The Articles of Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance & Shays' Rebellion

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  • 0:02 Growing Pains
  • 0:42 Articles of Confederation
  • 2:09 The Northwest Ordinance
  • 3:19 Shays' Rebellion
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson you will explore some of the issues faced by the government of the United States as it struggled to create a new, independent nation. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Growing Pains

Do you remember the first time you realized you were growing? As a kid, you were always excited to grow, and you didn't really expect the growing pains. Growing is hard. Much harder than it sounds like it should be.

This simple, unavoidable truth applies to nations as well. While the idea of becoming an independent nation sounds great in theory, there are a lot of things that you simply cannot anticipate. Problems with government, lack of a federal treasury, questions about political power; you can only really work out the kinks as you go. As a new nation, the United States certainly had its growing pains, but these struggles helped the nation define itself, and we ended up growing.

Articles of Confederation

The road to independence was full of paperwork. In 1775, the American colony of Massachusetts was declared to be in rebellion against Britain, starting the Revolutionary War. That summer, delegates from the 13 colonies came together in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to direct the war against Britain. This was the Second Continental Congress, the first having convened back in 1774. In essence, it was the government of the United States until the end of the war.

The Second Continental Congress began the important process of completing all the paperwork needed for the newly forming nation. In 1776 they completed the Declaration of Independence, formally severing the United States from Britain, and then drafted the Articles of Confederation.

The Articles of Confederation established the colonies as a union of states and served as the nation's constitution. Basically, the Declaration of Independence said that the colonies were no longer part of Britain, and the Articles of Confederation said that those colonies were their own nation with its own government. This document legally gave the Continental Congress the power to direct the colonies, interact with other governments, and conduct the war against Britain.

It was the first attempt by the Americans to really develop their own government, but it quickly became obvious that the nation would need more direct leadership after the war was over. In 1789, the Articles of Confederation were replaced with the U.S. Constitution, which included offices like the president and allowed the government to collect taxes.

The Northwest Ordinance

The Articles of Confederation created a government that would oversee the United States called the Congress of the Confederation. This congress controlled America from 1781 to 1789, when the U.S. Constitution established the presidency. They passed several important laws that became the founding principles of the United States. One of these was the Northwest Ordinance: an act to create the first territory of the United States, passed in 1787.

This was a major moment. The United States had been 13 colonies, then 13 states after the Articles of Confederation. Now, with the Northwest Ordinance, it was 13 states and one territory. So what's the big deal about one territory? The new area was called the Northwest Territory, and it was the first of many. Every other state that the United States would create was a territory first, and this helped the government set its policies on westward expansion.

Everything that came after, from the Homestead Act to the Oregon Trail to the California Gold Rush, was defined by how America created this first territory. Plus, slavery was illegal in this territory, setting a precedent that led to widespread abolition in the North.

Shays' Rebellion

The Revolutionary War began with a rebellion in Massachusetts. One of the United States' first major challenges as a new nation started the same way. America emerged from the Revolutionary War in 1783, victorious and independent but very weak and pretty much broke. After a few years of a struggling economy, a lack of credit from the fact that the United States treasury was brand new, and mixed ideas about the future of the nation, a series of rebels decided to take up arms in 1786.

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