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Shays' Rebellion

When the war was over, the states' attentions drifted back to their own interests. Quarrels over boundaries generated minor battles between discharged state militias. A large but mostly peaceful uprising in western Massachusetts, led by a captain in the war, scared the government and the local courts.

Shays' Rebellion (1786) was a series of armed demonstrations led by small farmers angered by debt and taxes. Failure to repay debts often resulted in imprisonment in debtor's prisons or loss of the family farm. The rebels freed their friends from prison and stopped courts from ordering evictions. The rebellion lasted about six months before it was violently put down by a private army paid for by rich landowners. Without a standing army, the national government could do nothing. This scare helped lead to support for the Constitutional Convention (1787), which began a few months after the rebellion.


Question: What was Shays' Rebellion?

Answer: In Shays' Rebellion, debt-ridden Massachusetts farmers attacked courts. The Rebellion helped show the need for a more powerful federal government.

The Constitutional Convention

Delegates from all the states came to the Constitutional Convention, including Revolutionary superstars Ben Franklin (then 81 years old), Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. George Washington chaired the meeting.

The delegates knew they needed a strong central government, but they wanted to preserve the maximum rights to states and their individual citizens. Proposals broke down into a large-state plan and a small-state plan. Under the Articles of Confederation, the rule had been one state, one vote. The big states wanted representation by population size. In the end, the great compromise split the difference. Big states got the House of Representatives, based on population; the small states got the U.S. Senate, with two senators for every state, no matter how small. As a Tip to the big states, all tax and revenue bills had to start in the House. The many compromises took years to be finally approved.


Question: Did all the delegates agree with the new Constitution at the first meeting?

Answer: No, the Constitution was controversial and required compromise and years of discussion to be ratified by all 13 states.

Getting over King George and their fear of despotism, the delegates established a strong president who could appoint judges and other officials, serve as commander in chief of the military, and veto legislation. This strong president was to be chosen by the people indirectly through an electoral college as a supposed safeguard against mob rule. The executive president branch of government was balanced with the legislative Congress and judicial Courts branches. The deal including both the House of Representatives and the Senate was called the Great Compromise (1788).

Slavery: Reduced but not gone yet

The Southern states wanted to count slaves as part of their population to get more representatives in the House and the electoral college, which elected the president. The North said it was nice that the South finally wanted to count slaves as people, but the way Southerners treated slaves, Northerners may as well request representation for their horses.

The two sides split the difference: In writing the new Constitution, Southern slaveholders got a Three-Fifths Compromise (1789), in which slaves were partly counted. All but two of the states wanted to shut down the African slave trade; the compromise was to stop stealing people from Africa in 20 years (1807).


Question: What was the Three-Fifths Compromise?

Answer: The Three-Fifths Compromise said that, in determining Congressional representation, slaves counted but only partially. Five slaves counted as three people for the purposes of assigning members of the House of Representatives and the Electoral College, which officially selects the president.

Reining in the states

The Constitution needed the approval of nine states to get going. Eventually, it was approved by all 13 states, but it took three years and some mighty close votes. In general, wealthy, well-educated people liked the strong central government called for by the new Constitution; people who supported the federal Constitution were Federalists (1788). They wrote the Federalist Papers (1788), arguing that a large republic can best protect minority rights.

In the end, the laws that didn't change in the Constitution served all the people. You can count on one hand the countries in the world that have had stable governments for the past 200 years. Although it's far from an economic democracy, the United States has provided a shield for freedom and a chance for success to millions of people.


Question: What was the main point of the Federalist Papers?

Answer: The Federalist Papers argued that a large republic best protects minority rights.

As weary old Ben Franklin was leaving the convention hall, a woman asked him, "Well, doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?" The elder statesman replied, "A republic, madam, if you can keep it."

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