own foreign policy.  Other than that, the states went on electing governors and legislatures, passing laws and operating court systems, much as they had before the Articles and indeed even before the American Revolution.

Getting Elected to Congress

The Articles provided that delegates should be elected “in such manner as the Legislature of each State shall direct”.  Terms lasted only one year.  Most legislatures elected their delegates themselves.  If the legislature had two houses, they would meet together and vote, usually by secret ballot, in joint session.   Pennsylvania and Georgia had unicameral legislatures, and so balloted within a single house.

There were exceptions.  Connecticut passed a law providing for direct popular elections in May 1779, effective the following year.  Twenty candidates were nominated in the fall, and seven elected in the spring.  The ballots were counted in the state legislature in May.  The law remained in force for the duration of the Confederation.  When delegates died, resigned, or refused to serve, the legislature could elect a replacement for the balance of the year.

Rhode Island also experimented with popular elections in 1778 and 1779, but had reverted to legislative election before the Articles were ratified.

In South Carolina, in 1781, the legislature was unable to meet due to the incursions of British troops.  The Governor, John Rutledge, made an emergency appointment of seven delegates to Congress on October 4, 1781.  They served until May 1782, by which time the legislature had been able to meet and elect replacements.

The Articles allowed each state to be represented by between two and seven delegates at any given time.  In practice states elected anywhere between three and seven delegates; the most common number being five.  It would often happen, however, that one or more of the persons elected would never show up, and others might be absent for significant periods.

No state adopted any form of districting during the Confederation period.  The delegates represented the state as a whole.

Term Limits

The Confederation period represents the only time in American history that members of the United States Congress have been subject to term limits.

And, strict term limits they were:  Members were limited to three consecutive one-year terms, after which they had to sit out three years to be re-eligible.  In the formal language of Article V: “(N)o person shall be capable of being a delegate for more than three years in any six years.”

madisonThe clock began to run when the Articles were ratified on March 1, 1781, at which time most members were in mid-term.  Consequently the impact was first felt in the elections of 1783.  James Madison (left), for example, had been elected by Virginia in 1780, 1781, and 1782; he had to stand down in 1783 or he would have run afoul of term limits on March 1, 1784.  He sat out the requisite three years, and then returned to Congress in 1786.

Other well-known members of Congress forced to stand down included Oliver Ellsworth, Elias Boudinot, Elbridge Gerry, Rufus King, and Madison’s fellow future president, James Monroe.

Did term limits work?  Certainly, they discouraged individuals from pursuing a lifetime career in Congress.  But, few wanted to do so anyway.  Given chronic attendance problems, it’s difficult to imagine that the United States benefited from the exclusion of men such as Madison, Boudinot, and Monroe. 

The three-year term limit was probably overly draconian; when citizens resumed agitating for term limits for state legislatures and Congress in the late Twentieth Century, the most common proposals were for limits to consecutive tenure of between eight and 12 years.

Voting in Congress

 Congressmen voted as individuals, but their votes were counted by state.  The following excerpt from the Journals shows how it worked.



This particular vote took place on March 21, 1781, on a motion to allow Robert Morris, the new Superintendent of Finance, the power to hire and fire his assistants.  Two Virginia delegates voted aye and one no, so Virginia was aggregated into an “aye”.  New Jersey had only two delegates and they were divided.  New Hampshire had but a single delegate; he voted, but his vote didn’t count, because the Articles required each state to be represented by at least two delegates.  New Hampshire is thus asterisked as an abstention.  Rhode Island had no delegates present, and is not shown at all.

The tally (not shown) was nine states in favor, one opposed, one divided, one (New Hampshire) under-represented, and one (Rhode Island) unrepresented.  The motion carried.

The Articles specified that no motion “except for adjourning from day to day, be determined, unless by a vote of a majority of the United States, in Congress assembled”.  Congress interpreted this to mean that no motion of any kind could pass without the support of at least seven out of the 13 states.  This was a departure from previous practice in the Continental Congress, under which a motion could be carried, for example, by six states to four.  Under the Confederation rule, every divided state, every under-represented state, and every absent state effectively acted as a negative on every question.   Given chronic absenteeism, this led to frequent paralysis and deadlock.

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