Draft of the Articles of Confederation by John Dickinson, June 1776
The Articles of Confederation, America’s first constitution, has a complicated and tortured genealogy. Americans began contemplating uniting the colonies under one charter in 1775 in order to resist the British more effectively. A number of proposals were put forth, including one by Benjamin Franklin, but moderate members of the Continental Congress, who hoped for reconciliation, objected that Britain would perceive such an act as an effective declaration of independence. Discussions were therefore tabled. It was not until separation appeared probable in the spring of 1776 that plans for a confederation began in earnest.
On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee motioned in Congress that a committee be formed to construct an American constitution and central government. Although John Dickinson was opposed to independence, he was the logical person to take the lead. To date he had written many of the official issuances of Congress and was recognized as one of the foremost legal minds in the colonies. Very little record remains of what transpired in the last two weeks of June when the committee worked. Dickinson's draft and a few pages of his notes are all that survive from their sessions. As this draft demonstrates, his primary concerns were not yet those of his countrymen. Three provisions, each exemplifying Dickinson's Quaker leanings, would not be adopted by Americans for years or centuries. Two were protections for vulnerable minority groups, religious dissenters and Native Americans. The religious toleration clause is particularly noteworthy, as it contains the first known use of gender-inclusive language in an Anglo-American constitution, something that would not make its way into some American state constitutions until the late-twentieth century. Moreover, the article anticipates the 14th Amendment to the Federal Constitution when it empowers the central government to secure religious liberty for the inhabitants of the states. A third provision was a central government with states subordinate to its power. In Dickinson's vision, the central government should play a crucial role in protecting individual rights and regulating relations between the states. His draft allowed for states to maintain their distinctive constitutions and regulate their internal affairs, but there was no mention of state sovereignty.
None of these provisions found their way into the version of the Articles that was ratified in 1781. The first casualty was the article on religious toleration, which did not even make it into Dickinson's next draft, the so-called committee draft, to be presented to Congress. In its stead, there is only a query from Dickinson, "Should not the first Article provide for a Toleration and ag[ains]t Establishments hereafter to be made?"
After independence was declared, the committee draft moved forward without his advocacy, as he joined his battalion on the New Jersey front. It was debated in Congress in July and August of 1776, out of which emerged two revised printed versions. But disagreements over issues such as taxation, representation of states in Congress, and the apportionment of western lands, as well as the distractions of war, caused Congress to abandon discussions until the following year. Debates resumed in the spring of 1777 and continued sporadically into the fall, when a final version was hastily agreed to and submitted to the states. In a concession to an increasing sense of independence in some states, now the word "sovereignty" appeared to describe the relation of the states to the central power of Congress. But such emendations did not, as the delegates hoped, lead to speedy ratification. Troubled by the lack of Congressional control over western lands, several mid-Atlantic states refused to sign. The Articles were not ratified until Maryland signed in 1781.
Even before ratification, amendments to the Articles had been proposed, and some leaders, including Dickinson, were calling for more. After the Revolutionary War ended in in 1783, many states lost their incentive to work together and looked more to their own interests, thus threatening the already-fragile union under the Articles. Within only a few years, the Confederation was unable to raise funds to pay the war debt, states were bickering amongst themselves over borders and westward expansion, and the Union seemed in peril. In 1786, twelve delegates from five states meet in the Annapolis Convention with the intention of amending the Articles. Dickinson was unanimously elected chairman. Because the task was so large and important, the delegates decided that a meeting of all the states should be held. In February of 1787, Congress read Dickinson's recommendation and agreed to convene the Federal Convention that spring.
Transcription, notes, and document description by the John Dickinson Writings Project, Director and Chief Editor, Jane E. Calvert (University of Kentucky). Presentation of this transcription (for example, expansion of abbreviations in the original) adheres as closely as possible to JDWP editorial practices.
This document was conserved before being digitized for this exhibit. Read more about the conservation process on HSP's "Fondly, Pennsylvania" blog.
Jane E. Calvert, Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
David C. Hendrickson, Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2003).
Merrill Jensen, The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774-1781 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970).
Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, eds. Smith et al., 25 vols. (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1976-2000), 4:251-55.
Richard B. Morris, The Forging of the Union, 1781-1789 (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).
Jack N. Rakove, “The Articles of Confederation, 1775-1783,” in A Companion to the American Revolution, eds. Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 281-86.
Jack N. Rakove, The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).