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The Articles of Confederation and Shays' Rebellion

The Articles of Confederation, drafted after the Declaration of Independence, created a union of states with limited central government. Each state retained its sovereignty, freedom, and independence. However, Shays' Rebellion highlighted the weaknesses of this system, leading to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution and a stronger central government.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] As we talked about in other videos, shortly after the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776, the representatives from what were colonies but now self-declared states had to think about how to organize themselves. And so they start drafting the Articles of Confederation, which go into effect in 1781. Now as we'll see, Articles of Confederation do not provide for any type of real central government. It really was a mutual defense union with a little bit of free trade, as well see in the text here. This is some of the beginning passages of the Articles of Confederation, and I encourage you to read the whole thing, it's actually quite interesting. But you immediately see it has a very different tone than the one that we see in the US Constitution. The Constitution starts with "we the people," while the Articles of Confederation starts with "to all to whom these Presents shall come," so it's almost, you know, kind of an awkward business letter. "We the undersigned Delegates of the States "affixed to our Names send greeting. "Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union "between the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay, "Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, "Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, "Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, "South Carolina and Georgia. "The Stile of this Confederacy shall be "'The United States of America.'" This part is interesting. "Each state retains its sovereignty," so it rules over itself, it's not giving up its sovereignty to some type of a union. So it "retains its sovereignty, its freedom, "and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, "which is not by this Confederation "expressly delegated to the United States, "in Congress assembled." So they're really viewing themselves as independent countries that are next to each other that for the sake of fighting the Revolutionary War, agree to things like mutual defense and free trade, but they are really separate countries. "The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league "of friendship with each other, for their common defense," so this is that mutual defense idea, "the security of their liberties, "and their mutual and general welfare, "binding themselves to assist each other "against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, "or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, "or any other pretense whatever." And then it says, "the better to secure and perpetuate "mutual friendship and intercourse among the people "of the different States in this Union, "the free inhabitants of each of these States... "shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities "of free citizens in the several States; "and the people of each State shall free ingress and regess "to and from any other State, and shall enjoy therein "all the privileges of trade and commerce." So people could travel back and forth between these states, there would be free trade, but these would be viewed as different countries. One interesting thing that you don't hear people talk a lot about, there is even a little passage here that allows Canada to join this confederation. "Canada, acceding to this confederation, "and adjoining in the measures of the United States, "shall be admitted into, and entitled to all the advanatages "of this Union; but no other colony shall be admitted "into the same, unless such admission "be agreed to by nine States." So they're saying hey, if Canada agrees, they are pre-agreeing to allow Canada to join this union, which Canada obviously does not join. But it's interesting to think that they thought about this. Now what are the weaknesses here? Well the most obvious one, I don't have the entire Articles of Confederation here, but how does this United States of America wield its power? Where does its money come from? It turns out that if it needs to generate revenue in order to take some action, it can't tax the citizens of the states, the states can only do that themselves. Instead it has to apply to the states in order to contribute to the United States of America. If you want to take some type of unified action, well you would have to have delegates from the various states, and meet together and decide what to do. You wouldn't have any strong leader being able to take decisive action. And so there really wasn't a notion of a central government here. There wasn't even a notion of one country, one nation. It really was about different sovereign states. And all of this, as we'll see, will come to a head in the mid-1780s. The United States has a significant amount of debt exiting the American Revolutionary War. Debt to countries like France. You also have debt on the individual level. Merchants owe money to European merchants and traders and lenders, and these lenders weren't interested in paper currency from these newly created states. They wanted hard currency, they wanted gold and they want silver. And so many of the merchants in the United States in turn put pressure on the people they lend money to, especially poor farmers, many of whom had been veterans in the Revolutionary War, to pay their debts in hard currency. And so you can imagine these poor farmers who were kind of the bottom of this food chain were in a pretty tough bind. They had fought in the Revolutionary War, they had risked their lives, many of them had been injured, but they actually did not get paid for their service, to a large degree. And then now, they were not able to even survive as farmers, because not only were they not able to borrow new funds, but some of their existing funds they had to pay back in hard currency, which wasn't available in the United States. And so all of this tension eventually comes to a head in western Massachusetts. This right here is a picture of Daniel Shays, who was one of these poor farmers in western Massachusetts who was also a veteran of the American Revolutionary War who was not paid for his service. And so he eventually becomes one of the leaders of these rebellious former veterans, poor farmers, and they start taking the courthouses of western Massachusetts, making them inoperable. These were the courthouses where people had to report to in order to talk about how they would repay their debt. Well you can imagine this worried many of the merchants who these people owed their debt to. It also worried many of the founding fathers, because it took some time for the government of Massachusetts to be able to react to this, and while that was happening, through mid-1786 into the beginning of 1787, this rebellion got stronger and stronger and stronger. Eventually, on January 25th, 1787, we see things coming to a head where Daniel Shays is leading his rebels to take the armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, which is in western Massachusetts, but stopped by militia. This is a militia that's paid for by merchants in the area, who probably want their debt paid, or just wanted functioning courthouses, or did not want all of these rioting farmers and former veterans. And so this rebellion is put down, but it shows the weakness inherent in the Articles of Confederation. This rebellion starts having the potential to spread well beyond Massachusetts. But there was not a coordinated action. In fact, it took many months to even be able to field a militia against the rebellion. It also highlighted the weakness of not having one central government that could take decisive action. Also one central government that could generate its own revenue through taxing the citizens of all of the states and using that for things like a military, or being able to negotiate debts with foreign countries. And so Shays' Rebellion is cited by many historians as one of the main catalysts, after it was put down, for having the Constitutional Convention in mid-1787 to rethink the Articles of Confederation. Now as we talked about in other videos, many people went to this convention thinking we're not just gonna edit the Articles of Confederation, we need to create a stronger central government. We need a federalist system where yes, the states can have rights, but we also need a central government. We need a strong leader at the head of that central government. And so they do draft what is now the Constitution at this convention, and after the convention, they sell this new constitution, because remember, it has to be ratified by the states through the Federalist Papers, which we also talk about in other videos, Hamilton organized it, but James Madison and John Jay also significant contributors, and eventually, the Articles of Confederation does get replaced, the Constitution is ratified, and it becomes effective on March 4th, 1789.