The “Perpetual” in Perpetual Union


The Articles of Confederation provided for a weaker federal government than the subsequent Constitution of the United States (COTUS).  This is well known, and not at all controversial among historians.

And yet, in one singular respect, the Articles were stronger.  They explicitly declared the union of the United States to be perpetual—both in their formal title (The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union) and again in their text.  (Article XIII: “(T)he Articles of Confederation shall be inviolably observed by every State, and the union shall be perpetual.”)

The COTUS merely speaks of a “more perfect Union”, and says nothing about its duration.

There is no evidence of any debate on the topic, among the framers of either the Articles or the COTUS.  The word “perpetual” was in John Dickinson’s first draft of the Articles, and it remained in the finished product.  Likewise, it was omitted from the COTUS without any recorded comment or debate.

This of course left the Southern states free to assert that they were exercising a constitutional prerogative when they seceded from the Union at the onset of the Civil War (1860-61).  They would not have been able to make such an assertion with respect to the otherwise weaker Articles.  To be sure, the Southern states would have seceded anyway.  But they would have had to label it as an act of revolution, not as an exercise of a legitimate constitutional option.

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