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.

For Your Consideration:
  1. What were the Articles of Confederation?
  2. What was one weakness of the Articles of Confederation?
  3. What did the Northwest Ordinance say about slavery?
  4. Why was Daniel Shays upset?
  5. Why wasn’t the government easily able to stop Shays’ Rebellion?

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.

weakness of the articles
The Articles of Confederation were meant to create a weak national government. However, as time went on, these weaknesses came to threaten the very existence of the United States.

Westward 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.

Northwest-territory-usa-1787
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; taxes, even on small landowners, were actually higher under many new state governments than they were under the British. Small farmers wanted economic reforms to avoid foreclosure on their property and imprisonment for debt, as was the law at the time. Courts were clogged with suits for payment filed by their creditors. All through the summer of 1786, popular conventions and peaceful gatherings in several states demanded tax and monetary reform.

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, groups of farmers in Massachusetts under the leadership of a former army captain, Daniel Shays, began to forcibly 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.  After the defeat of the rebellion, a newly elected legislature, whose majority sympathized with the rebels, met some of their demands for debt relief. The new governor even pardoned many of the resistance leaders, though not Daniel Shays – who lived out the rest of his life as a poor farmer outside of Massachusetts.

800px-Daniel_Shays_and_Job_Shattuck
Contemporary engraving depicting Daniel Shays (left) and Job Shattuck, another rebel leader; the artist intentionally rendered them in an unflattering way.

From the perspective of the wealthy, landowning founders of the new nation, anarchy threatened – the poor had effectively risen up and achieved many of their goals after resorting to armed violence. The U.S. government, under the Articles, was unable to raise an army. It was unable to reinforce the Massachusetts state militia, which had only just barely contained the violence.  And now the state government was in the hands of many of who were sympathetic to the lower classes.

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

The United States: An Open Ended History

The United States: An Open Ended History is a free online history textbook adapted and expanded upon from open sources.  Its chapters are designed to address most state standards, splitting the difference between overarching themes, concise summary, and the kinds of vivid, personal details that make history memorable to the average student.  Please use and share freely – to supplement or replace what you have at hand.

One – A Not So-Distant Past: Native America (Until 1600)
  1. North America’s First People
  2. The Pristine Myth: How Native Americans Shaped Their World
  3. A Collision of Worlds: The Legacy of Columbus
Two – A New World: Colonial America (1600 – 1754)
  1. Jamestown: English Settlers in the Land of the Powhatan
  2. Massachusetts: Church and State in the Land of the Wampanoag
  3. An Overview of the English Colonies in America
  4. The Origins of Servitude and Slavery in Colonial America
Three – Common Sense and Independence: The Revolutionary Era (1754 – 1788)
  1. Join, or Die: The French and Indian War
  2. Agitation, Taxation, and Representation by Other Means
  3. The Shot Heard Round the World, Common Sense, and Independence
  4. The Revolutionary War: With a Little Help from our Friends
  5. A New Nation in Crisis: Shays Rebellion and the U.S. Under the Articles
  6. The Constitution: A Second Draft of American Democracy
Four – A More Perfect Union: The Early Republic (1788-1824)
  1. President Washington and the Origins of Party Politics
  2. Adams, Jefferson, and Competing Visions for the New Republic
  3. Foreign Adventures in the New Republic
  4. The Era of Good Feelings and Others Who Were Not So Lucky
Five – New Frontiers: Economic, Social, and Westward Expansion (1824-1850)
  1. Andrew Jackson, For and Against the Common Man
  2. I Will Not Retreat a Single Inch: Reformers Make Themselves Heard
  3. Manifest Destiny, Westward Expansion, and the Conquest of Mexico
Six – The Gathering Storm: Sectionalism and a Nation in Crisis (1850-1865)
  1. Sectionalism in the Fractured 1850s
  2. A Nation Divided Against Itself
  3. To Break Our Bonds of Affection: The Coming of the Civil War
  4. Gettysburg to Appomattox and Beyond: A New Birth of Freedom?
Appendix – Student Activities

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A Note from the Editor

Creative Commons LicenseAll content on this site is offered under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

“My name is Thomas Kenning.  I am the creator of Openendedsocialstudies.org.  I am an educator with approximately fifteen years of experience in classrooms ranging from preschool to university, though my primary focus is on grades six to nine in the field of social studies.  I have a bachelors in secondary education from Indiana University and a masters in history from American University.  I started this website because it is the kind of resource that I am always looking for myself – digestible lessons that expand the too limited American notion of “world history,” accompanied by questions that help students to process and apply (not just regurgitate and forget) what they are reading.  If the idea is to build bridges to a broader view of the world – not wall our students in – then I hope this website is one of those bridges, rickety as it may be.

author photo

I am a firm believer that the best teachers are creative and resourceful, making dynamic use of the tools they have at hand. In that spirit, some of the basic text on this website is adapted from open sources (like Wikipedia), but every bit of it has been fact checked and cross-referenced with academic sources.  I’ve made every effort to ensure accuracy, as well as balance, across this website.  I stand by everything I have posted here – I use many of these lessons in my own classroom on a regular basis – but if you see something that strikes you as inaccurate, by all means, please let me know in the comments section of the page in question.

Thank you for choosing to use Openendedsocialstudies.org in your classroom.”

Thomas Kenning is an author, educator, and adventurer. He has written extensively about Washington, DC, including in the recently published Abandoned Washington, DC. Mr. Kenning is the creator of the award-winning Openendedsocialstudies.org, a library of free lesson plans and travel writing designed to foster a sense of wonder about the world and our place in it. When he is not travelling to some far flung corner of the Earth, he resides with his wife and daughter (a DC native!) – planning his next improbable adventure and trying to leave the planet a little bit nicer than he found it.

Great Reading on the Ancient Maya

 

I recently took trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  Forgoing the usual tourist center of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, I headed inland to Mérida.  From this, a Maya city turned Spanish colonial center turned Mexican provincial capital, one of the oldest inhabited places in the Western Hemisphere, I undertook a short series of day trips to the great Maya ruins of the Yucatan, including Chichen Izta, Uxmal, and Ek’ Balam

To maximize my time – to make the most sense of my all too brief visit to this incredible region – I did my homework before I left the States.  Of particular use to me – and to anyone looking to learn more about the Maya and their Mesoamerican neighbors – is The Maya (People and Places) by Michael Coe.  While certain passages were somewhat esoteric in their detailed account of the history of Maya archaeology, the book itself was eminently readable – a great resource for anyone looking to cut through the hype and 2012 sensationalism that soaks the usual Amazon search results.

Aimed at younger readers – but still rich and directly written, with lush illustrations – Ancient Maya by Barbara Somervill is a book that paints a nuanced portrait of this complex society.  Suitable for a middle or high school library, and I can honestly say that as an educator I took a lot away from this book myself.  It never speaks down to its audience, which is the sign that a book is truly accessible to all ages.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann is a perennial favorite of mine.  While its scope is far wider than the Maya – encompassing Teotihuacan, the Aztec, the Inca, and many more Pre-Columbian societies that deserve more attention from the general public, Mann’s masterpiece is a true revelation – an inspiration that started me down the path that eventually led to the creation of Openendedsocialstudies.org.

If you know of any other relevant books I should be looking at – especially if they might help to inform future travel and lessons here at Openendedsocialstudies – please leave a comment in the section below!

Uxmal: Thrice Built City of the Maya

Check out this new Openendedsocialstudies documentary short, shot on location at Uxmal, a Maya ruin in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  This tour of the city is a great introduction to Maya culture and can be enjoyed by the casual viewer, the history buff, or in the classroom, in conjunction with our brand new (and totally free) unit on the ancient Maya.

The Maya: Illuminated Offspring of the Makers

Continue reading “The Maya: Illuminated Offspring of the Makers”

Mesoamerica: Cradle of Civilization in the New World

Continue reading “Mesoamerica: Cradle of Civilization in the New World”

Who made your smartphone? Globalization, raw materials, and slave labor from Potosi to Silicon Valley

Globalization is nothing new – the indigenous peoples slaving away in the Potosi mines 500 years ago could tell you all about it, while Europeans cracked the whip in order to buy Asian-made goods at affordable prices. Add in the fact that the mines were supplied with food and coca by African slaves laboring away in the low lands, and you have a template for the modern integrated global economy – exploitation, unequal rewards, and all. Continue reading “Who made your smartphone? Globalization, raw materials, and slave labor from Potosi to Silicon Valley”

Unrecognized Potential: Terra Preta, Ancient Orchards, and Life in the Amazon

Until relatively recently, it was widely believed that the Amazon Rainforest was incapable of sustaining large scale human development.  New findings have challenged this view, and evidence of ancient agriculture suggests that humans once developed this fragile region in ways so subtle that – in the form of carefully managed soils and prehistoric orchards – they have been hiding in plain sight all this time, challenging the basic tenants of “agriculture” as western eyes tend to recognize it. Continue reading “Unrecognized Potential: Terra Preta, Ancient Orchards, and Life in the Amazon”

Potosi and the Globalization of an Empire

Globalization is nothing new – the indigenous peoples slaving away in the Potosi mines 500 years ago could tell you all about it, while Europeans cracked the whip in order to buy Asian-made goods at affordable prices. Add in the fact that the mines were supplied with food and coca by African slaves laboring away in the low lands, and you have a template for the modern integrated global economy – exploitation, unequal rewards, and all. Continue reading “Potosi and the Globalization of an Empire”