Our nation’s first attempt at a constitution had the seeds of its own destruction built into the document. It created, as one historian put it, more of a “league of friendship” than a government that could run a growing country. The story leading to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was about money, power and the lack of both!
When the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1783, the country was broke, the dollar was worthless and the Congress was powerless to do anything about it. The Articles of Confederation gave the Congress the power to assess taxes, but not the means to collect them. Therefore, it could not execute its assigned tasks, i.e. foreign policy, promote general welfare, regulate interstate commerce or provide for the common defense.
Countries and the citizens who loaned the Continental Congress money to fund the war wanted their money as did the soldiers and sailors who were not paid. Overseas suppliers refused to offer credit to businessmen in the new United States. At the time, we were mostly an agrarian economy and meant many farmers couldn’t borrow money against the revenue from their future crops.
In 1787, Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays led a rebellion against the State of Massachusetts’ tax collectors who began seizing farms used as collateral for unpaid loans. Shay’s 4,000 followers seized the U.S. owned Springfield Armory and demanded changes. The central government was powerless because the army and navy were dissolved shortly after the war ended.
Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin hired former Continental Army General Benjamin Lincoln to create an army and end the rebellion. Funded by merchants who were owed money by Shay’s farmers, Lincoln succeeded in his mission with minimal bloodshed.
Shay’s Rebellion was just one problem. Another facing the Congress was resolving the dispute between Maryland and Virginia over their Potomac River boundary. Much of what both claimed would become the state of West Virginia in 1863. Despite clauses in the Articles of Confederation, Rhode Island claimed the right to tax any goods passing through its boundaries.
The repercussions of Shay’s Rebellion, border disputes, imposing illegal taxes, a penniless central government resonated throughout the thirteen states. These problems caused George Washington to call for constitutional reform.
On May 14th, 1787, the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia with only Rhode Island not participating. The convention took only four months to write the document we know as our Constitution. It became law of the land when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it on June 8th, 1788. Rhode Island was the last of the original thirteen states to ratify it on May 29th, 1790.
Besides being one of the events that led to the Constitutional Convention, Shay’s rebellion let to Vermont statehood. In 1787, Vermont was an “unrecognized republic” and had actually declared independence from New York on July 4th, 1777. Vermont offered Shay’s rebels shelter after their rebellion and its residents demanded independence. Led by New Yorker Alexander Hamilton, Vermont was allowed to separate from New York and on March 4th, 1791, became our 14th state.