On this day in 1781, the Articles of Confederation are finally ratified. The Articles were signed by Congress and sent to the individual states for ratification on November 15, 1777, after 16 months of debate. Bickering over land claims between Virginia and Maryland delayed final ratification for almost four more years. Maryland finally approved the Articles on March 1, 1781, affirming the Articles as the outline of the official government of the United States. The nation was guided by the Articles of Confederation until the implementation of the current U.S. Constitution in 1789.
The critical distinction between the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution —the primacy of the states under the Articles—is best understood by comparing the following lines.
The Articles of Confederation begin:
“To all to whom these Present shall come, we the undersigned Delegates of the States”
By contrast, the Constitution begins:
“We the People of the United States do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The predominance of the states under the Articles of Confederation is made even more explicit by the claims of Article II:
“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.”
Less than five years after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, enough leading Americans decided that the system was inadequate to the task of governance that they peacefully overthrew their second government in just over 20 years. The difference between a collection of sovereign states forming a confederation and a federal government created by a sovereign people lay at the heart of debate as the new American people decided what form their government would take.
Between 1776 and 1787, Americans went from living under a sovereign king, to living in sovereign states, to becoming a sovereign people. That transformation defined the American Revolution.