Documents of the Revolution: A Continuum of Conviction

The Articles of Confederation Title Page (Library of Congress, Rare Book & Special Collections Division)

Those familiar with American history know that the Articles of Confederation served as the first constitution of the unified states during the American Revolution. A foundational document, it begins by establishing the name of the confederation of colonies as “The United States of America.” The creation of the Articles is intimately tied with the drafting of two other, more well-known texts, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, and, of course, the Declaration of Independence. Both the Articles and the Declaration attempted to bring legitimacy to the patriot cause by transforming rebellious colonies into a lawful nation, with the potential for international recognition especially by European powers France and Spain. The Second Continental Congress, acting as the de facto provisional federal government produced the Declaration and the Articles, but it was the influence of Paine’s Common Sense, first published anonymously in January 1776, that initially helped propel the colonies to act in a unified manner and influenced the subsequent creation of two of America’s foundational documents. Taken together, these three documents represented an articulation of convictions, helping develop colonial American ideals in a time of war.

Paine’s pamphlet[1] made four concluding arguments, all concerning the need to take steps declaring the intention of the colonies to separate from Great Britain, “breaking off all connections to her,” and influencing the drafting of both the Declaration and the Articles. Succinct and to the point, as was the entirety of his pamphlet, Paine first contended it was the “custom of nations” to mediate between two waring countries. Yet, while the colonies remained subjects of Great Britain, no country would involve themselves in a purely domestic affair, and thus conflict in the colonies could potentially “quarrel on for ever” without outside influence. Paine then reasonably argued, in conclusion number two, that France and Spain would refrain from aiding the colonies if the Patriots’ intention was “repairing the breach, and strengthening the connection between Britain and America.” Obviously, Britain’s European rivals were uninterested in coming to the aid of colonies that were only attempting reconciliation with their mother country.[2]

Paine’s third conclusion targeted the monarchies of France and Spain, attempting to resolve the unwillingness of royalty (France’s Louis XVI, Spain’s Charles III) to support colonial subjects (American colonists) rebelling from their king (George III). Paine agreed that while the colonies remained British, support from European monarchs was doubtful, as this would establish a threatening precedent “somewhat dangerous to their peace,[3] for men to be in arms under the name of subjects.” The solution, proposed by Paine in his final conclusion, was to produce “a manifesto to be published, and despatched to foreign courts, setting forth the miseries we have endured, and the peaceable methods we have ineffectually used for redress.” Paine argued the manifesto should declare that, being unable to live under the “cruel disposition of the British court,” the colonies, united, had broken off all ties to Great Britain, while, at the same time, maintaining “our peaceable disposition” (and valuable trade) toward all other nations. A manifesto of this type would be more effective, Paine contended, “than if a ship were freighted with petitions to Britain.”[4]

John Dickinson, drawn from life, Philadelphia. (New York Public Library)

The Second Continental Congress produced just such a manifesto in the Declaration of Independence. This story is well known, with a committee appointed on June 11, 1776 to draft the Declaration, and its eventual final Congressional textual approval on July 4. Less well known is that a day after the appointment of the Declaration’s “Committee of Five,” Congress also appointed a committee of thirteen members to prepare a draft constitution for a potential union of the soon-to-be states. John Dickinson chaired the committee, with initial drafts of the Articles of Confederation credited to him (the earliest draft, held by the National Archives, is in Dickinson’s hand). Dickinson is one of the more enigmatic and interesting Founders. Born to wealth on a Maryland plantation worked by slave labor,[5] he studied law in Philadelphia and London, with admittance to the Pennsylvania Bar in 1757. While an attorney, Dickinson wrote Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. This pamphlet, written anonymously, and in response to the Townshend Acts,[6] argued that British colonies were sovereign in their internal affairs, and thus, while it was within Parliamentary authority to regulate commerce, Parliament had no right to levy direct taxes strictly to raise revenue.[7]

His talent for writing preceding him, and as a member of both the First and Second Continental Congress, Dickinson principally authored two petitions to the crown, The Declaration of Causes and Necessity for Taking up Arms,[8] and the “Olive Branch” Petition, an eleventh-hour appeal directly from Congress to King George III attempting reconciliation between sovereign and subjects. Knowing that independence meant violence, Dickinson energetically advocated for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. A man of considerable reputation, most delegates respected Dickinson as an honest, intelligent representative. He became the main foil of John Adams and those wishing to declare independence. Perhaps not surprisingly, Adams once described Dickinson as of a class of individual who had “great Fortune and piddling Genius.” So vehemently against violence, which he believed to be inevitable with independence, Dickinson abstained from the July 2, 1776 vote declaring American independence and the July 4, 1776 ratification of the formal wording of the Declaration of Independence itself.[9]

Dickinson believed Congress should finish the Articles of Confederation and secure a foreign alliance with a European power before declaring independence. However, as Tom Paine argued in Common Sense, France and Spain were most likely unwilling to countenance supporting the colonies without a formal, irrevocable split from Great Britain. Dickinson soldiered on, producing a draft Articles to Congress on July 12. Dickinson’s draft raised many objections and continual debate, with a revised draft issued in August. This version also proved problematic, and, adding delay to any resolution, Congress fled Philadelphia in December 1776 as British forces approached the city. Forced to flee before advancing British troops to Baltimore, then Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and eventually York, Pennsylvania, debate over the Articles continued for over a year until Congress reached agreement on most of the major points in October 1777.

A final committee, composed of Richard Henry Lee, Richard Law, and James Duane completed a new draft of the Articles on November 15, 1777. The final document differed greatly from Dickinson’s original, with significant change needed to ensure Congressional consensus. Among the compromises was the creation of a unicameral legislature with specific, narrow powers, providing one Congressional vote per state (no more splitting votes among state delegates), and ensuring the sovereignty of each state by refusing the national government the authority to tax or regulate commerce.

Ratification by the states required unanimous consent, and this process dragged on until 1781. The main issue, causing a delay in the legislatures of New Jersey, Delaware, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, were claims to western lands by other states who argued their territory extended to the Mississippi River. These “landlocked” states, whose governing charters restrained territorial expansion, contended western lands must be ceded to the national government or expansion-capable states, like Virginia, would dominate. Maryland, the final holdout, finally ratified the Articles on February 2, 1781, after assurances that new states would compromise western territory thus restricting an increase to the size and population of states already in existence. While the Articles acted as the first constitution of the United States from the end of 1777, its status as the inaugural governing document of the new nation officially began on March 1, 1781.[10]

From drafting to final codification, the battle over the Articles took almost three and a half years. A wartime agreement somewhat adhered to by the newly independent states prior to final ratification, it soon proved to be less effective after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, ending the American Revolutionary War. Yet its effectiveness during the war is perhaps secondary to its symbolic importance, representing the ability of thirteen individual states unifying (despite the ratification delay) behind a common cause. Both the Articles and the Declaration acknowledged the importance of strength in numbers, and recognized the only possibility of a successful revolution hinged on domestic unification. Coupled with the rhetorical strength of the Declaration stating the “why” behind colonial dissatisfaction with Great Britain, the Articles gave a framework stating “how” the states functioned as one united, if flawed, nation at war.

Common Sense, title page. (Indiana University/Wikipedia)

These foundational documents produced by the Second Continental Congress helped fulfill Tom Paine’s plea to take steps declaring the intention of the colonies to separate from Great Britain. His concluding arguments in Common Sense helped convince many that reconciliation was impossible, and only a clean break from Britain could induce foreign intervention, and with it, any hopes of American success. It is difficult to determine the extent to which Paine’s writing influenced any one individual, or the reading public in general. Although definitive numbers are difficult to determine, historians place the range of printed copies between 75,000 and 100,000 in the first few months (or year) of printing. This print run, and the numerous editions that quickly followed, made Common Sense the eighteenth century equivalent of a best seller. Many of the Founders read Paine’s pamphlet, and cited his arguments as helping to sharpen the resolve of many patriots.[11]

Taken individually, Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, and the Articles of Confederation are foundational texts in American history. Each document helped form American identity and principles, separate and unique from European monarchial government. They also helped establish colonial confidence in the possibility of unified action against British tyranny. Taken together, however, these documents represent a continuum of belief. One document aimed at the public, urging complete dissolution from outdated, old world authority. Another document intended for the world, outlining the self-evident rationality behind independence. The third, although the most flawed of the three documents, attested to both European nations as well as to fellow Americans that the former British colonies could create a unified system of government, not dependent on allegiance to an ancestral ruler, but with fidelity to legislation, compromise, and the rule of law. Each document was not necessarily reliant on the existence of the others. It would be too far a stretch to argue that but for Common Sense  there would be no Declaration, or that the drafting of the Articles were responsible for French and Spanish intervention in support of the Americans (Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold might beg to differ), but together these documents played a role, giving voice to pent-up frustration, persuading many would-be Patriots of the righteousness of the cause, and articulating a vision of what the nation could become.


[1]Pamphlets were a popular form of publishing in colonial America. While newspapers produced local items of interest and several-week-old news from London, pamphlets covered a myriad of topics. From religious sermons to agricultural advice, philosophical essays to political tracts, these short publications, ranging from a few pages to dozens, proved enormously popular in the colonies. Pamphlets allowed authors to address pressing topics and controversies of the day, in publications that could be reproduced quickly and easily circulated among the public. As one historian wrote, “From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century the pamphlet was the chief instrument to carry one’s ideas to the public. The peak of pamphlet writing was probably reached in the last half of the eighteenth century during the American and French Revolutions.” Homer L. Calkin, “Pamphlets and Public Opinion during the American Revolution,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 64, no. 1 (January 1940), 22.

[2]Thomas Paine, Common Sense (Philadelphia: R. Bell, 1776), 82-83.

[3]Emphasis added.

[4]Paine, Common Sense, 83.

[5]Although born into a wealthy slave-owning family and one of the wealthiest men in British North America, Dickinson is one of the only Founding Fathers to free his slaves during his lifetime. In 1777, while living in Delaware, Dickinson began the multi-year process of manumitting his enslaved servants.

[6]The Townshend Acts were a series of laws passed by Parliament in 1767-1768 concerning their American colonies. Among the provisions in this series of legislation, the acts sought to raise revenue for the crown by placing taxes on items such as paint, glass, paper, lead, and tea. In 1770 most of the taxes were repealed, except for the import duty on tea.

[7]John Dickinson, Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies (New York: John Holt, 1768).

[8]John Dickinson, The Declaration of Causes and Necessity for Taking up Arms (Philadelphia: William and Thomas Bradford, 1775). Julian P. Boyd, “The Disputed Authorship of the Declaration on the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms, 1775,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 74 (1950), 51–73. Authorship of The Declaration of Causes is disputed, mainly between Thomas Jefferson’s claim of authoring the initial draft and Dickinson rewriting a final version. Historian Julian P. Boyd argued that an initial draft was likely written by John Rutledge, then rewritten by Jefferson, with a final version composed by Dickinson. Regardless of the initial authorship, the final draft version of the Articles is credited to Dickinson.

[9]John Adams to James Warren, July 24, 1775, in The Adams Papers, vol. 3, May 1775 – January 1776, ed. Robert J. Taylor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 89–93.

[10]Jonathan Elliot, ed., The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: Editor on the Pennsylvania Avenue, 1836), 1: 9;. Worthington C. Ford et al, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, vol. 33 (Washington, D.C., 1904-37), 466-77; John A. Mallory, ed., United States Compiled Statutes Annotated (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co., 1917), 10: 13044-13051.

[11]Michael Foot and Isaac Kramnick, eds., The Thomas Paine Reader (New York: Penguin Classics, 1987), 8, 10; Gordon S. Wood, The American Revolution: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2002), 55; Trish Loughran, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770–1870 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 40-58, 253-61; Ray Raphael, “Thomas Paine’s Inflated Numbers,” Journal of the American Revolution (20 March 2013),, accessed March 27, 2020; John Adams autobiography, part 1, “John Adams,” through 1776, sheet 23 of 53 [electronic edition], Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive,Massachusetts Historical Society,, accessed March 27, 2020; Kevin Grimm, “Thomas Paine,” The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington,, accessed March 30, 2020; Jefferson to Jonathan B. Smith, April 26, 1791, Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), 20: 290; Jefferson to Paine, March 18, 1801, Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), 33: 358-59.

More from Christopher Warren

Documents of the Revolution: A Continuum of Conviction

Those familiar with American history know that the Articles of Confederation served...
Read More

1 Comment

  • Nice account of these three documents in the context of the war. But, perhaps a tip of the hat is also in order to recognize Franklin’s prescient contribution in his 1754 Albany Plan of Union that sought to unify the colonies two decades beforehand, albeit unsuccessfully.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *