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Between the first, and the second of these assemblies matters moved quickly and the worst occurred.  There was outright rebellion in the form of Shays’s revolution. 

A band of debt racked farmers in Massachusetts led by Captain Daniel Shays, a soldier of the revolution, sought to address their grievances by leading an uprising in 1786.  The constitution of Massachusetts, drafted by John Adams, only let property owners and tax payers and richer towns have any real weight in the State Senate.  Creditors were taking action to sue debtors, and this resulted in farmers losing the properties which their families had relied on for generations.  Shays organised a large body of fighting men in the west of the State to shut the courts by armed force.  Massachusetts archives list 4,000 men as being in this uprising.  It was a huge force to be in arms against the state.  Only after great difficulty and bloodshed was State government restored.  The popular feeling remained so hostile to the landed elite that the State dared not execute Shays or his followers for fear of sparking something even worse.  All this only increased the fears of conservatives and property owners.


Constitution of Massachusetts

It was clearly a close run thing.  Any further mishandling of the situation risked civil war and the loss of all they had struggled for.   

Hamilton had persuaded the Annapolis convention to adopt a resolution urging Congress to summon a convention at Philadelphia for the purpose of proposing amendments to the Articles of Confederation “adequate to the exigencies of the Union”.  All states except Rhode Island sent delegates.

The convention was a conservative affair.  Jefferson – a liberal – was safely abroad acting as the French Ambassador.  Hancock was not there.  Others saw the writing on the wall.  Patrick Henry, a delegate, refused to attend as “He smelt a rat”.  Of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 only six of those attended the federal Convention in Philadelphia.  That it was to be a political revolution, a coup, was recognised by everyone.

Once it was all over the plan was made public and met with a public tempest.  It was immediately seen for what it was, “a device by which the rich and powerful will govern and oppress the plain man with taxes, armies and debt”.

The Framers of the Constitution who met in 1789 to revise the Articles of Confederation deliberately set themselves to create from scratch an entirely new Federal Constitution that would frustrate the ambitions of the popular revolutionaries, and establish the existing oligarchies of southern planters and northern property families in control of all the offices of importance. 

The problem was what which model to follow?  They knew the British state model well, but disliked the idea of a monarch.  The men framing this new model were determined to continue the leadership of those elements in the society who understood best the right ways forward, who could be trusted to keep the ship of state on course.  Of course by this they meant their own interests, and their own families were to be in control.  Daniel Shays and his cohorts had given them enough of a fright to be very certain that this constitution, for all it was republican, was not to be democratic.  The smelly peasants were to be kept well away from the levers of effective control.  In my view, they incorporated various elements of another constitution they knew well and admired.  They were all classicists, they had been brought up to learn Latin and knew their Virgil and Livy as well as they knew their Bibles, and they admired the stability of the Roman Republic.  So they included sufficient elements of that model, which over time ensured the perpetuation of the rule of their oligarchy.  An oligarchical system which persists to this day. 

This joint oligarchy now desperately needed a figurehead, one on whom they felt they might rely, and who could command the respect of all America. 

They chose Washington.

Copyright David Macadam 2010