Ratified between 1771 and 1781, the Articles of Confederation remained in force until they were superseded by the Constitution in 1788. In force for seven years, the Articles formalized some preexisting institutions such as the Continental Congress, but made no provision for a federal executive branch, and very limited provisions for a federal judiciary—one of the few crimes tried in the new federal courts was piracy, leaving nearly all other offenses to the states to prosecute. During this period, Congress requisitioned financial support from the states in proportion to their population, but these assessments were routinely ignored, or fulfilled only in part. The Articles gave Congress no authority to issue money or levy taxes.
Congress and the states emerged from the Revolution both independent and highly indebted. Some states paid their debts while others did not, and Congress had no real means to retire its own debt or honor the continental currency it had already issued. By printing unbacked money during the Revolution, Congress had effectively rendered this currency worthless. Unlike the states, Congress had no taxing authority to acquire the gold or silver it needed to redeem the paper money it had issued, which was characterized as “not worth a continental;” that is, worthless.