The first constitution of the newly independent American nation was sent to the states for ratification on this day in 1777--though it would be amended in July of 1778 and not actually adopted until March of 1781. Throughout most of the War for Independence therefore, the federal union was held together by a provisional government and both the nascent Presidency and the assembled Congress had only such powers as the states afforded them by proxy. The new constitution, called The Articles of Confederation, enumerated the powers of both the federation and of the individual states and was heralded as a great leap forward in republicanism.
The document began with a clear delineation of powers and authorities, “To all to whom these presents shall come, we the undersigned delegates of the states affixed to our names send greeting. Whereas, The delegates of the United States of America in Congress assembled did on the fifteenth day of November in the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-seven, and in the second year of the independence of America, agree to certain articles of confederation and perpetual union between the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia in the words following, viz: Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union between the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Done at Philadelphia in the state of Pennsylvania the ninth day of July in the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-eight, and in the third year of the independence of America.”
The Articles actually were written in 1776 and 1777 during the early part of the American Revolution by a committee of the Second Continental Congress. The head of the committee, John Dickinson, presented a report on the proposed articles to the Congress on July 12, 1776, eight days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Dickinson initially proposed a strong central government, with control over the western lands, equal representation for the states, and the power to levy taxes.
Because of their bitter experience with Great Britain, the thirteen states feared a powerful central government; consequently, they changed Dickinson’s proposed articles drastically before they sent them to all the states for ratification. The Continental Congress had been careful to give the states as much independence as possible and to specify the limited functions of the federal government. Despite these precautions, several years passed before all the states ratified the articles. The delay resulted from preoccupation with the revolution and from disagreements among the states.
The final document laid out a kind of decentralized authority and a mixed government of checks and balances. Though it was eventually superceded by the new Constitution of 1789, the Articles of Confederation set the pattern for virtually all the guaranteed liberties that would become the hallmark of the American experiment in freedom.