The American History Company


The Critical Period, 1783-1789

Books for Study and Reading

References.--Higginson's Larger History, 293-308; Fiske's Civil Government, 186-267; McMaster's With the Fathers.

Home Readings.--Fiske's Critical Period, 144-231, 306-345; Captain Shays: A Populist of 1786.

Chapter 17

The Confederation, 1783-1787

Disunion and jealousy. Source-Book, 161-163.

167. Problems of Peace.--The war was over. But the future of the American nation was still uncertain. Indeed, one can hardly say that there was an American nation in 1783. While the war lasted, a sense of danger bound together the people of the different states. But as soon as this peril ceased, their old jealousies and self-seekings came back. There was no national government to smooth over these differences and to compel the states to act justly toward one another. There was, indeed, the Congress of the Confederation, but it is absurd to speak of it as a national government.

Formation of the Articles of Confederation.
Weakness of the Confederation. McMaster, 163.

168. The Articles of Confederation, 1781.--The Continental Congress began drawing up the Articles of Confederation in June, 1776. But there were long delays, and each month's delay made it more impossible to form a strong government. It fell out in this way that the Congress of the Confederation had no real power. It could not make a state or an individual pay money or do anything at all. In the course of a few years Congress asked the states to give it over six million dollars to pay the debts and expenses of the United States. It received about a million dollars and was fortunate to get that.

Distress among the people.

169. A Time of Distress.--It is not right to speak too harshly of the refusal of the state governments to give Congress the money it asked for, as the people of the states were in great distress and had no money to give. As soon as peace was declared British merchants sent over great quantities of goods. People bought these goods, for every one thought that good times were coming now that the war was over. But the British government did everything it could do to prevent the coming of good times. The prosperity of the northern states was largely based on a profitable trade with the West Indies. The British government put an end to that trade. No gold and silver came to the United States from the West Indies while gold and silver constantly went out of the country to pay debts due to British merchants. Soon gold and silver grew scarce, and those who had any promptly hid it. The real reason of all this trouble was the lack of a strong national government which could have compelled the British government to open its ports to American commerce. But the people only saw that money was scarce and called upon the state legislatures to give them paper money.

Paper money.

170. Paper Money.--Most of the state legislatures did what they were asked to do. They printed quantities of paper money. They paid the public expenses with it, and sometimes lent it to individuals without much security for its repayment. Before long this paper money began to grow less valuable. For instance, on a certain day a man could buy a bag of flour for five dollars. In three months' time a bag of flour might cost him ten dollars. Soon it became difficult to buy flour for any number of paper dollars.

Tender laws.

171 Tender Laws.--The people then clamored for "tender laws." These were laws which would make it lawful for them to tender, or offer, paper money in exchange for flour or other things. In some cases it was made lawful to tender paper money in payments of debts which had been made when gold and silver were still in use. The merchants now shut up their shops, and business almost ceased. The lawyers only were busy. For those to whom money was owed tried to get it paid before the paper money became utterly worthless. The courts were crowded, and the prisons were filled with poor debtors.

Stay laws.

172. Stay Laws.--Now the cry was for "stay laws." These were laws to prevent those to whom money was due from enforcing their rights. These laws promptly put an end to whatever business was left. The only way that any business could be carried on was by barter. For example, a man who had a bushel of wheat that he did not want for his family would exchange it for three or four bushels of potatoes, or for four or five days of labor. In some states the legislatures passed very severe laws to compel people to receive paper money. In one state, indeed, no one could vote who would not receive paper money.

[Illustration: STATE STREET, BOSTON, ABOUT 1790. The Boston Massacre occurred near where the two-horse wagon stands.]

Disorder in Massachusetts.

173. Shays's Rebellion, 1786-87.--In Massachusetts, especially, the discontent was very great. The people were angry with the judges for sending men to prison who did not pay their debts. Crowds of armed men visited the judges and compelled them to close the courts. The leader in this movement was Daniel Shays. He even threatened to seize the United States Arsenal at Springfield. By this time Governor Bowdoin and General Lincoln also had gathered a small force of soldiers. In the midst of winter, through snowstorms and over terrible roads, Lincoln marched with his men. He drove Shays from place to place, captured his followers, and put down the rebellion. There were risings in other states, especially in North Carolina. But Shays's Rebellion in Massachusetts was the most important of them all, because it convinced the New Englanders that a stronger national government was necessary.


Claims of the states to Western lands. McMaster, 155.
Hero Tales, 19-28.
Opposition of Maryland and of other states.

174. Claims to Western Lands.--The Confederation seemed to be falling to pieces. That it did not actually fall to pieces was largely due to the fact that all the states were interested in the settlement of the region northwest of the Ohio River. It will be well to stop a moment and see how this came about. Under their old charters Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia, Carolina, and Georgia had claims to lands west of the Alleghanies. Between 1763 and 1776 the British government had paid slight heed to these claims (pp. 75, 89). But Daniel Boone and other colonists had settled west of the mountains in what are now the states of Kentucky and Tennessee. When the Revolution began the states having claims to western lands at once put them forward, and New York also claimed a right to about one-half of the disputed territory. Naturally, the states that had no claims to these lands had quite different views. The Marylanders, for example, thought that the western lands should be regarded as national territory and used for the common benefit. Maryland refused to join the Confederation until New York had ceded her claims to the United States, and Virginia had proposed a cession of the territory claimed by her.

The states cede their claims to the United States. McMaster, 159-160.

175. The Land Cessions.--In 1784 Virginia gave up her claims to the land northwest of the Ohio River with the exception of certain large tracts which she reserved for her veteran soldiers. Massachusetts ceded her claims in 1785. The next year (1786) Connecticut gave up her claims. But she reserved a large tract of land directly west of Pennsylvania. This was called the Connecticut Reserve or, more often, the Western Reserve. South Carolina and North Carolina ceded their lands in 1787 and 1790, and finally Georgia gave up her claims to western lands in 1802.

Reasons for the ordinance.
Passage of Ordinance of 1787. McMaster, 160-162; Source-Book, 169-172.
Passage of Ordinance of 1787. McMaster, 160-162; Source-Book, 169-172.

176. Passage of the Ordinance of 1787.--What should be done with the lands which in this way had come into the possession of the people of all the states? It was quite impossible to divide these lands among the people of the thirteen states. They never could have agreed as to the amount due to each state. In 1785 Congress took the first step. It passed a law or an ordinance for the government of the Territory Northwest of the Ohio River. This ordinance was imperfect, and few persons emigrated to the West. There were many persons who wished to emigrate from the old states to the new region. But they were unwilling to go unless they felt sure that they would not be treated by Congress as the British government had treated the people of the original states. Dr. Cutler of Massachusetts laid these matters before Congress and did his work so well that Congress passed a new ordinance. This was in 1787. The ordinance is therefore called the Ordinance of 1787. It was so well suited to its purpose that nearly all the territories of the United States have been settled and governed under its provisions. It will be well to study this great document more at length.

Provisions of the Ordinance of 1787.

177. The Ordinance of 1787.--In the first place the ordinance provided for the formation of one territory to be called the Territory Northwest of the Ohio. But it is more often called the Northwest Territory or simply the Old Northwest. At first it was to be governed by the persons appointed by Congress. But it was further provided that when settlers should arrive in sufficient numbers they should enjoy self-government. When fully settled the territory should be divided into five states. These should be admitted to the Confederation on a footing of equality with the original states. The settlers in the territory should enjoy full rights of citizenship. Education should be encouraged. Slavery should never be permitted. This last provision is especially important as it saved the Northwest to freedom. In this way a new political organization was invented. It was called a territory. It was really a colony; but it differed from all other colonies because in time it would become a state on a footing of entire equality with the parent states.

Chapter 18

Making Of The Constitution, 1787-1789

Weakness of the Confederation.
Meeting of the Federal Convention, 1787.

178. Necessity for a New Government.--At this very moment a convention was making a constitution to put an end to the Confederation itself. It was quite clear that something must be done or the states soon would be fighting one another. Attempt after attempt had been made to amend the Articles of Confederation so as to give Congress more power. But every attempt had failed because the consent of every state was required to amend the Articles. And one state or another had objected to every amendment that had been proposed. It was while affairs were in this condition that the Federal Convention met at Philadelphia in May, 1787.

James Madison.

179. James Madison.--Of all the members of the Convention, James Madison of Virginia best deserves the title of Father of the Constitution. He drew up the Virginia plan which was adopted as the basis of the new Constitution. He spoke convincingly for the plan in the Convention. He did more than any one else to secure the ratification of the Constitution by Virginia. He kept a careful set of Notes of the debates of the Convention which show us precisely how the Constitution was made. With Alexander Hamilton and John Jay he wrote a series of papers which is called the Federalist and is still the best guide to the Constitution.

[Illustration: JAMES MADISON.]

Washington President of the Convention.

180. Other Fathers of the Constitution.--George Washington was chosen President of the Convention. He made few speeches. But the speeches that he made were very important. And the mere fact that he approved the Constitution had a tremendous influence throughout the country. The oldest man in the Convention was Benjamin Franklin. His long experience in politics and in diplomacy with his natural shrewdness had made him an unrivaled manager of men. From all the states came able men. In fact, with the exception of John Adams, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson, the strongest men in political life were in the Federal Convention. Never in the history of the world have so many great political leaders, learned students of politics, and shrewd business men gathered together. The result of their labors was the most marvelous product of political wisdom that the world has ever seen.

[Illustration: THE OLD STATE HOUSE, PHILADELPHIA. Meeting place of the Continental Congress and of the Federal Convention--now called Independence Hall.]

The Virginia plan.
Pinckney's plan.
Vote for a national government.

181. Plans for a National Government.--As soon as the Convention was in working order, Governor Randolph of Virginia presented Madison's plan for a "national" government. Charles Pinckney of South Carolina also brought forward a plan. His scheme was more detailed than was Madison's plan. But, like it, it provided for a government with "supreme legislative, executive, and judicial powers." On May 30 the Convention voted that a "national government ought to be established, consisting of a supreme Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary." It next decided that the legislative department should consist of two houses. But when the delegates began to talk over the details, they began to disagree.

The New Jersey plan.

182. Disagreement as to Representation.--The Virginia plan proposed that representation in one branch of the new Congress should be divided among the states according to the amount of money each state paid into the national treasury, or according to the number of the free inhabitants of each state. The Delaware delegates at once said that they must withdraw. In June Governor Patterson of New Jersey brought forward a plan which had been drawn up by the delegates from the smaller states. It is always called, however, the New Jersey plan. It proposed simply to amend the Articles of Confederation so as to give Congress more power. After a long debate the New Jersey plan was rejected.

[Illustration: Benjamin Franklin. "He snatched the lightning from Heaven, and the sceptre from tyrants." --TURGOT.]

Representation in the House of Representatives. McMaster, 167.
Representation in the Senate.

183. The Compromise as to Representation.--The discussion now turned on the question of representation in the two houses of Congress. After a long debate and a good deal of excitement Benjamin Franklin and Roger Sherman proposed a compromise. This was, that members of the House of Representatives should be apportioned among the states according to their population and should be elected directly by the people. In the Senate they proposed that each state, regardless of size, population, or wealth, should have two members. The Senators, representing the states, would fittingly be chosen by the state legislatures. It was agreed that the states should be equally represented in the Senate. But it was difficult to reach a conclusion as to the apportionment of representatives in the House.

The federal ratio.

184. Compromise as to Apportionment.--Should the members of the House of Representatives be distributed among the states according to population? At first sight the answer seemed to be perfectly clear. But the real question was, should slaves who had no vote be counted as a part of the population? It was finally agreed that the slaves should be counted at three-fifths of their real number. This rule was called the "federal ratio." The result of this rule was to give the Southern slave states representation in Congress out of all proportion to their voting population.

Power of Congress over commerce.
Restriction as to slave-trade.

185. Compromise as to the Slave-Trade.--When the subject of the powers to be given to Congress came to be discussed, there was even greater excitement. The Northerners wanted Congress to have power to regulate commerce. But the Southerners opposed it because they feared Congress would use this power to put an end to the slave-trade. John Rutledge of South Carolina even went so far as to say that unless this question was settled in favor of the slaveholders, the slave states would "not be parties to the Union." In the end this matter also was compromised by providing that Congress could not prohibit the slave-trade until 1808. These were the three great compromises. But there were compromises on so many smaller points that we cannot even mention them here.

[Illustration: SIGNING OF THE CONSTITUTION, SEPTEMBER 17, 1787. From an early unfinished picture. This shows the arrangement of the room and the sun behind Washington's chair.]

Franklin's prophecy.

186. Franklin's Prophecy.--It was with a feeling of real relief that the delegates finally came to the end of their labors. As they were putting their names to the Constitution, Franklin pointed to a rising sun that was painted on the wall behind the presiding officer's chair. He said that painters often found it difficult to show the difference between a rising sun and a setting sun. "I have often and often," said the old statesman, "looked at that behind the President, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting; but now, at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun." And so indeed it has proved to be.

Strength of the Constitution. McMaster, 168-169.

187. The Constitution.--It will be well now to note some of the points in which the new Constitution was unlike the old Articles of Confederation. In the first place, the government of the Confederation had to do only with the states; the new government would deal directly with individuals. For instance, when the old Congress needed money, it called on the states to give it. If a state refused to give any money, Congress could remonstrate--and that was all. The new government could order individuals to pay taxes. Any one who refused to pay his tax would be tried in a United States court and compelled to pay or go to prison. In the second place the old government had almost no executive powers. The new government would have a very strong executive in the person of the President of the United States.

Interpretation of the Constitution.
John Marshall's decisions.

188. The Supreme Court.--But the greatest difference of all was to be found in the Supreme Court of the United States provided in the Constitution. The new Congress would have very large powers of making laws. But the words defining these powers were very hard to understand. It was the duty of the Supreme Court to say what these words meant. Now the judges of the Supreme Court are very independent. It is almost impossible to remove a judge of this court, and the Constitution provides that his salary cannot be reduced while he holds office. It fell out that under the lead of Chief Justice John Marshall the Supreme Court defined the doubtful words in the Constitution so as to give the greatest amount of power to the Congress of the United States. As the laws of the United States are the supreme laws of the land, it will be seen how important this action of the Supreme Court has been.


Opposition to the Constitution. Source-Book, 172-175.

189. Objections to the Constitution.--The great strength of the Constitution alarmed many people. Patrick Henry declared that the government under the new Constitution would be a national government and not a federal government at all. Other persons objected to the Constitution because it took the control of affairs out of the hands of the people. For example, the Senators were to be chosen by the state legislatures, and the President was to be elected in a round-about way by presidential electors. Others objected to the Constitution because there was no Bill of Rights attached to it. They pointed out, for instance, that there was nothing in the Constitution to prevent Congress from passing laws to destroy the freedom of the press. Finally a great many people objected to the Constitution because there was no provision in it reserving to the states or to the people those powers that were not expressly given to the new government.


Opponents of the Constitution.
The first ten amendments.

190. The First Ten Amendments.--These defects seemed to be so grave that patriots like Patrick Henry, R.H. Lee, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock could not bring themselves to vote for its adoption. Conventions of delegates were elected by the people of the several states to ratify or to reject the Constitution. The excitement was intense. It seemed as if the Constitution would not be adopted. But a way was found out of the difficulty. It was suggested that the conventions should consent to the adoption of the Constitution, but should, at the same time, propose amendments which would do away with many of these objections. This was done. The first Congress under the Constitution and the state legislatures adopted most of these amendments, and they became a part of the Constitution. There were ten amendments in all, and they should be studied as carefully as the Constitution itself is studied.

Constitution adopted. Higginson, 216; Source-Book, 175-180.

191. The Constitution Adopted, 1787-88.--In June, 1788, New Hampshire and Virginia adopted the Constitution. They were the ninth and tenth states to take this action. The Constitution provided that it should go into effect when it should be adopted by nine states, that is, of course, it should go into effect only between those states. Preparations were now made for the organization of the new government. But this took some time. Washington was unanimously elected President, and was inaugurated in April, 1789. By that time North Carolina and Rhode Island were the only states which had not adopted the Constitution and come under the "New Roof," as it was called. In a year or two they adopted it also, and the Union of the thirteen original states was complete.



§§ 168, 169.--a. What were the chief weaknesses of the Confederation? Why did not Congress have any real power?

b. How did some states treat other states? Why?

§§ 170-173.--a. Explain the distress among the people.

b. Describe the attitude of the British government and give some reason for it.

c. Why did the value of paper money keep changing?

d. What were the "tender laws"? The "stay laws"?

e. Give some illustration of how these laws would affect trade.

§ 174.--a. Describe the troubles in Massachusetts.

b. What was the result of this rebellion?

§§ 175-178.--a. What common interest did all the states have?

b. What did Maryland contend? State carefully the result of Maryland's action. Describe the land cessions.

c. How did the holding these lands benefit the United States?

d. Give the provisions of the Ordinance of 1787. What was the result of the declaration as to slaves?

e. What privileges were the settlers to have? Why is this Ordinance so important?


§§ 179-181.--a. What difficulties in the United States showed the necessity of a stronger government?

b. How could the Articles of Confederation be amended?

c. What was the important work of Madison?

d. What was the advantage of having Washington act as President of the Convention?

§§ 182, 183.--a. Explain fully the provisions of the Virginia plan. What departments were decided upon?

b. Why did New Jersey and Delaware oppose the Virginia plan? What were the great objections to the New Jersey plan?

§§ 184-186.--a. What is a compromise? What are the three great compromises of the Constitution?

b. Explain the compromise as to representation. What does the Senate represent? What the House?

c. Define apportionment. What do you think of the wisdom of the compromise as to apportionment? What of its justice?

d. Why was there a conflict over the clause as to commerce? How was the matter settled?

§§ 187-189.--a. What events at first seemed to disprove Franklin's prophecy?

b. Compare the Constitution with the Articles of Confederation and show in what respects the Constitution was much stronger.

c. Explain how the new government could control individuals.

d. What were some of the duties of the President? Of Congress? Of the Supreme Court?

§§ 190-192.--a. What is the difference between a national and a federal government? Was Henry's criticism true?

b. Study the first ten amendments and state how far they met the objections of those opposed to the Constitution.

c. Repeat the Tenth Amendment from memory.

d. How was the Constitution ratified?

e. How did the choice of Washington as first President influence popular feeling toward the new government?


a. Why should the people have shown loyalty to the states rather than to the United States?

b. Analyze the Constitution as follows:--

Method of Appointment or Election      
Term of Office.      
Duties and Powers.      


The career of any one man prominent in the Convention, as Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, Washington, Robert Morris, etc. Write a brief biography.


This period should be taught very slowly and very thoroughly, as it demands much more time than any of the earlier periods. A clear understanding of the Constitution is of the most practical value, not merely to enable one to comprehend the later history, but also to enable one to understand present duties. Note carefully the "federal ratio" and the functions of the Supreme Court. Use the text of the Constitution and emphasize especially those portions of importance in the later history.

This work is difficult. It should therefore be most fully illustrated from recent political struggles. Let the children represent characters in the Convention and discuss the various plans proposed. Encourage them also to suggest transactions which might represent the working of the tender laws, the commercial warfare between the states, the "federal ratio" etc. Especially study the first ten amendments and show how they limit the power of the general government to-day.


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