New England Confederation: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

Before the United States of America collectively declared their independence on July 4, 1776, the British American colonies made a few earlier attempts at joining together. Read this lesson to learn more about the first significant attempt at unification: the New England Confederation.

Definition of the New England Confederation

Before the United States of America were united or even states, the East coast was dotted with British, Dutch, Swedish, and French colonies just trying to survive. By the mid-1600s, these colonies were small (relative to modern day states) but growing. As these settlements grew, they saw the need to unite together in order to protect themselves and to foster their own growth. In May of 1643, four Puritan colonies made just such an alliance. Delegates from the British-American colonies of Massachusetts, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven met and established the New England Confederation. This confederation solidified a diplomatic and military alliance between the colonies. Though the confederation ultimately failed and was disbanded in 1684, it represented the first alliance of British-American colonies and was thus an early precursor to the future United States of America.

The East Coast in the 1600s, showing French colonies in the north, British colonies in New England, and Dutch colonies (New Netherland) southwest of New England
The East Coast in the 1600s

Setting the Stage for an Alliance

By the mid-1600s, the British-American colonies in New England were expanding, but they still faced many struggles. Some of the colonies were encroaching on Native American lands, and relations with some of these tribes were deteriorating. In addition, the British did not always have friendly relations with the French and Dutch colonies that had been established nearby. Because of these skirmishes with the French, Dutch, and Native Americans, the British-American colonists needed a way to defend themselves effectively.

However, England was preoccupied with its own civil wars from 1642-1651, leaving less time and money to manage its colonies in America. As a result, the British-American colonies were forced by necessity to manage their own affairs and safeguard their own borders.

Function of the New England Confederation

The New England Confederation was born as a way to handle these concerns. The British-American colonies were not getting any military or financial support from England, and tensions were growing with neighbors. So, in 1643, the New England Confederation was officially established by the adoption of The Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England on May 19. These Articles of Confederation reaffirmed the colonies' duty to assist one another. The Articles also established a council of eight commissioners, two from each of the four colonies, who would choose a president of the council from among themselves. These commissioners would meet once a year to manage military and diplomatic affairs, and at least six commissioners were needed to approve any action proposed by the Confederation.

This alliance sounds great in theory, but it was much more difficult to put into action! For example, the commissioners did not have much actual power because they could only advise the colonies. The Articles of Confederation was not designed to create a powerful central government, so the commissioners could not force the colonial legislatures to follow their advice. This strictly advisory role became rather problematic as certain colonies put their own interests first. Massachusetts, the largest of the four colonies, often ignored the council's advice when it felt that the smaller colonies were being favored and leaving its own citizens at a disadvantage. These circumstances frequently made the Confederation's initiatives ineffective.

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