A New Nation in Crisis: Shays Rebellion and the U.S. Under the Articles

This lesson was reported from:
A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

The Articles of Confederation

The struggle with England had done much to change colonial attitudes. Local assemblies had rejected the Albany Plan of Union in 1754, refusing to surrender even the smallest part of their autonomy to any other body, even one they themselves had elected. But in the course of the Revolution, mutual aid had proved effective, and the fear of relinquishing individual authority had lessened to a large degree.

John Dickinson produced the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” in 1776. The Continental Congress adopted them in November 1777, and they went into effect in 1781, having been ratified by all the states. Reflecting the fragility of a nascent sense of nationhood, the Articles provided only for a very loose union. The national government lacked the authority to set up tariffs, to regulate commerce, and to levy taxes. It possessed scant control of international relations: A number of states had begun their own negotiations with foreign countries. Nine states had their own armies, several their own navies, and there was no U.S. army. In the absence of a sound common currency, the new nation conducted its commerce with a curious hodgepodge of coins and a bewildering variety of state and national paper bills, all fast depreciating in value.

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The Problem of Expansion

With the end of the Revolution, the United States again had to face the old unsolved Western question, the problem of expansion, with its complications of land, fur trade, Indians, settlement, and local government. Lured by the richest land yet found in the country, pioneers poured over the Appalachian Mountains and beyond. By 1775 the far-flung outposts scattered along the waterways had tens of thousands of settlers. Separated by mountain ranges and hundreds of kilometers from the centers of political authority in the East, the inhabitants established their own governments. Settlers from all the Tidewater states pressed on into the fertile river valleys, hardwood forests, and rolling prairies of the interior. By 1790 the population of the trans-Appalachian region numbered well over 120,000.

Before the war, several colonies had laid extensive and often overlapping claims to land beyond the Appalachians. To those without such claims this rich territorial prize seemed unfairly apportioned. Maryland, speaking for the latter group, introduced a resolution that the western lands be considered common property to be parceled by the Congress into free and independent governments. This idea was not received enthusiastically. Nonetheless, in 1780 New York led the way by ceding its claims. In 1784 Virginia, which held the grandest claims, relinquished all land north of the Ohio River. Other states ceded their claims, and it became apparent that Congress would come into possession of all the lands north of the Ohio River and west of the Allegheny Mountains. This common possession of millions of hectares was the most tangible evidence yet of nationality and unity, and gave a certain substance to the idea of national sovereignty. At the same time, these vast territories were a problem that required solution.

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Northwest Territory created by the Northwest Ordinance (1787).

The Confederation Congress established a system of limited self-government for this new national Northwest Territory. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 provided for its organization, initially as a single district, ruled by a governor and judges appointed by the Congress. When this territory had 5,000 free male inhabitants of voting age, it was to be entitled to a legislature of two chambers, itself electing the lower house. In addition, it could at that time send a nonvoting delegate to Congress. Three to five states would be formed as the territory was settled. Whenever any one of them had 60,000 free inhabitants, it was to be admitted to the Union “on an equal footing with the original states in all respects.” The ordinance guaranteed civil rights and liberties, encouraged education, and prohibited slavery or other forms of involuntary servitude.

The new policy repudiated the time-honored concept that colonies existed for the benefit of the mother country, were politically subordinate, and peopled by social inferiors. Instead, it established the principle that colonies (“territories”) were an extension of the nation and entitled, not as a privilege but as a right, to all the benefits of equality.

State Constitutions

The success of the Revolution gave Americans the opportunity to give legal form to their ideals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and to remedy some of their grievances through state constitutions. As early as May 10, 1776, Congress had passed a resolution advising the colonies to form new governments “such as shall best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents.” Some of them had already done so, and within a year after the Declaration of Independence, all but three had drawn up constitutions.

The new constitutions showed the impact of democratic ideas. None made any drastic break with the past, since all were built on the solid foundation of colonial experience and English practice. But each was also animated by the spirit of republicanism, an ideal that had long been praised by Enlightenment philosophers.

Naturally, the first objective of the framers of the state constitutions was to secure those “unalienable rights” whose violation had caused the former colonies to repudiate their connection with Britain. Thus, each constitution began with a declaration or bill of rights. Virginia’s, which served as a model for all the others, included a declaration of principles: popular sovereignty, rotation in office, freedom of elections, and an enumeration of fundamental liberties: moderate bail and humane punishment, speedy trial by jury, freedom of the press and of conscience, and the right of the majority to reform or alter the government.

Other states enlarged the list of liberties to freedom of speech, of assembly, and of petition. Their constitutions frequently included such provisions as the right to bear arms, to a writ of habeas corpus, to inviolability of domicile, and to equal protection under the law. Moreover, all prescribed a three-branch structure of government—executive, legislative, and judiciary—each checked and balanced by the others. Pennsylvania’s constitution was the most radical. In that state, Philadelphia artisans, Scots-Irish frontiersmen, and German-speaking farmers had taken control. The provincial congress adopted a constitution that permitted every male taxpayer and his sons to vote, required rotation in office (no one could serve as a representative more than four years out of every seven), and set up a single-chamber legislature.

The state constitutions had some glaring limitations, particularly by more recent standards. Constitutions established to guarantee people their natural rights did not secure for everyone the most fundamental natural right—equality. The colonies south of Pennsylvania excluded their slave populations from their inalienable rights as human beings. Women had no political rights. No state went so far as to permit universal male suffrage, and even in those states that permitted all taxpayers to vote (Delaware, North Carolina, and Georgia, in addition to Pennsylvania), office-holders were required to own a certain amount of property.

Shays’ Rebellion

Economic difficulties after the war prompted calls for change to this precarious system. The end of the war had a severe effect on merchants who supplied the armies of both sides and who had lost the advantages deriving from participation in the British mercantile system. The states gave preference to American goods in their tariff policies, but these were inconsistent, leading to the demand for a stronger central government to implement a uniform policy.

Farmers probably suffered the most from economic difficulties following the Revolution. The supply of farm produce exceeded demand; unrest centered chiefly among farmer-debtors who wanted strong remedies to avoid foreclosure on their property and imprisonment for debt. Courts were clogged with suits for payment filed by their creditors. All through the summer of 1786, popular conventions and informal gatherings in several states demanded reform in the state administrations.

Protesters watching a debtor in a scuffle with a tax collector by the courthouse at Springfield, Massachusetts.
Protesters watching a debtor in a scuffle with a tax collector by the courthouse at Springfield, Massachusetts.

That autumn, mobs of farmers in Massachusetts under the leadership of a former army captain, Daniel Shays, began forcibly to prevent the county courts from sitting and passing further judgments for debt – which would have resulted in the loss of property, livelihood, and the right to vote for Shays and many of his followers. In January 1787 a ragtag army of 1,200 farmers moved toward the federal arsenal at Springfield. The rebels, armed chiefly with staves and pitchforks, were repulsed by a small state militia force; General Benjamin Lincoln then arrived with reinforcements – privately funded by wealthy creditors in Boston – and routed the remaining Shaysites, whose leader escaped to Vermont. The government captured 14 rebels and sentenced them to death, but ultimately pardoned some and let the others off with short prison terms. After the defeat of the rebellion, a newly elected legislature, whose majority sympathized with the rebels, met some of their demands for debt relief.

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Contemporary engraving depicting Daniel Shays (left) and Job Shattuck, another rebel leader; the artist intentionally rendered them in an unflattering way.

At the time of the rebellion, the weaknesses of the federal government as constituted under the Articles of Confederation were apparent to many.  All the same, it was clear – the U.S. government had been unable to deal with a disorganized rebellion of its own farmers.  Anarchy threatened.

Thomas Jefferson was serving as ambassador to France at the time and refused to be alarmed by Shays’ Rebellion. He argued in a letter to James Madison on January 30, 1787 that occasional rebellion serves to preserve freedoms. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” In contrast, George Washington had been calling for constitutional reform for many years, and he wrote in a letter to Henry Lee, “Let us have a government by which our lives, liberties, and properties will be secured, or let us know the worst at once.”

Shortly after Shays’ Rebellion broke out, delegates from five states met in Annapolis, Maryland from September 11-14, 1786, and they concluded that vigorous steps were needed to reform the federal government, but they disbanded because of a lack of full representation and authority, calling for a convention of all the states to be held in Philadelphia in May 1787.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The Formation of a National Government
  2. Shays’ Rebellion

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