23 pages 46 minutes read

Benjamin Franklin

The Articles of Confederation

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1781

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Articles of Confederation”

Benjamin Franklin’s “Articles of Confederation” was the first of six drafts placed before the Continental Congress, and it draws from earlier historical context while also having lasting effects on his contemporaries’ views of a unified nation.

Franklin presented the document to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, just as the American Revolution was beginning. The document is composed of 13 individual articles outlining a new confederated government for the colonies in America. Ultimately, the Continental Congress never voted on Franklin’s Articles.

Franklin opens the first article by naming the country “The United Colonies of North America” (Article I, 260). He then describes the proposed dynamic between the central government and individual colonies. Under these articles, the United Colonies, he writes, would be bound together “for their common Defense against their Enemies, for the Security of their Liberties and Properties, the Safety of their Persons and Families, and their mutual and general welfare” (Article I, 260). However, each colony would also continue to have its own constitution, laws, rights, and representative bodies.

Each colony would elect a representative to one Congress “for the more convenient Management of general Interests” (Article I, 261). This body would be part of the central government and would meet in each colony on a rotating basis. The first meeting, Benjamin writes, would occur in Annapolis, Maryland. He also outlines that Congress would have the power to:

  • Declare war
  • Appoint and receive ambassadors
  • Enter into alliances
  • Settle disputes between colonies
  • Accept new colonies into the Confederacy
  • Establish a currency
  • Create a postal service
  • Oversee a common military

Congress would also appoint civil officers to help maintain the workings of the central government, such as a common treasury. This account would oversee the use of taxes. Each colony would pay a set amount in taxes to the government that was proportional to the number of men between the ages of sixteen and sixty, and they would set their own laws for how those taxes would be accrued.

In his proposal, the number of delegates to Congress would also fluctuate based on the number of people in each colony, making Franklin’s Congress a system of proportional representation with one representative for five thousand men between 16 and 60 years old. All delegates would be able to appoint a proxy if they were not able to attend.

Franklin also creates an executive council composed of 12 appointed delegates from within Congress. Their terms would be three years and would be staggered so that seats would need to be filled on a rotating basis. Their responsibilities would be to prepare materials for Congress, manage relations with foreign powers, fill in for governmental positions on a temporary basis when vacancies occur, and spend money according to the policies set out by Congress.

Under these Articles, colonies would not be able to enter into war with Native Americans without Congress’ consent. Article XI then goes on to offer sovereignty to native lands as part of a “perpetual Alliance” with the “Six Nations,” or the six Haudenosaunee indigenous nations who confederated in North America. Their property limits are to be respected, and for other tribes, their boundaries and lands “shall also be ascertained and secured to them in the same manner” (Article XI, 262). Additionally, Congress would have the power to engage in trade with indigenous populations.

Franklin then goes on to note that “all new Institutions may have Imperfections which only Time and Experience can discover” and states that amendments to the Articles would depend on a majority vote (Article XI, 262).

Article XIII then opens the new Confederation to any other British colonies who wish to join it, including the West India Islands, Quebec, St. Johns, Nova Scotia, Bermuda, and the East and West Floridas.

In the concluding section, Franklin notes that these articles, once passed, would form a “Union” that would remain established until the colonies reconcile with Britain. This would mean that England has accepted a number of terms outlined by the first Continental Congress and has made reparations for conflicts in Boston and Charlestown in addition to the removal of their troops from America. If these conditions are not met, “this Confederation is to be perpetual” (Conclusion, 263).

This study guide refers to the Articles of Confederation included in A Benjamin Franklin Reader, edited by Walter Isaacson and published by Simon & Schuster in 2003.