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Top 10 historical moments of the 1780s

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was perhaps more radical than the Revolution.
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was perhaps more radical than the Revolution.

America underwent two revolutions in the 1780s. The first began in 1763 following the French and Indian War and led to outright rebellion against Britain. That revolution ended in 1783 in Paris. The second occurred in 1789 when the country ratified and implemented the constitution as the governmental framework. Creating a strong central governmental would have been unthinkable in 1776, but events forced the founding fathers to compromise. The following are the top ten events of that momentous decade in American history.

The Battle of Camden (August 16, 1780): Horatio Gates wished to supplant George Washington and enjoyed considerable support. Gates victory at Saratoga contrasted starkly with Washington's retreats. There was a movement afoot to replace Washington with Gates, but that evaporated at Camden. British General Charles Cornwallis inflicted a disastrous defeat upon the Continentals under Gates. The American general fled the battle with the first of his troops to break. Gates did not stop running until he put 60 miles between himself and the battlefield.

Arnold’s Treason (1780): Benedict Arnold was America's best general. However, petty jealousies and partisan politics injured his reputation and blocked his advancement. He even faced a court martial and investigation for misappropriation of funds. There was little merit to the charges, but they hurt Arnold's pride. Additionally, his wife supported the crown and lived lavishly. As a result of the slights, his wife's influence, and need for cash, Arnold switched sides. He agreed to turn strategically important West Point over to the British. However, his British handler, Major John Andre, was captured with evidence linking Arnold to treason. The traitor discovered Andre's fate and fled to British lines one step ahead of General Washington.

The Battle of King’s Mountain (October 7, 1780): The British believed the American South more sympathetic to the mother country than the rest of the colonies. As a result, they decided to try and win the war in the region after being stalemated in the North. The Europeans did not understand the locals and managed to unleash long festering feuds. Loyalist and Patriot militias met at King's Mountain, but the battle was really a blood feud between locals. After the Patriot victory, many of the combatants did not fight in the war again. The affair demonstrated British problems in America. They did not understand the Americans and could not control them.

The British surrender at Yorktown (October 19, 1781) : The American Revolution's military phase ended at Yorktown. General Washington surrounded Lord Cornwallis' forces and the French blocked British ships from rendering aid or evacuating the troops. Cornwallis feigned illness and sent a subordinate to relinquish his sword to Washington. The American directed the representative to his own subordinate and the war ended. Politicians in London recognized immediately the game was up, they decided to grant independence, but first had to pummel the French. Two years later, the war officially ended with the Treaty of Paris.

Shay’s Rebellion (1786): Massachusetts farmers revolted against the government in late summer 1786. An economic depression and debt crisis caused much consternation. The farmers, led by Daniel Shays, could not get credit and were being squeezed. The rebels shut down debtor courts and destroyed documents concerning debt. They quickly morphed into an armed force. The federal government could not legally raise an army or impose taxes in order to put down the uprising. Massachusetts militiamen eventually extinguished Shay's Rebellion. However, the incident exposed structural problems with the Articles of Confederation. Several politicians recognized the mortal danger the United States faced if the government structure was not amended or changed. In response, a convention was called to revise the articles in 1787. The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia threw out the Articles of Confederation and developed the Constitution to replace it.

The Constitutional Convention (May 25- September 17, 1787): Many recognized the Articles of Confederation’s failings. Shay’s Rebellion and other incidents clearly demonstrated the federal government’s weakness and ineffectualness. As a result, several leaders decided to rewrite the entire document. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison led the Federalist contingent at the Philadelphia convention. In the end, they developed the Constitution still in use today.

NW Ordinance (July 13, 1787): The Northwest Ordinance set several important precedents. It organized the lands east of the Mississippi River, north and west of the Ohio River, and south of the Great Lakes into America’s first organized territory. The ordinance set the country on its path toward westward expansion, established congressional authority over territories, and set in motion the process for the admission of new states. Lastly, the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery within the area effectively splitting the country in two.

The Federalist Papers (1787-88): Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison wrote the Federalist Papers to convince people to support the Constitution’s ratification. Many were suspicious of the Federalists intention and the papers served to assuage many fears. The Federalist Papers appeared in the country’s newspapers and were often answered by the opposition. As a result, the country experienced a newspaper war over the ratification of the Constitution.

Washington inaugurated (April 30, 1789): The Constitutional Convention created the presidency with George Washington in mind. He served as the template for the office and was unanimously elected to two terms. The first president under the constitution assumed office in 1789. Washington’s stewardship helped the country survive in its early years and set many precedents that have been followed since.

French Revolution (1789): The French Revolution ignited with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. The revolution consumed the French, their king and queen, and all of Europe. France tried to drag the United States into the conflict, but Washington refused to be baited. However, issues arising from the revolution plagued four American administrations and eventually led to war with England in 1812.

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