Massachusetts: The New Nation

The New Nation

Victorious in the Revolution, the colonies faced depressing economic conditions. Nowhere were those conditions worse than in W Massachusetts, where discontented Berkshire farmers erupted in Shays's Rebellion in 1786. The uprising was promptly quelled, but it frightened conservatives into support of a new national constitution that would displace the weak government created under the Articles of Confederation; this constitution was ratified by Massachusetts in 1788.

Independence had closed the old trade routes within the British Empire, but new ones were soon created, and trade with China became especially lucrative. Boston and lesser ports boomed, and the prosperous times were reflected politically in the commonwealth's unwavering adherence to the Federalist party, the party of the dominant commercial class. European wars at the beginning of the 19th cent. at first further stimulated maritime trade but then led to interference with American shipping. To avoid war Congress resorted to Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807, but its provisions dealt a severe blow to the economy of Massachusetts and the rest of the nation.

War with Great Britain came anyway in 1812, and it was extremely unpopular in New England. There was talk of secession at the abortive Hartford Convention of New England Federalists, over which George Cabot presided. As it happened, however, the embargo and the War of 1812 had an unexpectedly favorable effect on the economy of Massachusetts. With English manufactured goods shut out, the United States had to begin manufacturing on its own, and the infant industries that sprang up after 1807 tended to concentrate in New England, and especially in Massachusetts. These industries, financed by money made in shipping and shielded from foreign competition by protective tariffs after 1816, grew rapidly, transforming the character of the commonwealth and its people.

Labor was plentiful and often ruthlessly exploited. The power loom, perfected by Francis Cabot Lowell, as well as English techniques for textile manufacturing (based on plans smuggled out of England) made Massachusetts an early center of the American textile industry. The water power of the Merrimack River became the basis for Lowell's cotton textile industry in the 1820s. The manufacture of shoes and leather goods also became important in the state. Agriculture, on the other hand, went into a sharp decline because Massachusetts could not compete with the new agricultural states of the West, a region more readily accessible after the opening of the Erie Canal (1825). Farms were abandoned by the score; some farmers turned to work in the new factories, others moved to the West.

In 1820 Maine was separated from Massachusetts and admitted to the Union as a separate state under the terms of the Missouri Compromise. In the same year the Massachusetts constitution was considerably liberalized by the adoption of amendments that abolished all property qualifications for voting, provided for the incorporation of cities, and removed religious tests for officeholders. (Massachusetts is the only one of the original 13 states that is still governed under its original constitution, the one of 1780, although this was extensively amended by the constitutional convention of 1917–19.)

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