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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 9: The Confederation and the Constitution, 1776 - 1790


Daniel Shays (1747 - 1825)

Shays was the Massachusetts Revolutionary War veteran whose rebellion in 1786 spurred the movement for a new Constitution.

A militiaman at both Lexington and Bunker Hill, Shays was typical of the ordinary Revolutionary-era Americans who left their farms to fight in the War for Independence. He rose to captain and after the war was elected to various local offices.

Shays emerged as the leader of the revolt by indebted farmers when eight hundred armed men prevented a Springfield court from hearing foreclosure cases. He continually insisted that the farmers wanted only redress of grievances, not violence, but by early 1787 he was preparing to attack a state arsenal. The attack failed, and Shays fled to Vermont. He was condemned to death but pardoned the next year, and eventually he returned to Massachusetts to live out his days in peace.

Quote: The people assembled in armsreturn for answer that, however unjustifiable the measure may be which the people have adopted in recourse to arms, various circumstances have induced them thereto.That virtue which truly characterizes the citizens of a republican government hath hitherto marked our plans with a degree of innocence, and we wish and trust it will still be the case. (Reply to Gen. Benjamin Lincolns demand for surrender, 1787)

REFERENCE: David Szatmoy, Shayss Rebellion (1980).


James Madison (1750 - 1836)

Madison, the Father of the Constitution, is generally considered the most original political thinker among the Founding Fathers. The only failure during his long career of public service was his term as president, which included the near-disastrous War of 1812.

Madison attended Princeton and considered entering the ministry. He strongly disliked religious intolerance, and his first political activities were on behalf of religious disestablishment in Virginia.

Throughout his life he kept extensive journals, and his notes on the proceedings of the secret Constitutional Convention provide the only detailed record of the arguments there.

Madisons marriage to Dolley Payne Todd was a long and happy one. Since Jefferson was a widower, the Madisons home was the social center of Washington during both the Jefferson and the Madison administrations. Although quiet, bookish, and introspective, Madison was personally warm and engaging, especially in intimate settings.

Quote: Hearken not to the unnatural voice which tells you that the people of America, knit together as they are by so many cords of affection, can no longerbe fellow-citizens of one great, respectable, and flourishing empire, Hearken not to the voice which petulantly tells you that the form of government recommended for your adoption is a novelty in the political world.If novelties are to be shunned, believe me, the most alarming of all novelties, the most wild of all projects, the most rash of all attempts, is that of rending us in pieces, in order to preserve our liberties and promote our happiness. (Federalist No. 14, 1788)

REFERENCE: Irving Brant, The Fourth President: A Life of James Madison (1970).


Patrick Henry (1736 - 1799)

Henry was the famous Revolutionary orator and five-term Virginia governor who later became the leading Anti-Federalist opponent of the Constitution.

He came from a plain frontier background rather than from the planter aristocracy. When his uncle took him to hear Samuel Davies, a famous Great Awakening preacher, young Patrick fell in love with the art of persuasive speaking.

Henrys eloquent defenses of Virginia liberty at the time of the Stamp Act made him the youthful leader of the radical party in that state. He made his give me liberty or give me death! speech during the debate over whether the Virginia assembly should take steps toward independence.

Henrys young protégé Thomas Jefferson succeeded him as governor during the Revolution, but Henry later demanded an investigation of Jeffersons conduct in office that caused a bitter and lasting feud between the two. In his later years Henry was plagued with financial troubles and became increasingly conservative.

Quote: It is now confessed that this is a national government.The means, says the gentleman, must be commensurate to the end. How does this apply? All things in common are left with this government. There being an infinitude in the government, there must be an infinitude of means to carry it out. (Virginia debate on the Constitution, 1788)

REFERENCE: Richard R. Beeman, Patrick Henry (1974).



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