Shays’ Rebellion: Shaping the Constitution - Part 4
Alexander Hamilton, also greatly concerned by the lack of central power and money the Confederation had, hammered away his points in the Federalist Papers, eighty-five essays written by Hamilton, John Madison and John Jay. The country needed “a strong, stable government; a regular source of income for that government; and a constitution granting such powers,” Nathan Schachner says in his essay “Alexander Hamilton,” (91).
In Essay No. 6, Hamilton refers directly to Shays’ Rebellion. In it, he warns the public about the dangers of a war between the states, explaining the treachery that did happen and is happening in Europe. As if realizing these examples may not be understood, he says:
"Perhaps, however, a reference tending to illustrate the general principle, may with propriety be made to a case which has lately happened among ourselves. If Shays had not been a desparate debtor, it is much to be doubted whether Massachusetts would have been plunged into civil war."
Congress officially recognized the Philadelphia Convention on February 21, 1787, months after it had received Hamilton’s report on the Annapolis convention. By then, five states, in direct response to Shays’ Rebellion, had appointed their delegates.
Lindop says, “The delegates in Philadelphia, Congress stated, would meet ‘for the sole purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation,’” (36).
Hamilton, Washington and Madison desired to do more than just ‘revise’ the Articles, especially since they knew all thirteen states would need to approve such revisions and Rhode Island was refusing to attend the convention. They and others knew that only by taking a potentially treasonous step to replace the weak and ineffective Articles of Confederation with a new and stronger government would the continuation of the union be guaranteed.
In the Spring of 1787, Washington, Madison, and Hamilton joined Benjamin Franklin, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, George Mason, Roger Sherman, Rufus King, the Pickneys of South Carolina and others in Philadelphia to pound out a new doctrine.
Virginia’s delegation proposed fifteen resolutions which would create a completely new government. Though many of the other delegates saw the need for these resolutions, not all of those present felt the same. New Jersey proposed their own resolutions which would preserve the Articles. After much heated debate and Edmund Randolph’s proclamation, “When salvation of the Republic is at stake, it would be treason not to propose what we find necessary,” the Virginia Plan prevailed and in less than one hundred days, the delegates of the Constitution Convention created a new government.
Shay’s Rebellion, a ‘civil war’ lasting less than a year, where no one was killed, was more than a “Little Rebellion.” The fear over the danger of a powerful, distant government was overshadowed by the fear that the recent Revolutionary War would be for naught.
The rebellion’s importance is not seen so much in how it shook Massachusetts politics, but in how it threatened and shaped the government of the nation. Thus, a new, better and stronger government, which has lasted more than 225 years, was framed and advocated until it was ratified by the “thirteen sovereignties” to form a more perfect union, because, as stated in the forward for The Constitution Convention, “This incident [is what] convinced some previous supporters of the Articles of Confederation that the current system was inadequate to deal with potentially devastating crises,” (42).