On this date in 1776, John Dickinson presented the first draft of the Articles of Confederation to the Continental Congress.

Congress began considering a plan for a new government even before declaring independence. On June 7, 1776, following instructions from Virginia’s Fifth Revolutionary Convention, Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution in the Second Continental Congress to declare independence, along with a call to form foreign alliances, and a “plan for confederation.”

On June 12, 1776, Congress formed a committee made up of one representative from each colony to discuss this confederation. Dickinson chaired the committee, and exactly one month later, it introduced a plan he penned. In fact, the oldest surviving draft of the Articles is in his handwriting.

Dickinson’s draft was just a starting point. The Articles weren’t presented to the states until November 1777, and they weren’t finally ratified until Feb. 2, 1781.

The initial draft of the Articles was influenced by early notes and a plan for confederation written by Benjamin Franklin in 1775. As legal scholar Robert Natelson put it in an article published by the Penn State Law Review, Dickinson’s draft “contemplated a looser union than Franklin’s, but a tighter one than that created by the finished Articles.”

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense also significantly influenced the initial draft of the Articles, along with Dickinson’s own views.

As Congress considered the new plan, numerous debates arose. Two of the most significant centered around the apportionment of costs and representation in Congress. There were also intense debates about western land holdings. These debates continued through the ratification of the Constitution.

There were some radical (for their time) provisions in Dickinson’s draft that were subsequently rejected in the debates that followed. These included protections for native tribes, the abolition of slavery, religious liberty, and the rights of women.

One of his most controversial proposals was for an end to slavery. Dickinson was a slaveholder, but he subsequently freed his slaves while he was still alive. In his draft, he wrote, “Should there not be an Article to prevent those who are hereafter brought into these Colonies, from being held in Slavery in these Colonies?”

Dickinson was also far ahead of his time in terms of his views on women. His draft included gender-inclusive language. He wrote, “No Person or persons in any Colony living peaceably under the Civil Government shall be molested or prejudiced in his or their {his or her} Person or Estate for his or her religious persuasion or Practice.”

As Historian Jane Calvert explains, “To be clear, he first wrote ‘his or their,’ then he crossed it out and replaced it with ‘his or her.’ This is the first instance of gender-inclusive language used in a substantive provision of an Anglo-American constitution.”

According to Calvert, Dickinson was strongly influenced by his close association with the Quakers. Specifically, the federated structure of Quaker meetings informed his views on political federalism – the division of power between a general government and the states united in a confederation. This served as the foundation of his political plan. But Dickinson thought the general government needed to have significant power in order to hold the confederation together, as Calvert explained.

“He had been pondering the relationship of the colonies to Empire at least as early as his work representing merchants in the flag-of-truce trade in the late 1750s. For federalism to work, whether in a religious or political body, there must be a strong, superintending authority with distinct limits.”

Ultimately, the majority of those in Congress and the people of the states did not want the central authority to have so much power.

Among the compromises made before the final version of the Articles was introduced were the creation of a unicameral legislature with specific, narrow powers; giving each state a single congressional vote; and ensuring the sovereignty of each state by refusing the national government the authority to tax or regulate commerce.

Years after the American Revolution, John Adams wrote that the real revolution was a revolution in thought.

“But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”

You can see this revolutionary thinking in Dickinson’s initial draft of the Articles of Confederation. While some of his more radical ideas weren’t ultimately incorporated into the Articles, his commitment to federalism and a division of powers provided a bedrock for the constitutional system that the U.S. would eventually adopt.

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