Study Guide

The Federalist Papers 10 and 51 Historical Context

By James Madison

Historical Context

The United States was walking on thin ice—and they knew it.

1786 had been a year of hard knocks for the new nation. A huge economic plunge and a surge of social unrest left everyone on their toes. The weakness of the Articles of Confederation became all-too-apparent during the crisis known as Shay's Rebellion, where the brewing tensions erupted into full-on rebellion.

The stuff of great premium TV drama? Yes. The stuff of lasting peace? Not so much.

Shay it Ain't So

Massachusetts resident Daniel Shays, who'd served as a Captain in the Revolutionary War, found himself nearly flat broke in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War thanks to the Government failing to pay its soldiers.

Ooh. Bad move, government.

He also had to deal with debt collectors drooling at what little farmland he had left, and they gladly had him thrown into debtors' prison in the meantime. Outraged at the poverty that he and his fellow veterans were now facing, he began to organize his fellows to petition the state government to protect their livelihoods. They petitioned the courts, doing their best to have their voices heard.

After going through all of their legal options with no luck, they instead chose illegal options. Shays led a band of soldiers in open rebellion in Massachusetts. Henry Knox, former General of the Revolutionary Army, wrote a letter to a then-retired George Washington begging the guy to come back to politics and help restructure the government, so it could actually address the problems that gripped the country instead of sitting there and twiddling its thumbs.

Washington urged the state of Massachusetts to make peace with the rebels, and to address any legitimate problems they had, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.

Sam Adams sent troops to violently put down the Rebellion, and the newspaper accounts of the carnage the rebels had suffered served to make them fight all the harder. It was at this point the state of Massachusetts begged the Federal Government for help…which the government, thanks to the Articles of Confederation, couldn't do. Whoopsie-daisie.

The government had no money and no soldiers to give, and even if they were swimming in a Scrooge McDuck-style money swimming pool, the Federal Government wasn't allowed interfere with the internal matters of any state. The Articles of Confederation left the government essentially crippled to do anything to stop the rebellion, and really only got ringside seats to watch Massachusetts implode.

Since there were no federal troops to be had, Massachusetts hired themselves a private army, which is a stuffy way to say "they hired a bunch of mercs to go beat up the rebelling farmers." The more Massachusetts struck out against the rebellion, the more radical the rebels got. Eventually Shays's rebels, who had initially only wanted Congress to protect their rights, set out to burn Boston to the ground and destroy the Government that let the moneyed interests of Massachusetts bleed them dry.

You read that right: these guys wanted to torch Beantown.

The rebellion was finally put down in February of the following year, but the message was clear: the Articles of Confederation needed work. Like, serious work.

Under them, the government wasn't strong enough to handle any part of that whole crisis: they couldn't stop the rebellion, they couldn't protect the farmers from economic exploitation, they couldn't pay their troops in anything but Monopoly money, and they couldn't do anything to stabilize the economy in any meaningful way.

Tension at the Convention

The Constitutional Convention had just wrapped up in 1877, and the Federalists were content that the new United States Constitution would be the foundation that the United States needed to govern effectively.

During the middle of the Convention, newspapers broke the story that the Convention wasn't just sprucing up the Articles of Confederation—they were getting rid of them entirely and starting over.

Not surprisingly, people were shocked at the news. The United States government was getting rebooted.

Not only that, but some people weren't ready to give up the Confederacy, and really hated the idea that a central government would be taking over. This opposing faction was called the Anti-Federalists, and they started to do everything they could to stop the Constitution from coming. The Federalists needed nine states to back them in supporting the Constitution, and they needed to do some serious convincing in order to get the support they needed.

And when you needed to do some convincing, you got to get to putting essays in the press.