After the United States won the American Revolution and gained independence from Great Britain, the new nation was faced with the task of creating a government to replace the British colonial government that had previously controlled the colonies.
So what kind of laws did the U.S. have before the Constitution? After declaring independence from Britain, the Second Continental Congress asked each state to create its own state constitution. The states would write laws that reflected the new ideas of democracy.
The newly written laws would include bills of rights and yearly elections of legislators and weak executive branches. Massachusetts drafted its constitution and then submitted it to the people for ratification. This would later be copied in ratifying the national Constitution.
Just before the Declaration of Independence in 1776, a committee from the Second Continental Congress wrote a set of laws called the Articles of Confederation. These articles were the first constitution of the United States, and they established a loose confederation of states with a weak central government. The central government was given only limited powers, such as the power to conduct foreign relations and regulate trade between the states. Each state retained most of its power, and the central government could not tax or regulate commerce.
The government under the Articles of Confederation proved to be ineffective in many ways, and it was soon clear that a new government needed to be established. Be sure to be familiar with the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation:
|Congress had no power to levy or collect taxes
|The government was always short of money
|Congress had no power to regulate foreign trade
|Quarrels broke out among states and trading with other countries was difficult
|Congress had no power to enforce laws
|The government depended on the states for law enforcement
|Approval of 9/13 states was needed to enact laws
|It was difficult to enact laws because of disagreements among the states
|13/13 states needed to approve amendments to the Articles
|There was no practical way to change or amend the powers of the government when problems arose
|The government had no executive branch, reflecting colonial suspicions of tyranny and federal authority.
|There was no effective way to coordinate the work of the government
|There was no national court system
|The central government had no way to settle disputes among the states.
Although there were many weaknesses of the Articles, there were two strengths. Congress placed newly acquired western lands under its control for the benefit of all states:
The Land Ordinance of 1785 - allowed the federal government to sell western lands to pay off the national debt and organize these new lands into townships and public schools.
The new nation was "land rich," but was "money poor." Government leaders looked for ways to use the land to fund services, such as public education! This ordinance set a precedent for the public funding of schools.
As mentioned, it also established a plan for dividing the land. The government would first survey the land, and then divide it into townships. Individuals could purchase a section of land and even further divide it into smaller units.
Government leaders hoped the buyers of this land would develop farms and establish communities, developing settlements across the western territories.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 - set a process for new states to join the United States of America, ensuring the country would continue to grow. New states were equal in status to existing states (the 13 colonies).
Congress would appoint a territorial governor and judges
When the territory reached 5,000 voting residents, which were at the time white males, the settlers could write a temporary constitution and elect their own government.
When the population reached 60,000 free inhabitants, the settlers could write a state constitution, which had to be approved by Congress. Once approved, the state would be granted statehood with no slavery allowed.
Shay's Rebellion was a series of armed protests that occurred in Massachusetts between 1786 and 1787, led by a veteran of the Revolutionary War, Daniel Shays. The rebellion was sparked by economic grievances, particularly by the heavy debt and high taxes faced by farmers and smallholders in the state.
Daniel Shays became a divisive figure, to some a violent rebel seeking to upend the new American government, to others an upholder of the true revolutionary virtues Shays and others fought for. This contemporary depiction of Shays and his accomplice Job Shattuck portrays them in the latter light as rising “illustrious from the Jail.” Unidentified artist, Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck, 1787. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia
After the Revolutionary War, many soldiers returned to their farms to find that they had fallen into debt and were facing foreclosures and seizures of their property. At the same time, the state government of Massachusetts was struggling financially and had imposed high taxes to pay off its war debt. The combination of these factors created a sense of frustration and anger among many farmers and smallholders, who felt that they were being treated unfairly by the government.
Daniel Shays, a veteran of the Revolutionary War who had been discharged without pay, became the leader of the rebellion. He organized a group of several hundred men, mostly farmers, who began to protest and march on courthouses and other government buildings to demand debt relief and the abolition of high taxes. They also sought to close the courts in order to prevent foreclosures and evictions.
The rebellion reached its peak in January and February 1787, when Shays and his men attacked the federal armory at Springfield and attempted to seize weapons. The rebellion was eventually put down by the state militia and private citizens with support from the federal government, with the assistance of the governor, some leaders of the rebellion were captured and put on trial, but most were acquitted or received pardons.
Shays' rebellion revealed the weakness of the government under the Articles of Confederation and showed the need for a stronger federal government, it also made it clear that the government needed to address the economic grievances of its citizens and provide relief to those who had fallen into debt and poverty after the war. This event also contributed to the call for a new Constitution, which would provide for a stronger central government, better able to address economic grievances, maintain order and protect the rights of all citizens.
Perhaps no document has shaped the United States more than the U.S. Constitution, and the U.S. Constitution probably wouldn't have been developed had it not been for Shays' rebellion.