"To all to whom these Present shall come, we the undersigned Delegates of the
States affixed to our Names send greeting."
Such words of optimism begin the Articles of
Confederation. The year was 1781 and the new nation, the United States of America, began
to take shape. Delegates met in Philadelphia to draft the particulars of their governing
document. The document established a permanent central government for the country. The
sovereignty, freedom, and independence of each state was recognized as well as power,
jurisdiction and rights not "expressly delegated to the United States in Congress
assembled." (Article II)
Statesman John Dickinson of Philadelphia, leader of the
draft committee, recognized potential obstacles and provided the needed leadership in
resolving the problems. Obstacles surfaced early. One issue, states rights, was resolved
in a number of ways. To begin with, the states entered a league of friendship for their
mutual defense and agreed to assist each other against forces and attacks made upon them.
Representation was left to the individual states, with the document calling for at
least two but no more than seven representatives. Representatives were expected to
be the eyes and ears of the state and could be recalled if the state governor or
leadership felt their interests were not being represented. In addition, representatives
were prohibited from holding any office "for which he or another for his benefit
receives any salary, fees or emoluments of any kind." The central government was
referred to as the Congress and its powers included the power to conduct foreign affairs,
maintain an army and navy, make treaties, establish post offices and coin money. The
Articles prohibited Congress from raising revenue through taxes, relying instead upon the
good will of the states to provide funds for the central government as requested. The
delegates spent countless hours fine tuning and organizing the provisions of the document.
Satisfied with their accomplishment, the document was presented to the assembly and signed
on July 9, 1778. It took effect four years later when the last state, Maryland, formally
approved the document.
In 1786, events occurred that would cause the leadership of
the new nation to question the strength of their governing document and of the new nation.
A former Revolutionary War army captain named Daniel Shays would lead a group of three
hundred and fifty men in rebellion.
Why would a group of ex-Revolutionary War soldiers rebel
against the country they fought to protect, defend, and secure independence for? The
answer to that question becomes apparent when examining the period immediately following
independence. The colonies gained their freedom from Britain, but economic stability was
not part of the guarantee. freedom left the colonies without the commercial ties they
depended on for exchange of goods and products. As a result, states were forced to seek
new markets and develop new ties to replace old ties. Massachusetts felt the economic
slump extensively. The state emerged from the war with debt in the millions of dollars and
a shortage of goods. Currency values fell dramatically. Additional harm was caused from
Britains decision to curtail trade between the United States and the British West
Indies. The loss to the shipbuilding, distilling, and lumber exporting industries spelled
economic disaster for the state.
Most residents of the state were unaware of the seriousness
of the situation. As times and conditions worsened, the signs became all too apparent. By
the early 1780s, farms were seized and sold for one-third or less of their true
value. Debtor prisons filled, emptying only as friends and relatives bailed out men jailed
for a situation for which they had no control. The residents turned to their state
government for leadership to solve the problems and restore the economy. Unfortunately,
the leadership of the government was not as wise or dedicated as the people had hoped. The
legislature responded to the current crisis by imposing higher court costs and allowing
certain foodstuffs and lumber to be used in place of currency. Disillusionment set in.
People began taking matters into their own hands. Mobs success in barring the doors to the
courts in Pittsfield and Northhampton convinced others to do likewise. Veterans knew where
to find leaders and sough out the men who previously led them in battle. Leadership
developed within each locality. One of these leaders was Daniel Shays of Pelham.
Shays related all to well to the problems experienced by
returning veterans. He turned to farming after a successful army career. He found himself
among the many who sold war momentous for cash. He met with others at a local tavern and
listened to their stories of hardship. He was aware that the governing compact delayed
payment of overdue wages and invalidated the pensions of military officers. Shays found
himself in the uncomfortable
position of his fellow veterans when he was sued for a debt
of twelve dollars. Within two years, he joined other veterans in rebellion.
Massachusetts residents again turned to their states
government for leadership and again were disappointed. The legislature responded again
with a tax increase to make up for the shortage in revenue. The increase--from fifteen
cents to one dollar and seventy-five cents--was substantial and intensified the anger and
frustration of the citizens. Rebels continued to protest the excessive taxes levied on
their property, the continually rising court costs, and the unstable economy. Conventions
were convened to deal with the issues at hand. The citizens outlined their own proposals
to remedy the situation and called for a reduction in taxes and court fees and the
issuance of paper money. Their proposals were largely ignored.
The time for peaceful resolution of the situation had come
to an end. In August 1786, a mob
1,500 people strong, armed with guns and swords, seized the
county courthouse at Northhampton and forced the court to adjourn sine dine. Mobs
prevented the courts at Springfield and Concord from meeting and in Great Barrington
abused the judges and released prisoners. Painfully aware that anarchy could grip the
state and spread throughout the country, Governor James Bowdoin began developing a plan
for enlisting the aid of federal troops. Violence was avoided in Worcester when the rebels
put their energies towards drafting a legislative resolution calling for the redress of
their grievances. The
governor and others knew they could not count on this
course of action becoming commonplace. The Hampshire County Court was scheduled to meet in
Springfield in January. In addition to preventing the meeting of the court, Shays also
hoped to seize the federal arsenal as weapons and supplies were running low. The attack
was to begin on January 25th.
At the last minute, Luke Day, who was to lead the movement
from the west, sent word that the battle was to begin one day later. Daniel Shays and his
followers never received the note. Major General Benjamin Lincoln, commander of the state
forces, received word of pending actions in Springfield and headed there. General William
Shepherd, commander of the troops at Springfield, prepared as best he could for what was
to come. On the way two of Shepherds soldiers intercepted the note Shays was to have
Shays preceded as scheduled. Shepherds men moved in
expecting a battle, and were surprised as to what unfolded. Only three cannon shots were
needed, the latter exploding in their midst. Three rebels died on the spot, and a fourth
was severely wounded. The remaining men fled in confusion. The rebels were captured in
February 1787 and sentenced to death for treason, but were later pardoned.
Rebellion brought to light the weaknesses of the Articles
of Confederation. Congress was prohibited from raising revenue through taxes. When the
state of Massachusetts requested assistance, Congress could call a militia, but had no
means to pay the men. Congress could pass legislation condemning the action and calling
for specific actions, but could not force the states to comply with the law(s). Congress
could propose amendments to the Articles, but they would not come into effect unless all
thirteen states voted to do so. The central government was in the position where it could
neither pay debts or provide needed services. Congress was criticized for being slow to
act, but the reality of the situation was that neither side could gain the needed majority
to act. Congress sad lesson learned was that the good will of the states could not
always be depended upon for action. Much to Congress credit they did not dwell on
the failures but moved ahead to convention to try to strengthen the document.
About the Author:
Rosemary Vest is an adjunct instructor of Geography
and Social studies at Pueblo Community College, Pueblo, Colorado. She also serves as
the lay leader and representative for Bethel Iglesia Metodista Unida (Bethel United