United States and American History: 1787

About the United States history in 1787, the constitutional convention called, process of creating the Constitution.


Jan. 25 Daniel Shays and 800 (some say 2,000) Massachusetts farmers attacked the Springfield arsenal to seize arms. Faced with high taxes--shifted onto landowners by commercial interests--farmers were unable to meet mortgage payments or obtain survival loans at less than 20--40% interest. Continuing evictions, imprisonment for debts, and an inability to get redress in the courts forced an insurrection. Shays's desperate action, taking the law into his own hands, threw a scare into provincials who had opposed a strong, centralized republic, and it encouraged Massachusetts to ratify the Federal Constitution. George Washington, writing to James Madison: "If there exists not a power to check them, what security has a man for life, liberty or property?" Thomas Jefferson thought differently: "A little revolution now and then is a good thing; the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

May 14 The Constitutional Convention opened in Philadelphia. The delegates were mostly wealthy men of property. Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson were in Europe. Sam Adams was not one of the chosen. Patrick Henry, though elected, refused to attend because he "smelt a rat." For 4 weeks, the Virginia Resolves, 15 in all, were debated and amended. Should a lower house be elected by the people? Should the upper be chosen by State legislatures? Could a one-house legislative body like Pennsylvania's be used? Equal representation posed a problem. Could small States be protected against the depredations of the large? It took Roger Sherman's immense talents to devise the compromise: proportional representation in the House, and one representative per State in the Senate (later revised to 2).

And what about the Presidency? Should it be a 3-man troika, with one man elected from the North, one from the South, and a 3rd from the Middle States? A one-man Presidency, snorted Randolph, would be the "foetus of Monarchy." Even Franklin had doubts, saying that some future leader, presiding alone, might prove corrupt.

The delegates cast 60 ballots while threshing out presidential selection. The original term of office was set at 6, then 11, 15, 7, and finally 4 years. On September 8, they gave 23 resolves to the Committee of Style, which cut these to 7. "We the People of the United States . . ." they began (giving anonymous status to those States that might elect to remain outside the Union), are establishing this Constitution to secure ". . . the Blessings of Liberty . . ."

There were 39 out of 55 delegates on hand to sign on September 17. Franklin, aged 81 and infirm, had to be helped to do so, as tears streamed down his lined cheeks. Three other men refused: Randolph, Mason, and Gerry. They later published their objections, provoking from the trio of Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay an eloquent, ringing defense: 85 separate essays called The Federalist papers, which were signed commonly as "Publius."

Sept. 30 Nomination for the Sailing Hall of Fame: the 212-ton Columbia. In company with the sloop Washington, the ship left Boston for British Columbia, to trade with the Indians. Capt. Robert Gray started as the Washington's master, swapped commands at Vancouver, and went on around the world in the Columbia by way of China, a 1st for U.S. ships.

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