Toward an American Revolution
Exposing the Constitution and other Illusions
A Constitution That Disrespects Its People
We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation. Experience has taught us that men will not adopt and carry into execution measures the best calculated for their own good, without the intervention of a coercive power.
When England invaded America - what we usually call settling it - The Crown lawyers had consulted their only precedents to rationalize the position of the new American outposts in the structure of the empire. Each colony became in legal theory a collective lord analogous to the barons who had marched into Ireland. When the Americans turned against the Crown they continued an ancient tradition of lords who have marched too far and grown too powerful to accept royal orders gladly. In this perspective the American Revolution was a barons' revolt.1
It is useful to think of the Framers as barons who had marched too far and grown too powerful. Sixty-nine percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had held colonial office under England. They were, essentially, merchants or businessmen who wanted independence or freedom from the Crown and the Church to run their businesses any way they wanted. Corporate elites would still have us believe that government is on their backs. But just as today, elites then would not risk altering the relationships of power and certainly would not consider sharing economic and political power with the less privileged classes. What they wanted was to create a new political economy in which they were independent from Great Britain but still in possession of power and privilege in their own society. According to John C. Miller:
[The Framers]...had no wish to usher in democracy in the United States. They were not making war upon the principle of aristocracy and they had no more intention than had the Tories of destroying the tradition of upper-class leadership in the colonies. Although they hoped to turn the Tories out of office, they did not propose to open these lush pastures to the common herd. They did believe, however, that the common people, if properly bridled and reined, might be made allies in the work of freeing the colonies from British rule and that they - the gentry - might reap the benefits without interference. They expected, in other words, to achieve a safe and sane revolution of gentlemen, by gentlemen, and for gentlemen.2How were the Framers to create a new system in which the many disenfranchised would support, or at least not contest, the privilege of the few?
The Framers' FearEnglish merchant capitalists who arrived in America found that whatever wealth was to be had would come from the hard labor of mining, cutting down forests, planting and harvesting crops, and constructing buildings, roads, and bridges. Investors, therefore, arranged to bring new hands to the new world to exploit its resources. A vast propaganda campaign was launched to lure the poor of Europe to America. Roughly half the immigrants to colonial America were indentured servants. At the time of the War of Independence, three out of four persons in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia were or had been indentured servants. Of the 250,000 indentured servants that had arrived by 1770, more than a 100,000 had been either kidnapped or released from their prison sentences. And by this time, roughly 20 percent of the colonial population was in slavery. Jefferson was clear about this when he said that our ancestors who migrated here were laborers not lawyers.3
In the hundred years or so prior to the War of Independence, the rich had gotten richer, and the poor, poorer. For example, in 1687 in Boston, the top 1 percent owned about 25 percent of the wealth. By 1770, the top 1 percent owned 44 percent of the wealth. During this same period, the percentage of adult males who were poor, perhaps rented a room, or slept in the back of a tavern, owned no property, doubled from 14 percent of the adult males to 29 percent. It was during this time that the rich introduced property qualifications for voting in order to disenfranchise the poor and protect their privileges. In Pennsylvania in 1750 for example, white males had to have fifty pounds of lawful money or own fifty acres of land. This meant that only 8 percent of the rural population and 2 percent of the population of Philadelphia could vote. Similar situations existed in the other states. It is important to note the way in which voting qualification requirements can be used to curb political expression. Keep in mind also that voting has never been guaranteed in this country, or made a right, a point to which we shall return in Chapter 4.4
Common people were not taking this abuse sitting down. During the last quarter of the seventeenth century, militant confrontations brought down the established governments of Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. In Virginia, in a dispute over land distribution and Indian policy, white frontiersmen, together with slaves and servants forced the governor to flee the burning capital of Jamestown. England was forced to quickly dispatch 1,000 soldiers to Virginia to put down the armed insurrection. By 1760, there had been eighteen rebellions aimed at overthrowing colonial governments, six black rebellions, and forty major riots protesting a variety of unfair conditions. In addition, women were beginning to speak and write about their inequality and would soon begin fighting the irresponsibility of men in family matters, and the denigration of the status of women in the public world.5
To be sure, common people were involved in and supported the unfolding struggle for independence from Great Britain, even though Britain's colonial policies would, for them, only end in more severe or permanent forms of subordination. But as Philip Foner points out, for common people, independence meant freedom from the oppression of colonial aristocracy as well as freedom from British rule. Stated one slogan, common people must be free from all Foreign or Domestic Oligarchy.6 In other words, common people were thinking in terms well beyond independence. They were thinking in terms of liberation.
We see then, that in the context of the struggle for independence, the specific aspirations of common people put them into conflict with the people we think of as the Founding Fathers or Framers. The Sons of Liberty, the Loyal Nine, and the Boston Committee of Correspondence and other such groups which the Framers organized were rooted in the middling interests and well-to-do merchants and upper classes. They have been wrongly described as revolutionary. The truth is that they took great measures to keep the peace and defuse revolutionary tendencies. As mass resistance to British policies mounted, for example, they urged, No Mobs or Tumults, let the Persons and Properties of your most inveterate Enemies be safe. Sam Adams agreed. James Otis added, No possible circumstances, though ever so oppressive, could be supposed sufficient to justify private tumults and disorders... The Boston Committee of Correspondence actually did its best to contain and control the militancy of activists involved in the Boston Tea Party.7
Virtually ignored by most historians is the fact that much of the resistance directed toward Great Britain by common people was an extension of the resistance they felt toward what Dirk Hoerder has described as high-handed officials and men of wealth whose arrogant conduct and use of economic power was resented. Rioters often damaged coaches and other luxury items of the rich. The homes of the wealthy were sometimes broken into and destroyed. The governor of Massachusetts said in 1765, The Mob had set down no less than fifteen Houses...the houses of some of the most respectable persons in the Government. It was now become a War of Plunder, of general levelling and taking away the Distinction of Rich and poor.8
In the countryside, there was similar class antagonism. In New Jersey and New York, tenant riots led to the carving of Vermont out of New York State. And in North Carolina in 1771 there was the Regulator movement, an armed insurrection which according to Marvin L. Michael Kay was led by class-conscious white farmers...who attempted to democratize local government. What was the general response to this revolutionary moment by the Framers? The response of Gouverneur Morris, a key co-author of the Constitution, was not atypical: The mob begins to think and to reason...I see and I see with fear and trembling, that if the disputes with Britain continue, we shall be under the domination of a riotous mob. It is to the interest of all men therefore, to seek reunion with the parent state.9
The Threat of DemocracyAs the legitimacy of the Crown's government began to collapse, the period of control by extra-legal committees and congresses established by the colonists set in. Reflecting the class hostility described above, urban workers and artisans and country farmers often formed strong alliances in order to protect themselves vis-á…á-vis the merchant class. For example, in 1768 mechanics from Charlestown, Massachusetts were dissatisfied with the initial non-importation agreement written by merchants because it ignored their demand for the prohibition of the importation of slaves who were being hired out as craftspeople; they decided to elect their own representatives. The Boston Chronicle reported that a number of the leading mechanics of this city assembled under some trees in a field adjacent to the ropewalk in order to select six gentlemen to represent the inhabitants of Charles Town in the ensuing General Assembly. Reading the report in the newspaper, mechanics then went to the town meeting, ignored the legal restrictions on their right to vote, and took charge of town government. One aristocrat complained two years later in 1770, The Merchants in Boston are now entirely out of the question in all debates at their Town Meeting. A group of merchants added, At these meetings, the lowest Mechanicks discuss upon the most important points of government with the utmost freedom.10
The fears of the Framers were being confirmed. The underclasses were not taking orders. They were speaking for themselves. And they were making it quite clear that their vision of a new society was not the same as that of the Framers. This seems to have been particularly true in Philadelphia. In 1770, the first political meeting specifically restricted to mechanics was held and by 1772 craftsmen had organized their own political organization, the Patriotic Society, to promote their own candidates and agenda. Gary Nash notes that By mid-1776, laborers, artisans, and small tradesmen, employing extralegal measures when electoral politics failed, were in clear command in Philadelphia. In selecting delegates for the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution, they urged voters to shun great and overgrown rich men [who] will be improper to be trusted. They also drew up a bill of rights to be considered which included the assertion that an enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights, and destructive of the common happiness, of mankind; and therefore every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property.11
The constitution which the Pennsylvania backwoods farmers came up with was impressive. Kenneth M. Dolbeare, respected for his knowledge of U.S. political institutions, concludes that the extent of popular control put forward by these common people exceeds that of any American government before or since. Although it was not radical by some twentieth century standards (it ignored women, slaves, servants and the poor but did challenge property rights as we now know them), it dramatically reveals the degree to which our present federal Constitution is elitist by the eighteenth century standards of common people. For example, the document began by stating quite explicitly that all men possessed the right of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. We will be in a better position to appreciate the egalitarian features of this constitution once we have discussed the meaning of our own federal constitution which the Framers designed, but nonetheless, the attempt to genuinely involve some common people in political decisionmaking was more honest in the document described below:
A one-house Assembly whose members were elected annually was made the seat of almost all power. The Assembly was required to function in open public sessions, and to keep full records. Legislation had to indicate its purpose clearly in the preamble, and except in emergencies had to be published and distributed publicly by the Assembly before it could be considered for enactment - but only by the next session of that body, after another election had been held. The office of governor and its veto power were eliminated in favor of a weak Supreme Executive Council of 12 members, four of whom were elected each year for three-year terms. Judges were elected for seven-year terms, but were made removable for cause by the Assembly. A council of Censors was to be elected every seven years to review the government's performance and recommended a new constitutional convention if changes in its structure or powers were required.12The reaction to this radical departure from the aristocratic liberalism of Great Britain by the Framers and their class allies was predictable. They referred to it as mobocracy of the most illiterate, a constitution written by coffee-house demagogues, political upstarts, and the unthinking many who believed that men of property...men of experience and knowledge were not to be trusted... Benjamin Rush, a Framer, called it a tyranny. The moment we submit to it we become slaves.13
The kind of system which the Framers generally had in mind was a particular kind of representative system or republic; it was one in which elites or better people decide what is best for common people. This kind of system, in fact the kind we now live under, is often referred to as classical liberalism. It is the aristocratic or paternalistic representative system associated with John Locke. Locke, it is important to note, was a wealthy man, with investments in the silk trade and slave trade who also received income from loans and mortgages. He invested heavily in the first issue of the stock of the Bank of England and he also advised the colonial governors of the Carolinas, suggesting a government of slaveowners run by forty wealthy land barons. The purpose of Locke's political theory was to create a political system that would support the development of mercantile capitalism in which property owners, not the Crown, held power. Therefore, the concept of the people associated with his theories, and the concept of the people used by the Framers, as we saw earlier, meant the people who owned productive property - capital, land, factories, and the like. As one member of the British Parliament made clear, by the people I don't mean the mob...I mean the middling people of England, the manufacturer, the yeoman, the merchant, the country gentleman. It is also important to note, because it helps explain the views of the Framers and our way of politics today, that Locke and his contemporaries also believed that people who labored and who did not own productive property were thought of as human capital to be used, but they were not considered intelligent enough to govern themselves.14
We see, then, that as early as the 1760s and 1770s the democratic tendencies of common people had alarmed the Framers. Stated a Pennsylvania newspaper in 1772, it was time the Tradesmen were checked. They take too much upon them. They ought not to intermeddle in State Affairs. They ought to be kept low. They will become too powerful. Therefore, when the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in the fall of 1774, the members of the Congress were selected from the ablest and wealthiest men in America. John Jay, who would later become the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was chosen as president. He believed that the upper classes were the better kind of people, by which I mean the people who are orderly and industrious, who are content with their situation and not uneasy in their circumstances. His theory of government was simple: The people who own the country ought to govern it.15
By 1776, according to Jackson Main, 10 percent of the white population - large landholders and merchants - owned nearly half the wealth of the country and held as slaves one-seventh of the country's people. As Howard Zinn correctly points out, the Framers were a rising class of important people who needed to enlist on their side enough Americans to defeat England, without disturbing too much the relations of wealth and power that had developed over 150 years of colonial history. Unlike the situation in Pennsylvania, efforts of common people to build popular governments in most of the other states were defeated. In Massachusetts, for example, the new Constitutions of 1776 to 1780 increased rather than decreased property qualifications for voting. In Maryland, 90 percent of the population was excluded from holding office because of property qualifications.16
But the Framers were not out of the woods. In some respects, the war had exacerbated class conflict (the rich could buy their way out of the draft and officers received much more pay than common soldiers); more than once, common soldiers mounted attacks on the headquarters of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, once forcing the members to flee to Princeton across the river. And in yet still other states (Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and to a lesser degree, Virginia), the civil strife which was part of the challenge to elite domination persisted throughout the war. Elites did succeed in adding modifications to the new bills of rights in North Carolina, Maryland, New York, Georgia, and Massachusetts that stated that nothing herein contained shall be construed to exempt preachers of treasonable or seditious discourses from legal trial and punishment. In other words, even after independence had been achieved, the possibility of a revolution remained.17
Military Defeat of the Common People: Shays RebellionTechnically, Shays Rebellion was a rebellion over tax policies that took place in western Massachusetts. Politically, however, it was much more than that. It encompassed a series of defiant and militant showdowns that took place between the Framers and the common people in twelve of the thirteen states. The battles had less to do with taxes, as we shall see, and more to do with choosing the direction in which the new nation would move. Militarily, the common people were defeated in Massachusetts and in other states where skirmishes took place. In Philadelphia, at the Constitutional Convention, the Framers would consolidate their victory, and the common people would suffer a corresponding political defeat. Their hopes for community, for a moral economy, for localized political power, and for democracy would be dashed.
Although one-fourth of blacks in the North were held in slavery (30,000 blacks were enslaved in the North as late as 1810), during the 1780s the vast majority of white New Englanders, and perhaps the majority throughout the entire North, lived in a largely subsistence culture.18 That is, as one yeoman farmer stated, a farm provided me and my whole family a good living on the produce of it. Nothing to wear, eat, or drink was purchased, as my farm provided all. Near self-sufficiency generated feelings of self-mastery and independence, but not the independence of the individualistic self-made I-pulled-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps variety. Rather it was it was the sense of independence associated with community. Small white farmers lived in a community directed culture. Their sense of independence was linked to the cooperation and interdependence of friends and family at the community level.
Women often labored in the fields along with men. Members of extended families traded labor. Neighbors traded labor and animals. Payment and exchange in nearby towns was often in goods, services, and land. Craftspeople produced not for an abstract market, but in most cases limited production to items specifically needed and required by neighbors.
Community help even extended to the new farmer in a village. In America, a man is never alone, never an isolated being, observed Marquis de Chastellux in 1781. The neighbors, for they are every where to be found, make it a point of hospitality to aid the new farmer. A cask of cider drank in common, and with gaiety, or a gallon of rum, are the only recompense for these services. During the 1780s, community cornhuskings, barn raisings, logrollings, and quilting bees symbolized the overall cooperation among rural New Englanders.19Simply stated, common people within the white community seemed willing to take care of one another. Together, they had a greater appreciation of their common interests. Individual needs were understood, in part, as community needs.
These sets of needs and values were much different than the market-oriented approach to life pressed by the most important economic groups within coastal towns, the merchants, shopkeepers, lawyers, bankers, speculators, and commercial farmers - the class out of which the Framers emerged. The Framers and their allies sought greater economic development, expanded trade, and accumulated personal wealth. Initial gains were reinvested in order to realize increased profits. Sam Adams, for example, speculated in continental and state securities, buying them cheaply and hoping the government would back them with gold. A well known Boston lawyer in 1785 stated, Money is the only object attended to, and the only acquisition that commands respect. Individualism and competition were accepted and celebrated. Boston wholesaler Thomas Hancock made clear the impoverished sense of community merchants shared when he said, As to the profit you get on your goods its your look out, not mine. I expect my money of you when it's due.20
In the mind of the Framers, it was every man for himself. This deserves special emphasis because it was this understanding of political and economic (social) behavior that helps us to grasp the meaning of Shays Rebellion and later the Constitution itself. Freedom in the minds of the Framers was both freedom from others and freedom to accumulate wealth. Given this concept of freedom, community, becomes less like a family and more like a market where relations revolve around exchange. The Framers feared communities that were networks of mutual concern and mutual obligation, for when moral considerations based on traditional and community values come into play, the property owners and the money lenders are restricted to what the community has to say about how resources are used. In the Framers' world, the community becomes a set of exchanges between producers and consumers, owners and workers. People are free individuals (free from traditional, moral, or community values) in a free market, freely pursuing self-interest. The social order is held together, not on the basis of tradition or a sense of mutual responsibility but by impersonal contracts. With the rise of contractual relations, particularly in a society with great inequality, power is shifted away from people who were recognized as being able to interpret traditional, moral, and community rules (often religious leaders, elders, healers) toward those who owned great amounts of property and money. In addition a coercive agency is required to enforce contracts. As Howard Zinn argues, To protect everyone's contracts seems like an act of fairness, of equal treatment, until one considers that contracts made between rich and poor, between employer and employee, landlord and tenant, creditor and debtor, generally favor the more powerful of the two parties. Thus, to protect these contracts is to put the great power of the government, its laws, courts, sheriffs, police, on the side of the privilege.21
The role of the state in this setting is the key to making the market system work. It's function is to make sure the relations of exchange keep on going, to help expand or create markets (especially with regard to capital and labor), to subsidize or protect key industries, to protect the property of those who have it, to guarantee contracts, to insure that foreign or critical ideologies don't take hold, and to use force, if necessary, in each of these undertakings.
Proponents of the new market political economy argued that it was natural, self-evident, and divinely inspired. But like all systems, it was and is not neutral. It carries with it historically specific biases which have been the source of protest to this day. In the world of individualistic competition, each person confronts every other person as a competitor and potential enemy. The individual freedom to become rich and separated from community is valued more highly than the rewards of family-like bonds found in a cooperative community. Moral standards tend to give way to standards of efficiency and productivity. Nature loses its spiritual significance and becomes a resource. Compassion and a genuine concern for others is too frequently shuffled into and contained within the private sphere, in families or love relations, or in the church. Mutual responsibility and the obligations of family and community - those troublesome, ethical, sticky, personal, emotional realms of human experience - are split off and given to women, generally, to worry about. Egoism, ambition, and upward mobility are encouraged. The stratification of society is viewed as natural, not a product of human actions.
The Framers, by virtue of the Constitution, would finally place the power, legitimacy, and force of the state squarely behind these new market values and the privilege of private elites. But keep in mind that the urgency with which they undertook that task was due to the fact that during an economic downturn during the mid-1780s, when the Framers pushed their market-relations hard, common people held fast to their vision of community, did everything they could to peacefully defend it, and then in a last desperate attempt to hang on, they fought back.
The trouble really started when merchants and coastal wholesalers got stuck, following the War of Independence, in their attempt to re-establish large-scale trade with Great Britain. British officials, who now viewed the United States as a foreign nation (and one with whom they had lost a war), decided to play hard ball. They denied New England merchants access to the lucrative British West Indies market and they demanded that the U.S. merchants pay for imports in specie (hard money or what we might say in cash). In other words, British officials stopped giving credit.
The wholesalers then turned around and demanded hard money or cash from retail shopkeepers in inland regions. Country store owners then turned around and demanded that farmers immediately pay back their loans in cash. But farmers, quite accustomed to the cooperative relationships in the community, felt that these demands were unwarranted and rather selfish. Besides, they had been used to paying back their loans in crops, goods, and labor. Farmers found themselves being dragged into debtor court and threatened with the loss of their land. Others were threatened with jail for unpaid debts.
Merchants had difficulty collecting debts so they tried taking legal action. In the farming community of Hampshire County Massachusetts, 32.4 percent of the county's men over sixteen were hauled into court from 1784 to 1786. The jail conditions were often abominable. In one cell, twenty-six prisoners were held without proper food or ventilation. Prisoners developed boils and sores. Some even died. To compound matters, some state governments such as Massachusetts which were practically instruments of the merchant class decided to help merchants out by shifting the tax burden away from the merchants and onto the farmers. Moreover, the increased tax burden had to be paid in hard money. The justification given for this tax policy was that it would help to promote commerce.22
Notice the role of the state. It was protecting the interests and values of the merchant class and the market system in general. In Hampshire county, not a single retailer went to jail. This of course was the great issue. One farmer stated that it cost them much to maintain the Great Men under George the 3rd, but vastly more under the Commonwealth and Congress.23
The common people started with peaceful protest. They worked through the existing legislatures hoping for a traditional world in which men are justly dealt with, not a perfect world. Specifically they sought paper money and tender laws (bartering), legislation which would have permitted them to acquire credit and a way to pay it that was compatible with a self-sufficient way of life and community values. In states where the legislature was controlled by mercantile interests, they organized town meetings and county conventions. Easily a majority of the people demanded paper money; the New Hampshire Gazette reported that three-quarters at least, and more likely seven-eights of the people wished that paper money on loan be made by government.24
Notice the key features of this movement: 1) A majority of common people, at least in New England and perhaps across the country wanted a particular piece of legislation. But just as a majority of people today may want an end to Contra funding or a nuclear weapons freeze, such policies continue because they are policies which are considered as imperative in order to protect the interests of the most powerful class. As we shall see, the Constitution was designed to protect the few property owners from the majority. 2) Because of property qualifications and the location of capitals in the coastal areas, the merchant class was given disproportionate influence in most states. The creation of popular assemblies by farmers was a way to make political power available at the local level. It was a way to involve the majority in meaningful political decisions. These would-be rebels were doing what they were supposed to be doing - working together and advancing workable and feasible legislation. The Constitution would further weaken local political power and insure that it was centralized at the national level. 3) The issue was not just economic. It was social, cultural, and moral as well. Small landholders in Middleboro, Massachusetts believed that the depreciation that would be created by the issuing of paper money would enable them to escape the most pressing demands of the wealthy and overbearing sets of men who can build up their fortunes on the ruins of the country in its present distressed situation. Other farmers criticized those who have a greater love to their own interest than they have to that of their neighbors. The Constitution would firmly establish market rules as the law of the land.25
In this context it is worth noting the actual plight of most merchants. Few merchants were without assets. Many owned large farms, had assets in stock and trade, investments in factories, and many received support from wealthy kin. Probably most important, writes Szatmary, merchants had no legal obligation to discharge postwar debts owed to foreign creditors. In other words, the debt or liquidity problem could have been solved collectively, or democratically, with the full participation of all parties. But it would have meant an entirely different social order, one based more upon respect for all people, and the sharing of political and economic power. For merchants, this was unthinkable. At issue for them was political and economic privilege and how to protect it with the development of a strong, sovereign state. They wanted to protect their credit because they believed that the future success of their enterprises depended on it. And they want to protect their political power. Coastal elites, of whom the Framers were a part, strongly condemned the creation of popular assemblies as subverting the principle of free and rational government. They were, said one elite, treasonable to the state in that they support a government of their own making.26
So for elites, there was no question of cooperation or of figuring out a way to help each other. There was no respect for genuine dissent or for a different point of view if it conflicted with their self-interests. They argued that contracts were sacred things, that the right of property is a sacred right. The right of property said one Connecticut merchant, who captured the essence of the Framer's thinking, was the one most religiously to be respected by every society, that in these modern times wishes to flourish.27
As tax collectors carried off hogs and horses and as courts seized land, farmers, living in a community-oriented society...were indignant at the plight of friends and relatives. By the end of 1786, armed uprisings, often directed at stopping court proceedings, involving almost 9,000 militants or roughly one-quarter of the fighting men in rural areas, had broken out in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. David Humphreys of Connecticut dashed off a letter to George Washington: We have prevented an emission of paper money and tender laws from taking place. By mid-1787, uprisings had spread to Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, Maryland, and New Jersey. In Rhode Island, debtors had taken over the legislature and were issuing paper money. In North Carolina, New York, and Georgia legislatures passed either tender laws or issued paper money.28
Meanwhile, coastal merchants who had in 1785 pressured the Massachusetts legislature to adopt a resolution to propose to the several states a convention of delegates for the express purpose of a general revision of the Confederation were moving fast to change the laws of the land and weaken the power of the states through the creation of a national government. By June1786, Rufus King, co-author of the Constitution, noted that the merchants through all the states are of one mind, and in favor of a national system. In September of 1786, several hundred men had surrounded the legislature in New Hampshire and demanded paper money. Daniel Shays, with 700 armed farmers, closed down court proceedings in Springfield, Massachusetts. And in September of 1786, merchant delegates from five states met at Annapolis to consider plans for a national government. They recommended that they call for a convention in Philadelphia in May of 1787. Eight of the twelve states that sent delegates to the Convention chose their delegates from October 16, 1787 to February 28, 1787, the period when the rebellion was most threatening. George Washington correctly noted that the rebellions had so alarmed state leaders that most of the legislatures have appointed and the rest will appoint delegates to meet at Philadelphia. James Madison also linked the motivation of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention to Shays Rebellion. He said that the rebellion in the states contributed more to that uneasiness which produced the Convention...than those...from the inadequacy of the Confederation....29
Early in 1787, Daniel Shays began, in what was the boldest rebel action, a march on Boston with 1,000 men. Militarily, the action, not unlike the insurrection in general, was a failure. The militants fought in several skirmishes in a number of states, but were defeated in each of them, their leaders arrested, several sentenced to death, and several were hanged. But as the Framers convened in Philadelphia, small bands of farmers continued cross-border raids from New York into Massachusetts and attacked the homes of retailers, professionals, and military leaders. As late as June 8, after the Framers had been meeting for three weeks, farmers in Maryland and South Carolina were still blocking the consideration of debt suits, and in one incident forced a sheriff who was serving a writ to eat it on the spot.
Some Things To RememberIn 1976, the bicentennial year of the American Revolution, a play was performed in the western Massachusetts town of Northampton about Shays Rebellion which led the audience to believe that the Constitutional Convention which followed gave expression to the values and interests of the common people. It implied that the Constitution was a people's document. It set things right, fixed things up, and let the majority rule. Such was not the case.
The Framers were not simply supporting the merchant class against the common people, they were the merchant class. They were the champions of market values. It was against them that the common people fought. It should not surprise us that an issue today which finds currency and which is captured by the slogan People before Property was an issue then. Time and again, merchant leaders, the Framers among them, were concerned that the general effort by common people to equalize the burden of an economic crisis and preserve bonds of mutual responsibility would undermine the security of property. Henry Knox, a Framer who did not attend the Convention, stated that unless the government is strengthened...there is no security for liberty and property. Edward Rutledge, a Framer who did not attend the Convention, argued that the rebels would stop little short of a distribution of property - I speak of a general distribution and that would destroy commercial exchange and lead to economic ruin. Oliver Ellsworth, co-author of the Constitution, felt that it was a favorable moment to shut and bar the door against paper money and tender laws which had disgust[ed]...the respectable part of America. George Washington, co-author, worried that the rebellion sunk our national character much below par, bringing U.S. credit to the brink of a precipice. Keep in mind the priority which property has in the mind of the Framers when we examine the Constitution itself.30
It is also important to remember how swiftly the Framers turned to repressive measures to curb political expression when that expression did not accommodate their system of privilege. When the protest began, for example, Sam Adams engineered a Riot Act which prohibited twelve or more armed persons from congregating in public and which empowered county sheriffs to kill rioters. If convicted under the act, rioters would forfeit all their lands, tenements, goods, and chattels, to the common wealth and would be whipped thirty-nine stripes on the naked back, at the public whipping post, and suffer imprisonment for a term not exceeding twelve months, nor less than six months. Massachusetts suspended the writ of habeas corpus. The state was also granted the power to arrest and imprison without bail for an indefinite period in any part of the Commonwealth any person whom they shall suspect is unfriendly to government. Sam Adams's justification for these measures bears repeating because it underscores the attitude of the Framers toward revolutionaries which prevails to this day: In monarchy the crime of treason may admit of being pardoned or lightly punished, but the man who dares rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death. The right to revolution (for the middle class) advanced in the Declaration of Independence is here taken back - for good.31
At the Constitutional Convention, the Framers made clear their desire to enact coercive measures which would counter the revolutionary impulse that had been bubbling to the surface for twenty-five years. Alexander Hamilton told the Convention in June, A certain portion of military force is absolutely necessary in large communities. Massachusetts is now feeling the necessity. George Mason added, If the General Government should have no right to suppress rebellions against particular states, it will be in a bad situation indeed. Mason then argued for national control of the militia. James Madison agreed, without such a power to suppress insurrections, our liberties might be destroyed by domestic faction (emphasis added). Charles Pinckney, not having faith in the state militia, called for a national army: There must also be a real military force. This alone can effectively answer the purpose. The United States have been making an experiment without it, and we see the consequences in their rapid approaches to anarchy. John Langdon: The apprehension of the national force will have a salutary effect in preventing insurrections. In Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, Congress was given the ability, finally, to raise and support armies.32
Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution reads that the United States shall protect every state on application of the legislature, or of the executive (when the legislature cannot be convened), against domestic violence. James Wilson explained, I believe it is generally not known on what a perilous tenure we held our freedom and independence....The flames of internal insurrection were ready to burst out in every quarter...and from one end to the other of the continent, we walked in ashes concealing fire beneath our feet. The guarantee clause (just cited) is merely to secure the states against dangerous commotions, insurrections, and rebellions. The delegates also agreed that the writ of habeas corpus could be suspended in cases of rebellion (Article I, Section 9). A clause intended to prevent rebels from hiding in bordering states as the Shaysites had done was also added. Article IV, Section 2 in part reads, A person charged in any state with treason, felony, or other crime, who shall flee from justice, and be found in another state, shall, on demand of the executive authority of the state from which he fled, be delivered up, to be removed to the state having jurisdiction of the crime. A similar clause relating to fugitive slaves can be found in the same section.33
The swiftness of the Framers to quickly and forcibly snuff out the dissent of common people who dared to be equal was demonstrated again in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Western Pennsylvania farmers who understood clearly that the new federal Constitution had taken political power from them, refused to pay a tax on whiskey (which had been used as currency) that had been forced on them by a commercial elite. Some 7,000 western Pennsylvanians marched against the town of Pittsburgh, feigned an attack on Fort Pitt which held a federal arsenal, and destroyed the property of some prominent people there. Washington dispatched Hamilton along with 12,950 troops, the army of the Constitution, to the troubled area in order to put down the enemies of order. Because of the measures provided by the Constitution, the Whiskey Rebellion, unlike that of Shays, was immediately crushed.34
The rebellions of 1776-1787 were an attempt on the part of the majority of white common people to establish a political and economic system that departed radically from the aristocratic paternalism of the colonial era. Indentured servants, blacks, Native Americans, and women (although women who met property qualifications could vote in New Jersey until 1807) were excluded. Yet small farmers and artisans did resist the vision of the commercial elites of a splendid empire, of a distant, impersonal, and arbitrary centralized government. Their vision was not that of a wealthy world power, but of community, free from the greed and lust for power that had marked the commercial empire of Great Britain. They placed their hope in retaining and building upon the vitality of local self-government, on town meetings, popular assemblies, recall, and referenda.
Ralph Ketcham summarizes the general attitude of those opposed to the Constitution this way: the decency found amid family, church, school, and other community oriented institutions could impinge directly and continuously on government so that it too might be expressive of human decency. Each town or district or ward or region was to have its own and be conscious of its particular identity rather than being some amorphous, arbitrary geographic entity. Only with such intimacy could the trust, good will, and deliberation essential to wise and virtuous public life be a reality. Anthing else, for them, would not be self-government.35
This is not to say that the vision of the common people in question did not embody values that contributed to domination and subordination of various sorts, particularly with regard to race and gender. Yet it is clear that many common people within the white community consciously sought to establish a political economy that would prevent the arrogant and oppressive rule of people who accepted privilege as a natural right. From the point of view of the Framers this was the wrong kind of political economy, the wrong kind of vision. They had never really gone beyond the British vision of empire, of commercial growth, westward expansion, and increased national and international power and prestige. To them, the levelling tendencies unleashed by the War of Independence had gone too far. They sought a centralized national government, the ability to coercively suppress internal dissident movements, to regulate trade, to protect private property, and to subsidize industries which would drive the economy and the nation forward to greater horizons of productivity, comfort, and wealth. They wanted, in short, the essence of the British imperial system restored in the American states. And in the name of the people they engineered a conservative counter-revolution and erected a nationalistic government whose purpose in part was to thwart the will of `the people' in whose name they acted.36
Chapter 21. Francis Jennings, The Indians' Revolution, in Alfred F. Young, ed., The American Revolution (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976), 322.
2. John C. Miller, The American Revolution as a Democratic Movement, in Earl Latham, ed., The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1956), 9.
3. Philip Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 1, (New York: International Publishers,1975), 13-18.
4. The data on wealth distribution come from Gar B. Nash, Social Change and the Growth of Prerevolutionary Urban Radicalism, in Young, 3-37. The voting information comes from P. Foner, 28.
5. See Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1980), 39,59; Alce S. Rossi, ed., The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beauvoir (New York: Columbia University Press,1973); and Barbara Leslie Epstein, The Politics of Domesticity (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1981).
6. P. Foner, 33.
7. See Dirk Hoerder, Boston Leaders and Boston Crowds, 1765-1776, in Young, 232-271; and Zinn, Chapter 4.
8. Hoerder, 243,244.
9. See Marvin L. Michael Kay, The North Carolina Regulation, 1776-1776: A Class Conflict in Young, 71-124; and P. Foner, 34.
10. P. Foner, 8,39.
11. Nash, 31; Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 61.
12. Kenneth M. Dolbeare, Democracy at Risk: The Politics of Economic Renewal (Chatham, New Jersey: Chatham House Publishers, Inc., 1984), 2, 4.
13. E. Foner, 135-138.
14. Zinn, 74. For a discussion of Locke's treatment of the laboring class, see C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).
15. P. Foner, 84.
16. Zinn, 81
17. Zinn, 76©101.
18. The data on slavery is from Zinn, 87; the information on subsistence farming is from David P. Szatmary, Shays' Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 1; unless otherwise specified, the account of period surrounding Shays Rebellion is drawn from Szatmary's work.
19. Szatmary, 7-8.
20. Szatmary, 11.
21. Zinn, 99.
22. Szatmary, 34.
23. Szatmary, 35.
24. Szatmary, 40.
25. Szatmary, 41.
26. Szatmary, 47.
27. Szatmary, 45.
28. Szatmary, 53.
29. See Szatmary, Chapter 7.
30. Szatmary, 124-129.
31. Zinn, 94.
32. Szatmary, 129.
33. This discussion is drawn from Szatmary, Chapter. 7.
34. Thomas P. Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 224; the action also had the effect of raising the value of Washington's property by about 50 percent.
35. Ralph Ketcham, The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates (New York: New American Library, 1986), 17,18.
36. Merrill Jensen, The Articles of Confederation, in Earl Latham, 17, 19.
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