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The Articles of Confederation (1781-1789)

The Founding Fathers

Article 9

Articles 7-8

Article 10

Summary—Powers of Congress

Only Congress has the right to make peace and make war (except in those cases described in Article 6), to send and receive ambassadors, and to make treaties and alliances with foreign nations. Congress also has the exclusive right to give permission to private ships to attack enemy ships, and to oversee trials related to crimes on the sea.

Congress will help resolve conflicts between states relating to boundaries, jurisdiction and other issues, but only as a last resort.

Other powers of Congress include the right to determine how much precious metal is in each coin, and the value of coins made by them or any state. Congress determines the standard of weights and measures. Congress has authority over trade and other affairs involving Indians, as long as the Indians are not residents of any of the states and that Congress does not infringe on the states' rights by getting involved. Congress establishes the post offices in each state, and can charge postage on items handled by the post office to help pay expenses. Congress appoints all officers of the army except regimental officers appointed by states, commissions all officers that serve in the army or navy, makes the rules to regulate the army and navy, and has the sole power to direct the army and navy.

The Congress has the authority to create a committee called the Committee of the States that serves in place of Congress when Congress is not in session. The Committee is made up of one delegate from each state. The Congress can also appoint other committees and civil officers as needed to manage the affairs of the United States. Congress can appoint a president, but he may only serve for one year every interval of three years. Congress has the authority to determine how much money is needed to run the United States, to spend the necessary amounts, and to borrow money on the credit of the United States. Every six months, a finance report will be published for all the states. The Congress has the right to build the army and navy, deciding how many forces are needed and requesting the amount from each state, proportional to the number of white inhabitants in that state. Once the request for troops is made, the state has the responsibility to appoint the regimental officers, organize and equip the soldiers, and march to the designated place at the time requested by Congress.

In order for Congress to act on the specifically listed powers above, nine of the thirteen states must agree. Issues of any other type, except for the request to adjourn from day to day, must be decided by the majority of states.

Congress has the power to stop a session of Congress or move it to any other place in the United States, but Congress cannot be out of session for more than six months at a time. Each month, Congress will publish their proceedings, unless a matter of security requires secrecy. These proceedings will include the voting patterns of each delegate if it is recorded by request of a delegate, and each delegate may get a copy of the proceedings to present to the state legislature.


What seems at first glance to be a lengthy list of powers granted to Congress under the Articles of Confederation was in actuality little more than a grant of limited powers necessary for the mutual defense of the United States. The Articles did not grant Congress the powers necessary for the effective governance of the United States.

In Article 9, the debate over the strength of the state versus the nation is articulated in a detailed list of precisely which powers Congress does and does not have. Although granted with the sole power to act in affairs of an international nature, Congress holds little authority over the day-to-day management of a nation. The radicals wanted it that way, inserting as many checks against strong governmental power as they could.

The most glaring deficiency of power is that the Congress served only a legislative role, and only in a narrowly defined area. Evolving out of a congress that united solely for the purpose of winning a war, the final draft of the Articles of Confederation did not recognize the need for a more expansive central government.

The only power of taxation belonging to Congress came in the form of postage, the revenue of which could solely be used to support the post office. Congress only possessed judicial power in cases involving felonies and piracy on the high seas and in cases related to the regulations it established for the army and the navy. The Articles imply that Congress had the authority to judge matters related to the boundaries of states or their jurisdiction, but only as a last resort. And, Congress lacked the executive power to enforce such decisions. Even if Congress were to rule in matters of interstate conflict, it would be up to the states to abide by that ruling.

Closely related to boundary disputes, but conspicuously absent from the Articles of Confederation, is whether Congress had the authority to acquire and administer land claimed by multiple parties. As the single most divisive issue facing the Congress when they drafted the Articles, it also served to delay Maryland's ratification, thereby delaying the Articles being put into effect, by four years.

At issue was a conflict between "landed" states, whose original charters granted them land west of the Appalachian Mountains (and in some cases to the Pacific Ocean), and the "landless" states, whose boundaries were clearly defined and finite. The situation was made even more complicated by the Proclamation of 1763, in which King George III dictated that land west of the Appalachian Mountains was off-limits to American settlers even if it was included in their colonial charters. Private speculators and corporations took advantage of this no-man's land to purchase property directly from Native Americans, banking on the fact that when the area was opened up, they would already own huge stakes of it.

The declaration of war complicated things further. Did the declaration of war return land to each state as originally chartered? Did the declaration of war automatically endow Congress, as the successor to the British king, with authority over the land referred to in the Proclamation of 1763? The "landless" states believed that the land belonged to Congress, and further bolstered their argument by claiming that disputed land should be shared by all the states. The "landed" states, which also happened to favor state sovereignty, argued that the declaration of war meant that each state returned to the sovereignty, rights, and privileges as granted in its original colonial charter. In other words, the "landed" states claimed the land as legally theirs.

The "landless" states had a variety of concerns regarding this situation. Primarily, they were concerned that influential speculators living within their states would lose the land they had purchased from Native Americans before the war. Additionally, Congress decided to allow soldiers to be compensated with land instead of cash, and "landless" states did not have the excessive land to give that states like Virginia and North Carolina did. This unfair economic advantage threatened the economic future of the "landless" states as well.

Fiercely jealous of the income potential of the "landed" states, "landless" states frequently argued that they would be swallowed up by their more powerful neighbors. "Landed" states could not only gain an economic advantage from the land, but with a broader base of income to draw revenue from, they could also use lower taxes to entice residents away from the "landless" states. The "landless" states would be left in an unfair position of being economically disadvantaged, and would be forced into a perpetual cycle of levying higher taxes on a increasingly smaller population until they went broke.

States like Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey claimed that Congress had to resolve the competing claims over western lands as part of the Articles of Confederation. Congress strongly resisted doing so, and individual "landed" states proceeded to deal with the land as though it belonged to them. Virginia even went so far as to hold trials to determine if the claims of speculation companies were legal. In all cases, Virginia determined that the land was unlawfully sold and purchased, and that any claims but those authorized by Virginia were worthless.

Finding no remedy in the Articles, Maryland withheld its signature in protest. Although this concerned the other states, the "landed states" still refused to give up their land to Congress. Instead, the solution was born out of military necessity. When the southern states began to feel the power of the British invasion late in the war, a French diplomat threatened to remove the protection of the French navy from Maryland's seas if Maryland did not sign the Articles. Meanwhile, some Virginians began to see that it would be more of a burden, and potentially bad for democracy, to have to govern over too much land. Around the same time as Maryland signed the Articles, Virginia ceded its land north of the Ohio River to Congress.

The Virginia cession of land is significant in that it allowed Congress to pass the Land Ordinance of 1784 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, both providing a process for the fair and equal entry of new states to the union. The cession also partially increased congressional authority in the acquisition of new lands. In conjunction with the clause relating to congressional jurisdiction over Native American tribes (who did not live in one of the states), Congress gained almost sole authority over land and issues west of the Appalachian Mountains.

However advantageous this authority was to new American settlers on this western land, it severely limited the rights of Native Americans. Native American tribes, although many lived within the boundaries of the United States, were defined and classified as "foreign nations." This precedent continued throughout U.S. history, as Native Americans were continually denied citizenship and inclusion in the U.S. Government. Having the authority to deal with "Indian Affairs," it is a shame that Congress did not make better use of it.

Other precedents were established in Article 9 as well. The Articles provide for a president to be elected from amongst the delegates in Congress. Although this president is not endowed with any executive authority, he is limited in the number of terms he may serve. Furthermore, the practice of publicly communicating both the proceedings of Congress (including voting records), and the financial state of the union were good democratic policies and precedents because they made Congress accountable to the people who elected them.

Although the western land issue was one of the most controversial issues relating to the Articles of Confederation, Article 9 also included the outcome of the controversy relating to the requisitioning of troops. The Articles dictate that troops will be requisitioned in proportion to the total number of white inhabitants of each state. Non-slave states opposed this as unfair because while white males in slave states went off to war, their slaves could continue to work on the plantations. In contrast, when white males in non- slave states went off to war, the productivity of their farms would suffer due to the loss of the chief laborer. This issue was related to issues of representation in Congress and the requisition of funds as discussed in other articles.

Within Article 9 is perhaps one of the biggest stumbling blocks that Congress experienced in trying to run the daily affairs of the government. The Articles dictate that in most matters over which Congress has authority, nine of the thirteen states must agree to any particular action. This extremely high percentage made it difficult for Congress to act or pass legislation; the problem was further complicated by the Congress' frequent inability to reach a quorum (mandatory minimum attendance) because of low attendance.

Despite the lengthy description of powers in Article 9, Congress was actually quite weak. It was a political body crippled by an inability to execute its laws, hemmed in by a limited range of authority, impeded by the absence of delegates, and trapped without the necessary unanimity to extend its legislative reach to matters beyond providing for the mutual defense.

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