February 20, 2010

Shay's Rebellion - Part 3

This is Part Three of my honor's paper on Shay's Rebellion.  The Part One can be found at SEDUCED BY HISTORY.  Part Two is just below, on this blog.  This post will most likely more sense if you've read Parts 1 and 2 first.

Shays’ Rebellion: Shaping the Constitution - Part Three

Conventions where formed and town hall meetings held in attempts to find peaceful solutions. “Firm instructions were sent...to have the courts suspend judgments on debtors until more hard money was available,” says Stearns. The spokesmen for the conventions and meetings also asked to allow “personal property [to be] a legal satisfaction of a claim, or to issue paper money and make it legally acceptable for payments of debt and taxes,” Stearns continues (11).

These peaceful efforts failed, however. The merchant class, which dominated the Massachusetts legislature, did not want more useless paper money on the market. Unfortunately, in ignoring the pleas of the farmers, they underestimated the anger of their debtors.

The Court of Common Pleas was set to sit on August 29, 1786 in Northampton, Hampshire County. Five hundred men, including militiamen, with swords, muskets and hickory sticks marched on the court and effectively stopped it from sitting in judgment on fellow debtors.

This first of several civil disobediences shocked many a man, including the state Governor James Bowdoin. He proclaimed the act treasonable and ordered the leaders to be seized and tried. In his exasperation, however, he made several mistakes. The biggest being that many of the protesters were the very militia he ordered into action against the insurgents.

When this was realized, he called upon the Federal Government to help squash the rebellion. Congress, who had only seven hundred soldiers at its disposal, authorized the call for a new militia and appropriated $530,000 for it. Since they had no funds to pay for this new army, they requested the states to send in just portions. Twelve of the states refused. Only Virginia promised to support congress in this endeavor.

Through private donations from the wealthier Massachusetts citizens, a militia was finally raised and by February 4, 1787, Shays’ Rebellion had been put down.

However, the problems exposed in the Articles of Confederation by congress’ lack of authority showed the inherent weakness of the document. Edmund Lindop in Birth of the Constitution remarks:

Many Americans...were terrified. The same conditions that lead to the insurrection in Massachusetts existed in other states, too. Similar rebellions could breakout anytime, anywhere. If the national government could not crush Shays’ Rebellion, there was no reason to expect them to maintain law and order in other parts of the country. (34)

With a convention already planned to discuss the Articles and its problems, those wanting a change went on the offensive.

The rumblings of rebellion making their way across the country disturbed war hero General George Washington. In a letter written to John Jay on August 1, 1786, he writes, “I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation without having lodged somewhere a power, which will pervade the whole union in as energetic a manner, as authority of the state governments extends over several states,” as quoted in The Constitution Convention (59). He questions the wisdom of having such a weak government, which, to his great horror, is giving rise to talk “of a monarchial form of government,” (60).

In a second letter written to James Madison on November 5, 1786, Washington continues his concerns for the government. “Without some alteration in our political creed, the superstructure we have been seven years raising at the expense of so much blood and treasure, must fall. We are fast verging to anarchy and confusion!” (60). Washington ends his letter with, “Thirteen sovereignties pulling against each other, and all tugging at the federal head will soon bring ruin to the whole...,” (62).

Washington had dreamed of a peaceful life as a gentleman farmer after retiring as Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Shays’ Rebellion and its exposure of the Articles’ flaws drew him out of his short-lived retirement.

Thus ends today's lesson.  Tune in tomorrow for the final installment on Shay's Rebellion - Shaping the Constitution.

Anna Kathryn Lanier
Where Tumbleweeds Hang Their Hats


Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Anna,

I never knew that Shay's Rebellion was a catalyst for constitutional change.

Of course some people think that we've now gone to far in the other direction--that the Federal government has too much power.

I'm not going to start that argument,though.


Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hi, Lisabet. Thanks for stopping by. I didn't do as much research on Shay as I could have. Or I've forgotten what I learned, lol. I'd like to do a little more research on it, but yep, Shay's and a few other smaller rebellions really helpd Hamilton push for the Federal government.

Well, you won't get much aurgement out of me. I think we need a powerful federal government....