Shays’ Rebellion and the Annapolis Convention

Anyone who surveyed the scene in America during the fall of 1786 would find it hard to believe that, just three years later, the states would have replaced the ineffectual Articles of Confederation with a streamlined and turbocharged new constitution, one that dramatically shifted power from state governments to a more centralized federal government. The Articles were designed to place undisputed sovereignty in the state governments, and the population at large had learned from bitter experience to be very suspicious of faraway centralized power. Even among the men who actually wanted a strong national government, they were not very hopeful that a solution could be found anytime soon. Over the next three years, the circumstances in America underwent a dramatic transformation due to a little rebellion, a little overreaction, and a whole lot of political savvy and leadership exercised by men such as James Madison.

 Late in his life, Madison insisted that the Constitution “ought to be regarded as the work of many heads and many hands.” Indeed, at any given stage of the Constitution’s development and adoption, different characters stand out as “indispensable men” of the moment. But Madison’s contributions were prominent at every stage of development: he led the charge to convene the Federal Convention in the first place; he arrived at Philadelphia with a plan that would guide all the Framers’ deliberations; he played a leading role in the debates both at the Federal Convention and at Virginia’s Ratifying Convention; and he wrote some of the most important essays (those remarkable Federalist papers) explaining and defending the new Constitution. Once the Constitution was adopted, he led the fight for amendments to guarantee individual rights and restrict the power of the federal government. Madison is even responsible for most of what we can know today about the Constitutional Convention, because he took the most comprehensive set of notes of the debates that summer. It is no wonder, then, that James Madison had been honored with the title “Father of the Constitution” by the time that document had reached its fortieth birthday.