1. Creating Republican Institutions, 1776-1787
The various state constitutions, with their various degrees of popular sovereignty, laid the groundwork for efforts to create a stronger national government.
Congress had been exercising de facto constitutional authority since 1776 and, despite its limited powers, successfully planned the settlement of the trans-Appalachian West.
Congress established the Northwest Territory and issued ordinances affecting the settlement and administration of western lands. State governments emerged from the war with large debts and worthless currencies. In 1786, residents of Massachusetts led by Daniel Shays called extralegal meetings to protest taxes, and bands of angry farmers closed courts by force.
Shays's army dwindled after several months. Nationalists pointed to the rebellion as another reason why a central government was desperately needed to address the problems facing the young republic.
2. The State Constitutions: How Much Democracy?
During the Revolutionary War, politicians in new states debated over how democratic the new state constitutions should be.
Many Patriots wanted the people to rule directly. In Pennsylvania, democratic ideals saw the establishment of a unicameral legislature and brought universal suffrage to white males. Moderates and conservatives sought to curb the power of direct democracy by dispersing political authority among several branches of government. By establishing an elected governor with veto power and by appointing a judiciary, republican conservatives also sought to check the excesses of popular majorities, which were increasingly made up of men from the "middling" class of society.
Through such innovations, they laid the framework for the federal Constitution, which granted more authority to the privileged classes but also strove to check abuses of power and remain responsive to the people's demands.
3. The Articles of Confederation
The Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, established the first national government by confirming the operations of the Confederation Congress, which, since its formation as the Continental Congress, had formed an army and navy for defense, declared independence, established diplomatic relations with other countries, and adjudicated disputes among states.
The Congress lacked the power to tax, however, and was unsuccessful at requisitioning funds from the states to support its operations.
Faced with bankruptcy, the Congress innovatively exerted the power it had to create and control national domains in the West, thereby enhancing its power and easing its fiscal difficulties.
The Treaty of Paris and various land cessions from the states granted Congress control over the public lands west of the Appalachians, where it established a land sale and territorial system that facilitated western settlement, the creation of new territories, and their subsequent admission as new states into the Confederation.
4. Shays's Rebellion
After the war, worthless currency, large state debts, and the disruption of trade plunged America into a recession.
Creditors urged politicians to pass laws that would limit the use of paper money and impose higher taxes to accelerate debt repayment.
In some states the debtors resisted such measures, and pro-debtor legislation was passed.
However, in Massachusetts, where such legislation was not enacted, merchant and landowner creditors pressed indebted farmers to the brink of bankruptcy.
The farmers resisted under the leadership of Captain Daniel Shays, a poor farmer and former Continental army officer, and the popular movement coalesced into a full-scale uprising of disgruntled farmers. Though put down, this challenge to state authority reflected growing discontent in the young republic.
5. The Constitution of 1787
After a series of compromises over the issues of representation between large and small and northern and southern states, the…