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Historical Background

THE Constitutional Convention met in a climate of national crisis, triggered by a series of governmental and economic problems—though historians have debated whether or not they were critical enough to warrant a drastic reorganization of the Government. An anxious mixture of hope and despair gripped the minds of many leaders. [U.S. political and military affairs during the period 1783-1828 and related sites are treated in Founders and Frontiersmen, Volume VII in this series.] Blessed with a huge territory stretching all the way to the Mississippi, the United States contained a wealth of natural resources. Its 3-1/2 million inhabitants had demonstrated their industry and ingenuity. Only 4 years before, in the Treaty of Paris ending the War for Independence, they had won their freedom from Great Britain. Even earlier, they had taken their place among the nations of the world. And in 1781 a new Government had been initiated under the Articles of Confederation, a constitution drawn up in 1777.

Articles of Confederation
Dissatisfaction with the Articles of Confederation, whose opening paragraphs are reproduced here, engendered the movement that led to creation of the Constitution. (National Archives)

Yet, what if the experiment in self-government should fail? Such prominent men as George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton feared it might. In many fields, the Confederation had proven to be ineffectual and its prestige had plummeted. The Continental Congress was unable to cope with all the country's problems.

The Articles of Confederation were a "firm league of friendship" among 13 semi-independent States, and did not provide for a truly sovereign national Government. The principal governmental body was a single-house Congress, in which each State held one vote. No independent executive, to carry out the laws, or autonomous court system, to administer the legal and judicial system or to adjudicate disputes between the Federal Government and the States, were provided. The approval of a minimum of seven States, who elected and paid their delegates, was required for any legislation"; nine, to wage war or pass certain other measures"; and all 13, to alter or amend the Articles themselves. The Continental Congress was empowered to declare and wage war, raise an Army and Navy, make treaties and alliances, appoint and receive ambassadors, decide interstate disputes, negotiate loans, emit bills of credit, coin money, regulate weights and measures, manage Indian affairs, and operate a system of interstate post offices.

Severely inhibiting the effectiveness of Congress in carrying out its prerogatives, however, were three major limitations. One was the lack of a most basic governmental power: the right to levy taxes, which would provide an independent source of revenue. Instead, Congress could only requisition, or request, money from the States and could not enforce payment. Suffering from the economic depression and saddled with their own war debts, they furnished only a small part of the money sought from them.

The second serious congressional deficiency was absence of authority to regulate interstate and foreign commerce. The States negotiated separately with foreign powers on commercial matters to the detriment of the overall economy. And, when two States disagreed about trade matters, they dealt directly with each other much like countries did. Fortunately, to facilitate the conduct of legal business, at least the States had agreed to the mutual recognition of official acts.

Thirdly, the Continental Congress could not properly exercise its treaty power because of the autonomy of the States. Their independent conduct of foreign relations and Indian policy not only hampered Congress in its dealings with other nations but also sometimes even jeopardized national security.

The Continental Congress had led the Nation through the War for Independence, and in the Ordinances of 1784 and 1785 had established a plan to advance westward expansion by the addition of new States to the Confederation. But in financial matters, foreign affairs, national defense, mediation of interstate disputes, and protecting American sovereignty in the West it was less successful. After the war, the ramifications of political, social, and economic readjustment caught up with it. People blamed it for failure to solve problems that would have tried stronger governments. The deficiencies of Congress were real, however. By 1787 even its defenders recognized that it had fallen upon evil times.

Financially, the situation was chaotic. Congress could not pay its war debts, foreign or domestic, or meet current obligations. The private financial system of the country was feeble, and the Nation lacked a stable and uniform currency. The central Government was virtually powerless to correct the conditions.

Because much of the debt—Federal, State, and private—was owed to foreign lenders, the future of the United States in international commerce was precarious. A nation that does not pay its debts cannot command respect from other countries. Furthermore, prosperity depended on trade with Europe and the Caribbean colonies, but Congress could not conclude suitable commercial treaties.

Foreign affairs were another area where the Continental Congress had failed. Other nations showed contempt for the United States. Many of them questioned the stability or even the continued existence of the Confederation. One British official remarked that it would be better to make 13 separate treaties with the individual States than to deal with the Continental Congress. American diplomats, whose efforts were hamstrung by the lack of a central authority that could formulate a unified foreign policy, made slight impress in world capitals. The prevailing mercantilistic system also prevented the opening up of markets for American agricultural produce.

ship at dock
During the Confederation period, domestic and foreign commerce languished. Scene at Philadelphia near the Arch Street Ferry. (Drawing and engraving (1800) by William Birch & Son. Library of Congress.)

Only a few European nations sent Ministers to this country. In 1785 Great Britain received Minister John Adams, but not until 7 years later did she reciprocate with an exchange of diplomats. She also refused to grant trade concessions needed by the United States if prewar outlets for American goods were to be restored. And she did not evacuate a string of military and fur trading posts along the Great Lakes as called for in the Paris treaty of 1783. As grounds for refusal to do so, she contended that the United States had already violated it by failing to pay British and Loyalist claims. Congress could not solve the problem, lacking as it did the military power to drive the British out of the old Northwest or authority to force the States to settle the claims. Another source of English resentment was debts owed by individual Americans to British creditors.

France remained friendly, but trade with the United States was insignificant because the practical outlet for American raw materials was highly industrialized Britain. Since the French Foreign Minister, the Comte de Vergennes, at the peace negotiations ending the War for Independence had shown a willingness to sacrifice American claims to western territory to the interests of French diplomacy, relations between the two countries had cooled, though France remained the closest supporter of the United States.

Relations with Spain had never been cordial. Resenting U.S. acquisition of the vast Appalachian-Mississippi territory in 1783 and considering it a threat to her colonial empire, she did not recognize U.S. claims to portions of present Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, and disputed the location of the boundary between Florida and the United States as defined by the Paris treaty. Spain also used her control of New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi to attempt to persuade American settlers in the West, who relied on the river to ship their produce to the East and Europe, to forswear the United States and join her. Seeking accommodation, Congress authorized John Jay to negotiate with the Spanish, but he met with little success.

Meantime, the Barbary States of North Africa plundered and exacted tribute from U.S. ships in the Mediterranean, and the Continental Congress could do nothing about it.

Vitally related to the debility in foreign affairs was the inadequate national defense. This was attributable to the Confederation's reliance on State militias and its financial difficulties. At the very time that westerners were clamoring for protection from the Indians and action against the British in the Northwest, the Army was in a moribund state. In 1783, in response to frontiersmen's pleas, the best Congress could do was call for an increase in the size of the Regular Army from 80 to 700 men. Before the adoption of the Constitution, even this modest goal was never reached, but enough State militiamen volunteered for Regular Army service to erect and garrison a few forts in the Ohio country and provide token evidence of U.S. authority there. From 1784 until 1789, the Army consisted only of these western garrisons, small detachments at West Point, N.Y., and the Springfield, Mass., and Pittsburgh supply depots. The "navy" of the War for Independence had disappeared. After the war, the few remaining ships were sold and the sailors discharged.

In disputes among the States, Congress was no more successful. Powerless to enforce its decisions, it hesitated to make many. It could not regulate interstate commerce or, for example, prevent States from passing restrictive measures against imports from one another. When the "State of Franklin" (1784—88) claimed independence from North Carolina and a faction within the state sought annexation to Spain, Congress was unable to resolve the issue. And it could not settle the conflicting claims of New Hampshire and New York to the Vermont area, at a time when Ethan, Ira, and Levi Allen, leaders of the semi-independent state, were said to be discussing with the British its possible annexation to Canada.

Crippled by its military and diplomatic shortcomings, the Continental Congress was unable to stop Indian raids along the frontier. The Spaniards held sway over the natives in the old Southwest, machinated along the border, and threatened to close the Mississippi River to American trade. The British intrigued in the old Northwest and dominated the Indians there. All these conditions irritated western settlers, landowners, and speculators and threatened to lead them into alliances with foreign powers that would offer protection and create a climate hospitable to settlement. In response to these provocations, Congress could do little to reassure westerners, whose secession seemed possible. As Washington wrote, the West was "on a pivot" ready at the "touch of a feather" to turn to the nation that offered the most secure future.

Complicating the problems of the Confederation while at the same time revealing its impotence was the deplorable state of the economy. It was rocked not only by a postwar depression but also by rampant inflation, heavy British imports, and the loss of markets in Britain and the British West Indies. A logical move to counter the unfavorable balance of trade would have been imposition of a tariff to restrict imports or force Britain to make concessions in the West Indies, but the Confederation lacked authority to enact or apply such a measure. British merchants easily circumvented trade barriers erected by individual States by shipping their goods in through others. Another adverse factor was the great popularity of British products among consumers.

Some examples of paper money issued by Rhode Island. This inflationary medium tended to benefit debtors at the expense of creditors. (National Archives)

In the seaports of the East and on the farms of the South and West, export trade languished. In colonial times, certain products had enjoyed a guaranteed market under British mercantilism. Now, denied that favored status, or similar access to the trade of mercantilistic France and Spain, shippers and producers and all who depended on them felt the financial pinch. As a result, business failures and property foreclosures soared and many people, particularly farmers, fell deeply into debt and lost their lands and homes.

The economic malaise affected most segments of society: merchants, shippers, planters, farmers, mechanics, artisans, and manufacturers. The farmers, who like manufacturers suffered from low prices for their products and the loss of markets, were also saddled with crippling taxes and property payments and in some regions faced crop failures. The lack of a uniform national currency, a shortage of gold and silver, and the fluctuating value of currency from State to State, hampered interstate trade. State paper, bills of exchange, and foreign coins circulated freely. Economic rivalries, as well as currency and boundary disputes, were rife among the States.

The widespread indebtedness, coupled with the scarcity of hard money, generated pressures on State legislatures to pass laws favorable to debtors and to issue inflationary paper money, unbacked by gold or silver. This medium, which kept depreciating in value, made it easier for debtors to satisfy their creditors, often men of property who were outraged by the movement. But many debtors were too poor to pay in any kind of money. Soldiers returning from the war found their farms strapped with mortgages, which in some States were partly necessitated by heavy taxes.

As a result, debtor political factions arose that advocated not only the printing of more paper money and other anti-deflationary monetary policies but also laws to prevent foreclosures. In some places, while Congress stood by helplessly, relations between creditors and debtors deteriorated almost to the point of civil war. In Rhode Island and elsewhere, paper money flowed with the speed of the presses. In other places, like Massachusetts, the creditor-hard money interests prevailed.

sketch of farming scene
Farmers, along with other elements of society, suffered from the economic decline that ensued right after the United States won its independence. This painting, entitled "The Residence of David Twining, 1787," depicts a farm in Bucks County, Pa. (Oil (1845-48) by Edward Hicks. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection, Colonial Williamsburg.)

It was in the western part of that Commonwealth that the debtor-creditor struggle peaked in 1786-87 and culminated in a resort to arms and the shedding of blood. The legislature, dominated by wealthy eastern creditors and commercial interests intent on paying off the governmental debt, levied land and poll taxes. These burdened small farmers, who were already deep in debt and suffering particularly from the drop in produce prices caused by the cessation of trade with the British West Indies. While the legislature ignored protests and petitions from the underrepresented agrarians for stay laws, the issuance of paper money, and constitutional changes, many honest men, their mortgages foreclosed and their property confiscated, went to prison.

Abandoning the traditional deference to authority of their class and demanding their right to express themselves on governmental matters, the farmers first harassed tax collectors, moneylenders, lawyers, courts, and officials who foreclosed mortgages. In September 1786 ex-War for Independence Capt. Daniel Shays and some 600 of his followers marched on Springfield and forced the Commonwealth's supreme court to disband. The following January, leading a force of more than 1,000 insurgents, he attacked the lightly guarded Federal arsenal there. Militia defeated them, the revolt collapsed, and Shays fled to Vermont; later, the legislature lowered taxes. Although the uprising was quickly and rather easily quelled, it was only possible through the private subscriptions of various merchants. The response to Massachusetts pleas for help by the Continental Congress, which lacked troops and money, was belated and ineffectual.

Shays' Rebellion, as well as similar disturbances elsewhere in New England and the possibilities of others in the country, raised the specter of anarchy to businessmen, gentlemen of property, and the ruling class from New Hampshire to Georgia. To them, the Shays episode seemed to herald a period of demagogic mob rule that would destroy property rights—and with them the Nation's future. This group feared that debt-ridden farmers in other States might take up arms; lamented congressional ineffectiveness in controlling the Shays outbreak; expressed shock at the violence; decried the attack on a Federal arsenal and the intimidation of lawyers and courts; and resented agitation for the repudiation of debts and the issuance of paper money.

Many individuals in this category, some of whom even felt that British spies and sympathizers had fomented the uprising, exploited the issue politically. Although the States were already selecting delegates to the Constitutional Convention, the rebellion helped catalyze the desire for drastic remedial action. This led to the creation of a more nationalistic Government at Philadelphia than would probably otherwise have been possible.

Many men of standing traced the rise of individuals like Shays to the apparent strength of "radical" elements within some of the States and the excessive power vested in the legislatures under the Confederation. This situation directly resulted from the Revolutionary upsurge of the 1760's and 1770's. In rebelling against distant British rule, Americans had rejected the monarchy, scorned the arbitrary exercise of executive authority, and placed their faith in their legislatures. All of them except those in Connecticut and Rhode Island, which merely modified their royal charters, had drawn up new written constitutions during the Revolution. Because the colonial assemblies had fought for the rights of Americans and the Royal Governors had been the principal exponents of British repression, most of these documents had granted extensive powers to the legislatures and few to the Governors, who were reduced essentially to administrators.

Shays' Rebellion alarmed men of property and creditors across the land. This proclamation by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania offered a reward for Daniel Shays and three other ringleaders. (Pennsylvania Journal (Philadelphia), May 19, 1787. Library of Congress.)

Since the drafting of the constitutions, though the legislatures had guided the States through the war, these bodies had too often looked to their own parochial interests instead of those of the whole country. By the 1780's in some States neighborly cooperation had almost ceased to exist and had given way to jealousy, mistrust, and opportunism.

Congressional effectiveness depended partly on national confidence, which by early 1787 had mostly evaporated. The people placed their faith in the State governments, which could levy taxes and duties; maintain militia; regulate commerce; and, when necessary, use force to maintain order. Members of the Continental Congress often did not even bother to attend its sessions. During one 4-month period in 1783-84, a quorum of States could be mustered but three times; only with difficulty could a sufficient number be assembled to ratify the Treaty of Paris ending the War for Independence. As the prestige of Congress continued to dim, the quality of its personnel as a whole declined. Many of the best men stayed at home near their legislatures, where the real power lay.

Despite the extent and seriousness of the problems, numerous attempts at overall revision or the correction of particular deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation had failed. Sometimes a majority of the States approved the changes, but the consent of the required 13 could never be obtained. Thus, chances for constitutional revision within prescribed governmental channels were virtually nonexistent. By 1787, the contention of thinkers of the day who held that republics were ineffective in large countries seemed accurate.

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Last Updated: 29-Jul-2004