Form of union of individual states or societies. Confederation insists on the individual independence of each state or society in a common union, while federation insists on the supremacy of the common government. Thus the British Commonwealth, as at present constituted, is a confederation, as was the German confederation established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
Confederation or federation? The distinction between confederation and federation is well illustrated by the German terms Bundestaat, a bond of states or federal state, and Staatesbund, a states bond or confederation. The American Civil War was fought not only on the slavery question but also on the question of whether the union should be confederate or federate.
The term ‘confederation’ has been used in constitutions which embodied the principle of subordination of a general government to regional governments. Thus it was used in the Articles of Confederation of 1777 (United States); in the Union of Utrecht of 1579 (which brought together the seven provinces of the northern Netherlands as the United Provinces of the Netherlands); in the constitutions of Switzerland from the earliest times; of Germany from 1815 to 1867; of the North German Confederation of 1867 to 1871; and of the German Empire from 1871 to 1918.
The term was also adopted by the seceding states in America (see Confederacy), but immediately after styling themselves ‘the people of the Confederate States’ they declared that their object was to form a permanent federal government.
Confederation and federation are treated as interchangeable in the Swiss Constitution of 1874, which is headed Constitution fédérale de la Confédération Suisse.
The authors of the The Federalist Papers (a collection of political letters published in the USA in 1788) did not distinguish between the two terms, although they distinguished between the two principles involved.