Fifth American Revolution

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This didn't help. In Worcester, insurgents appeared at the courthouse.

5. The American Revolution

The sheriff read the Riot Act. The insurgents said they would disperse only if the judges did. The sheriff shouted something about hanging. Someone came up behind him and put a sprig of hemlock in his hat. The judges left. Confrontations between farmers and militia now multiplied. The winter snows began to interfere with the trips of farmers to the courthouses. When Shays began marching a thousand men into Boston, a blizzard forced them back, and one of his men froze to death. An army came into the field, led by General Benjamin Lincoln, on money raised by Boston merchants.


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In an artillery duel, three rebels were killed. One soldier stepped in front of his own artillery piece and lost both arms. The winter grew worse. The rebels were outnumbered and on the run. Shays took refuge in Vermont, and his followers began to surrender.


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There were a few more deaths in battle, and then sporadic, disorganized, desperate acts of violence against authority: the burning of barns, the slaughter of a general's horses. One government soldier was killed in an eerie night-time collision of two sleighs. Captured rebels were put on trial in Northampton and six were sentenced to death. A note was left at the door of the high sheriff of Pittsfidd:. Thirty-three more rebels were put on trial and six more condemned to death. Arguments took place over whether the hangings should go forward.

General Lincoln urged mercy and a Commission of Clemency, but Samuel Adams said: "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. Shays, in Vermont, was pardoned in and returned to Massachusetts, where he died, poor and obscure, in It was Thomas Jefferson, in France as ambassador at the time of Shays' Rebellion, who spoke of such uprisings as healthy for society.

In a letter to a friend he wrote: "I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government God forbid that we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion.. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

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But Jefferson was far from the scene. The political and economic elite of the country were not so tolerant. They worried that the example might spread. A veteran of Washington's army, General Henry Knox, founded an organization of army veterans, "The Order of the Cincinnati," presumably as one historian put it "for the purpose of cherishing the heroic memories of the struggle in which they had taken part," but also, it seemed, to watch out for radicalism in the new country. Knox wrote to Washington in late about Shays' Rebellion, and in doing so expressed the thoughts of many of the wealthy and powerful leaders of the country:.

Alexander Hamilton, aide to Washington during the war, was one of the most forceful and astute leaders of the new aristocracy. He voiced his political philosophy:.

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The Convention did not take his suggestion. But neither did it provide for popular elections, except in the case of the House of Representatives, where the qualifications were set by the state legislatures which required property-holding for voting in almost all the states , and excluded women, Indians, slaves. The Constitution provided for Senators to be elected by the state legislators, for the President to be elected by electors chosen by the state legislators, and for the Supreme Court to be appointed by the President.

The problem of democracy in the post-Revolutionary society was not, however, the Constitutional limitations on voting. It lay deeper, beyond the Constitution, in the division of society into rich and poor. For if some people had great wealth and great influence; if they had the land, the money, the newspapers, the church, the educational system- how could voting, however broad, cut into such power? There was still another problem: wasn't it the nature of representative government, even when most broadly based, to be conservative, to prevent tumultuous change?

It came time to ratify the Constitution, to submit to a vote in state conventions, with approval of nine of the thirteen required to ratify it. In New York, where debate over ratification was intense, a series of newspaper articles appeared, anonymously, and they tell us much about the nature of the Constitution.

These articles, favoring adoption of the Constitution, were written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, and came to be known as the Federalist Papers opponents of the Constitution became known as anti-Federalists. In Federalist Paper 10 , James Madison argued that representative government was needed to maintain peace in a society ridden by factional disputes.

These disputes came from "the various and unequal distribution of property.

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Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Minority factions could be controlled, he said, by the principle that decisions would be by vote of the majority. So the real problem, according to Madison, was a majority faction, and here the solution was offered by the Constitution, to have "an extensive republic," that is, a large nation ranging over thirteen states, for then "it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.

Madison's argument can be seen as a sensible argument for having a government which can maintain peace and avoid continuous disorder. But is it the aim of government simply to maintain order, as a referee, between two equally matched fighters? Or is it that government has some special interest in maintaining a certain kind of order, a certain distribution of power and wealth, a distribution in which government officials are not neutral referees but participants?

In that case, the disorder they might worry about is the disorder of popular rebellion against those monopolizing the society's wealth. This interpretation makes sense when one looks at the economic interests, the social backgrounds, of the makers of the Constitution. As part of his argument for a large republic to keep the peace, James Madison tells quite clearly, in Federalist 10 , whose peace he wants to keep: "A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it.

When economic interest is seen behind the political clauses of the Constitution, then the document becomes not simply the work of wise men trying to establish a decent and orderly society, but the work of certain groups trying to maintain their privileges, while giving just enough rights and liberties to enough of the people to ensure popular support. In the new government, Madison would belong to one party the Democrat-Republicans along with Jefferson and Monroe. Hamilton would belong to the rival party the Federalists along with Washington and Adams.

But both agreed-one a slaveholder from Virginia, the other a merchant from New York-on the aims of this new government they were establishing.

They were anticipating the long-fundamental agreement of the two political parties in the American system. Hamilton wrote elsewhere in the Federalist Papers that the new Union would be able "to repress domestic faction and insurrection. It was either Madison or Hamilton the authorship of the individual papers is not always known who in Federalist Paper 63 argued the necessity of a "well-constructed Senate" as "sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions" because "there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misted by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.

The Constitution was a compromise between slaveholding interests of the South and moneyed interests of the North.

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For the purpose of uniting the thirteen states into one great market for commerce, the northern delegates wanted laws regulating interstate commerce, and urged that such laws require only a majority of Congress to pass. The South agreed to this, in return for allowing the trade in slaves to continue for twenty years before being outlawed. Charles Beard warned us that governments-including the government of the United States-are not neutral, that they represent the dominant economic interests, and that their constitutions are intended to serve these interests.

One of his critics Robert E. Brown, Charles Beard and the Constitution raises an interesting point.

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Granted that the Constitution omitted the phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," which appeared in the Declaration of Independence, and substituted "life, liberty, or property"-well, why shouldn't the Constitution protect property? As Brown says about Revolutionary America, "practically everybody was interested in the protection of property" because so many Americans owned property. However, this is misleading. True, there were many property owners.


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But some people had much more than others.