In June 1788, James Madison prepared to attend a convention in Virginia to consider ratification of the proposed Constitution for the United States. The recent depression (1784–87) had triggered a major civic reaction over the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and inflamed differences among various groups in the country. As an architect of the new Constitution, Madison needed to prepare to defend it in the ratification convention. Vigorous opponents sought to prevent ratification and the loss of states’ power to a central government. How should Madison make his case?
Madison’s dilemma occurs in the midst of a dramatic regime shift in American politics. The social reaction to the depression had inflamed divisions throughout the country: urban versus rural, farmers versus merchants, wealthy versus poor, and so on. Outbreaks of civil unrest mark 1784–87 as a historic pivot point. It is useful to consider how the depression of those years contributed to that pivot and how the subsequent civic reaction responded to the depression conditions.