Summary-State Sovereignty

By signing the document, the delegates of each state agree to the form of government described in the Articles of Confederation and therefore commit their state to the permanent union of states that will be called the United States.

The form of government created by this document is called a confederacy, or a loose organization of independent states. Each state will maintain sovereignty, which means that the state maintains the power to run its own affairs. Any rights, privileges and powers that are not specifically given to the Congress by the Articles of Confederation are maintained by the state.


Where the balance of power would rest in the newly formed union—whether it would rest in the state governments or in a centralized national government—proved to be one of the most challenging and divisive issues that the Second Continental Congress faced. The debate between state power and central or national power continued to occupy politicians throughout the nation's early history, and vestiges of it are found in today's big government versus small government debate.

When Richard Henry Lee proposed independence and the establishment of a new government to replace the King and Parliament, the debate was largely theoretical. Did the central authority that previously rested in the hands of the King and Parliament get passed down directly to the Second Continental Congress? Or did the power to govern rest directly with the people protected by the authority in each independent state? Those who favored the argument for a strong central government were called conservatives, and feared that the absence of a strong central government would lead to anarchy in the states. Those who favored states' rights were called radicals, and felt that simply replacing one strong central government with another defeated the purposes of the American Revolution.

The original draft of the Articles of Confederation was written by the conservative John Dickinson and described a confederation that placed a significant amount of power in the hands of the central government, or Congress. In this first draft, states were allowed to keep as many of their laws, rights and customs as they choose, and to have the sole authority to regulate their internal police, as long as this power did not interfere with the Articles. Congress would represent the supreme authority on any issue. This was quickly criticized by radicals in Congress for providing no distinct authority to the states separate from that of Congress and for giving states no protection against an all-powerful central government. By the time the articles were distributed for review by state legislatures, the radicals had insisted that the balance of power be shifted to favor the states over the central government. This shift was reflected in the wording of Article II.

The Second Continental Congress operated mostly as a strong central government without any legal authority before the Articles of Confederation, but radicals were unwilling to put that strength into written law. Not only had the Congress raised a military, appointed military leaders, requisitioned supplies and administered all war efforts, it had also tended to foreign diplomacy, establishing currency and a post office, and had even begun to establish administrative departments to manage certain areas of national government. The power of Congress to do these things during wartime was never questioned. But when it came time to write a constitution that would govern during times of peace, radicals could not see the necessity of having so much power concentrated in the hands of the central government.

Popular pages: The Articles of Confederation (1781-1789)