A confederation is a union or coalition of people, or of separate states or nations, which have joined together for a common cause. The states of the South banded together into a confederation at the time of the U.S. Civil War, providing a historic example of confederation for generations to follow. Modern times see confederations of nations, created by treaties to address such important issues as foreign relations, international trade, and defense of nations. To explore this concept, consider the following confederation definition.

Definition of Confederation


  1. A league or alliance of peoples or states
  2. A group of people or nations united, more or less permanently, for a common purpose


1375-1425       Late Middle English < Late Latin confederātiōn

What is a Confederation

When a group of people, or a group of nations or states, join together for the purpose of accomplishing certain objectives, the group is referred to as a confederation. Also known as a “confederacy,” or a “league,” a confederation is an agreement in which the members cooperate toward the common goal, while retaining complete autonomy otherwise. This differs from a federation, which has a strong central government.

The European Alliance, and the United Nations (“U.N.”) are examples of confederation, while the United States is a federation. While the U.S. as a whole may participate in confederations, such as the U.N., it maintains a central government with some authority over the various states. By contrast, the individual American states, prior to the creation of the Constitution, consisted of a confederation of states, which were loosely bound together to cooperate toward a common good.

Each state retained its sovereignty, with no centralized government to exert authority over them. The Founding Fathers, in drafting the Constitution, turned the burgeoning nation into a federal system, in which the states maintain their independence, under the auspices of the federal government, which binds the states together into one nation, and protects the basic rights of the people.

Articles of Confederation

As the colonists who settled America banded together into separate, but cooperative colonies, their leaders recognized a need to put up a show of unity and strength in order to separate themselves from England’s tyrannical rule. In the creation of a centralized government tasked with pulling together the states, the people became concerned that such a government would have too much authority, effectively placing them back into the situation they had fled, and that a republican government could not satisfy the needs of a large nation.

Many people saw the union of colonies as a league of confederated states, and Congress as an assembly of diplomats representing their respective states. The founders of the new nation felt it important to have a written constitution, and a formal declaration of independence from Britain’s rule. In this example of confederation, the United States established its independence as a confederate entity, with a document called the Articles of Confederation.

Even before the Articles were completed and ratified, they provided a framework from which the Second Continental Congress directed the nation through the Revolutionary War. In order to shift the nation’s global reputation from that of a bunch of outlaw hooligans to a legitimate independent people, it needed to be taken seriously by international allies. This meant having the ability to make assurances that the United States would be steadfast trading partners.

Understanding this, the Founding Fathers made a fundamental change in the new government, changing it from a confederation, to a federation, in drafting the Constitution. The provisions of the Constitution pulled together the band of colonies under the umbrella of a single, formidable and unifying governmental entity. The federalist system of government bridges the gap, allowing each state to maintain a measure of autonomy, while sharing authority with the central government.

Why Did the Articles of Confederation Fail

As the Revolutionary War was brought to a halt by the Treaty of Paris, the Articles of Confederation established a governmental structure of sorts, pulling together the 13 colonies into a unified coalition. Because of the colonists’ fear of a tyrannical government, the Articles allowed each individual state to retain its “sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not … expressly delegated to the United States.” The Articles of Confederation left the central government in command of the common defense, the security of liberties, and the general welfare.

In this example of confederation, the weakness of the federal government was responsible for the fall of the Articles of Confederation only eight years later. There were many shortcomings in the Articles, including:

  • Each state, regardless of size or population, had just one vote in Congress
  • A 9/13 majority vote was required to pass any law in Congress
  • A unanimous vote was required to pass any amendment to the Articles
  • There was no authority to enforce any acts that were passed by Congress
  • There was no national court system
  • Congress had no authority to tax the people
  • Congress had no authority to regulate interstate and foreign commerce

This complete separation of the states’ concerns quickly opened the door to squabbles between states, with no central authority to put an end to them. Individual states began printing their own money, and making trade agreements with foreign governments. The central government had no financial support, and no ability to build a military force. In fact, each state had its own militia. As economic chaos ensued, the people began clamoring for the protections of a more stable central government. Soon the Founding Fathers were drafting the Constitution of the United States, which created a federation system of government, and replaced the Articles of Confederation.

Articles of Confederation Replaced by the U.S. Constitution

As the people began asking for changes to be made to the Articles of Confederation, it was clear they had a desire to establish a stronger central government. Those attending the meeting held in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787 for the purpose of addressing major changes to the Articles, soon realized that simple changes to the existing document would not address their problems. Instead, a completely new document – a constitution – needed to be drafted and enacted.

This meeting then became the Constitutional Convention, which ran from May 25, 1787, through September 17, 1787, at the Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Only 12 of the original 13 states sent delegates to participate in the Constitutional Convention, for a total of 55 delegates.

State Delegates to the Constitutional Convention**
Connecticut Oliver Ellsworth Roger Sherman
Delaware John Dickinson
Georgia Abraham Baldwin William Few
Maryland Luther Martin
Massachusetts Elbridge Gerry Rufus King
New Hampshire Nicholas Gilman John Langdon
New Jersey William Paterson
New York Alexander Hamilton
North Carolina William Blount
Pennsylvania Benjamin Franklin Governor Morris Robert Morris James Wilson
South Carolina John Rutledge Charles Pinckney
Virginia George Washington James Madison Edmund Randolph George Mason
**The most prominent attendees of the Constitutional Convention

The Convention’s president, George Washington, soon had the group organized, and a proposal was adopted stating the goal of the convention: “… that a national government ought to be established consisting of a supreme Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary.” This statement commenced the drafting of the Constitution.

Many provisions of the Constitution were based on political writings of what were considered to be great political minds throughout history, including Baron de Montesquieu (“The Spirit of the Laws” 1748), Jean Jacques Rousseau (“Social Contract or Principles of Political Right” 1762), and John Locke (“The Two Treatises of Government” 1689). The ideas of these pioneers in federalism were added to many original provisions contained in the Articles of Confederation, and some of the state’s constitutions.

Unitary, Federal, and Confederation Example Forms of Government

The three primary forms of government around the world today include the federal, unitary, and confederate systems. Each of these methods has a potential for success in creating and maintaining a stable society. The difference between the three systems is the role of the central government.

Unitary Government

In a unitary system, the central government holds all of the power. While the government maintains local and regional offices, which perform their functions according to protocol, they operate under the authority and control of the central government. That government may grant or withdraw authority from local offices whenever it deems fit. I

n a truly unitary government, laws are created by the central authority, and apply to all people in the country. Such standardization enables the nation’s citizens to know just what the laws are, regardless of which geographical location they are in.

While monarchies operate a unitary system of government, there are democratic nations that function under this system as well. The United Kingdom and France are examples of unitary government, each granting authority to the various local governments, providences, and departments, which operate under the auspices of the central government.

Federal Government

A federal system is comprised of a combination of central and local governments that work together for the good of the people. The federal government in such a system is responsible for matters of defense of the nation, foreign policy, and issues affecting citizens across jurisdictional lines.

Local governments have varying degrees of autonomy, issuing their own legislation, maintaining their own police forces, and providing public services to the people. In addition, local governments administer a variety of programs instituted by the federal government. The United States, Canada, and Mexico operate federal systems of government.

Confederate Government

A confederate system, or confederation, operates with a loose relationship between small local governments, which cooperate to common goals, while maintaining total autonomy. Having the freedom to operate independently allows a great deal of freedom for each region, though it may also lead to conflicts between the regions, and even between those regions and the central government. The best known example of confederation is the Confederate States of America, which ruled the American South during the Civil War. Because the weak structure of a confederate government could not support the rapidly expanding nation, the confederation was left behind for a system of federation.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Alliance – An association formed for mutual benefit, especially between nations or organizations.
  • Autonomy – The right or condition of self-government.
  • Militia – A military force comprised of civilians, often to supplement a regular army; a civilian militant force that opposes a regular army, or engages in rebel or terrorist activities.
  • Republican Government – A government that drives its power from the people, who exercise that power through their elected representatives.

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