Shays’ Rebellion and the Articles of Confederation

Thomas P. Rossiter, Signing of the Constitution, Wikimedia Commons

Thomas P. Rossiter, Signing of the Constitution, Wikimedia Commons

There are many arguments proclaiming the ‘evils’ of big government, and it always seems to come back to the same arguments made by the Federalists and the Anti-federalists during the days of our founders, concerning the differences between a strong central government and a weak central government.

It is taken as gospel that our government should be small, and it is argued that it was always meant to be this way, but from what has been said about the dangers of our large government, it appears that some are advocating for a return of the Articles of Confederation, with its weak central powers, instead of the federal government that we have today.

The Second Continental College adopted the Articles of Confederation on November 15th, 1777, and it was in place until 1789, but it was replaced by the Constitution, which advocated for a stronger central government. Why was it replaced?

The Articles of Confederation maintained the principle that the national government would not hold more power than the states, which they saw as sovereign. This satisfied the fears that many of the States had regarding a strong central power, as Britain was before the Declaration of Independence.

In fact, there was no Executive Branch, because they feared giving one man that much power, and it was decided that the Congress would handle all the nation’s affairs.

However, there were many inherent weaknesses with the Articles of Confederation:

  • The national government did not have the power to tax.
  • Congress did not have the power to force states to obey its laws.
  • Congress could not enforce laws.
  • Each state could issue its own paper money.
  • Any state could put tariffs on trade between other states or countries.
  • There was no system of national courts.
  • Congress could declare war and raise an army, but it could not force the states to give men or money.

After the Revolutionary War, the country went into a deep post-war depression. The States were threatening war with each other, and there were armed uprisings and riots across the land. Things eventually got so bad that the country was on the verge of a civil war.

This was called the ‘critical period‘. The States were jealous of each other’s sovereignty and squabbled among themselves. They negotiated their own trade deals with Europe, and they protected their own interests at the expense of the other States.

Each State was printing their own money, which depreciated soon after the war. Many returning soldiers were paid in currency they considered to be worthless, and it was told that some soldiers wallpapered their houses with the paper currency.

The Articles of Confederation was too weak to handle all of the problems in this time period, because the country was not able to govern itself or defend itself against attack or rebellion. The national government was dangerously close to bankruptcy, and the nation’s currency was virtually worthless.

Shays Rebellion monument, Wikimedia Commons

Shays’ Rebellion monument, Wikimedia Commons

In Massachusetts, this weakness was dangerously exposed when discontent for the government took shape in the form of Shays’ Rebellion, which occurred on January 25th, 1787.

Daniel Shays, a former captain in the Revolutionary War, led a large group of dissatisfied veterans and farmers to stop the injustices that they perceived were created by the wealthy elite establishment, and the political elite in the State government that seemed to be allied with these moneyed interests on the East Coast.

Because the demand for food products had gone up during the Revolution, many farmers took out loans during the Revolution to be able to plant much more on their land to produce more food for the market, but when the war ended, the demand dried up.

Many farmers were unable to pay for their land mortgages to the eastern merchants, and they had few options: they could have their land sold at auction, could have their crops, livestock and land seized, and creditors could have them thrown into a debtor’s prison.

Because many of the States in the country were on the verge of bankruptcy, this forced many of them to raise their taxes, and while everyone was experiencing these tough times, they were also expected to pay the extra taxes to the State.

To be able to vote during this time, you had to own land, and for many, the loss of their land and their loss of status, from not being able to vote, was too much for them to take. This made many decide that the form of government they had was not working for them, and that something had to be done.

In 1786, the depression was getting worse. County Conventions began to be held in the rural areas so that the people could air their complaints in public about the fiscal policies of the General Court and the State, and how there was a lack of regard for the desperate plight that everyone in the rural areas were experiencing.

They also sent letters to their elected leaders, only to continue feeling ignored by the state government, and the national government was helpless to do anything because they were not given the power under the Articles of Confederation.

Many communities throughout Massachusetts petitioned the State legislature for fiscal relief, and when none came, thousands marched to shut down the court doors that were taking people’s land away and putting the farmers in debtor’s prisons, because they believed the courts had betrayed the principals of free government.

Eventually, there was bloodshed and Shays’ Rebellion did not succeed, but it was determined that a change was needed to resolve the many problems caused by the Articles of Confederation. On February 21, 1787, the Continental Congress resolved that:

Whereas there is provision in the Articles of Confederation & perpetual Union for making alterations therein by the assent of a Congress of the United States and of the legislatures of the several States; And whereas experience hath evinced that there are defects in the present Confederation, as a mean to remedy which several of the States and particularly the State of New York by express instructions to their delegates in Congress have suggested a convention for the purposes expressed in the following resolution and such convention appearing to be the most probable mean of establishing in these states a firm national government.

Resolved that in the opinion of Congress it is expedient that on the second Monday in May next a Convention of delegates who shall have been appointed by the several states be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the states render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government & the preservation of the Union.

Washington Constitutional Convention 1787, Wikimedia Commons

Washington Constitutional Convention 1787, Wikimedia Commons

On May 25th, 1787, the Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia to decide the fate of the Articles of Confederation, and on September 17th, 1787, a new Constitution was approved, which had the much needed stronger central powers.

To help get all of the States to accept and ratify the Constitution, the Bill of Rights were added on September 25, 1789.

Shays’ Rebellion did not occur because the people felt that the national government was too large. It was literally non-existent for them. They felt like the courts favored only the wealthy elite and they believed they were being excluded from the American experiment by not being given a chance to succeed.

A similar form of confederacy was created for the Confederate States of America during the civil war, and it experienced many of the same problems that they had early in our country’s history. If a weak central government is an example of what our government should be like, then history shows that it was thoroughly tested and found wanting.