Long before the American Revolution and the political turmoil that followed, there had been social unrest at home. In the period between 1776 and 1790, the agitation continued and became more intense, fueled by the gross inequality of wealth and by the democratic ideals that had motivated many small farmers to take up arms against Britain. But there was also another factor. The war with Britain had produced a burdensome debt, both foreign and domestic. War bonds had been sold to raise money to supply the troops. Returning soldiers, who had purchased the bonds and were now desperate for cash, sold them at a fraction of their face value to raise money to survive. Speculators eagerly scooped up the bonds and then demanded that they be paid interest on the face value. The only way the speculators could be paid was for state governments to raise taxes, which is just what they did. The result was that the small farmers were faced with a tax burden that was even greater than what they had previously paid under British rule. They were defaulting on their mortgages. Their lands and livestock were being confiscated and sold off. They were being dispossessed.
In response, protests sprang up around the country. Some were violent, but most were peaceful. In 1787, the Delaware legislature agreed to pay two years of interest to holders of state bonds. During the election that followed, voters were urged “not to chuse [sic] any man as representative, who had purchased certificates, or advocated the payment of them.” This campaign was successful. Representatives in New Castle County were replaced by men more favorable to the debtors’ cause. The assembly passed legislation denying interest to anyone who had acquired their securities through speculation.
Rhode Islanders also took matters into their own hands. The public supported the emission of paper money, which would provide relief for debtors. The political establishment, however, opposed paper money and proposed a statewide list of delegates who favored this position. Voters in East Greenwich held conventions and put up their own list. These candidates campaigned vigorously under the slogan “To Relieve the Distressed,” and they prevailed. The first order of business for the newly elected legislature was to issue £100,000 in paper money and delay the due date for taxes that had been requisitioned by Congress in September of 1785.
In March of 1786, the Massachusetts state legislature imposed heavy taxes, with more than half of the revenue allocated to pay bondholders. Insurgents took to arms in protest of the taxes and were defeated. They then went to the polls, where they were victorious. With the resulting seventy-four percent turnover in the state House of Representatives, the farmers got the tax relief they sought. For the year 1787, the state government imposed no taxes at all.
Citizens of Massachusetts and New Hampshire came up with another strategy as well. Several townships resolved to send no representatives to their state’s legislature. Since the decisions being made were unfavorable to their cause, why send anyone? It was both a political strategy and a means of protesting a system they found inequitable. In Massachusetts, farmers refused to pay their taxes and took the additional step of closing many of the state’s courts.
There was growing discontent with the state of affairs that prevailed in the newly liberated country. Maybe things had actually been better under British rule. Petitioners in Brunswick County, Virginia, declared, “the honest labourour who tills the ground by the sweat of his brow Seams hitertoo to be the only sufferors by a revolution which ought to be glorious but which the undeserving only reap the benefits off.”
With growing frequency, debtors were taking refuge within the sanctuary of their homes. Other actions were taken that were less benign and more openly hostile. In September of 1784, a South Carolina deputy sheriff tried to hand Hezekiah Maham a summons to appear in court to answer a creditor’s complaint. Not only did he not accept the summons, Maham had the sheriff eat it, graciously supplying a beverage with which the sheriff could wash it down. In Virginia, there were one hundred fifty-five cases of delinquent farmers taking up arms against sheriffs who came to claim their property. Outraged debtors began nailing shut courthouses where decisions had been made depriving them of their property. Another strategy was for residents of a given community to agree that no one would bid on property put up for auction. Anyone who did bid, risked retaliation. Heavy taxation was producing vigorous opposition in just about every state. And in many cases, overburdened taxpayers were getting from their state legislatures the tax relief they sought.
It was not chiefly the social unrest but rather the good results that the farmers were getting from their legislatures that were most troubling to men like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. In the Federalist Papers, they make repeated reference to social unrest and government instability, which (they maintained) could be overcome only by means of a powerful central authority. What they meant to say was that the local legislatures were too democratic, that is, they were responding to the wishes of their constituencies. That needed to be stopped. The only way to do so was to de-democratize government by replacing thirteen responsive state legislatures with one central government, with large election districts and minimal representation. With such a governmental structure, disgruntled farmers would have difficulty uniting and enforcing their will.
Social Unrest and Counterrevolution
In the 1780s, eighty percent of the citizenry were small farmers. Obviously, by virtue of their numbers, in any open debate on critical issues, the farmers would prevail. To succeed, the relative handful of speculators needed to move their brethren—those with visibility—into positions of power and national recognition, where they could unite behind an alternate form of government that would squelch the burgeoning democracy.
What was needed was a single dramatic event that would demonize the lower classes and rally the citizenry—against its own self-interest—around a new Constitution. Students of American history will, no doubt, recognize the scenario. A group of powerful oligarchs wishes to take the nation down a path for which there is no popular support. There is a violent event that both instills fear and piques the national pride, thus justifying the preplanned endeavor. Is it possible that, in the days leading up to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, there was a precipitating event such as this that was used to mobilize Americans into choosing a form of centralized government with a standing army and powers of taxation, the very European formula against which Americans had just fought a long and bloody revolution?
Though there was discontent around the country, the citizens of the state of Massachusetts had an especially important role to play in fanning the flames of rebellion in the new nation just prior to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The Massachusetts state constitution of 1780 had raised the property qualifications for voting and ensured that only the wealthy could hold state office. The legislature was unsympathetic to the many debt-ridden small farmers who were losing their farms to the merchants who had lent them money. Meetings were held in the western part of the state in an effort to organize an opposition. Said one beleaguered citizen:
I have been greatly abused, have been obliged to do more than my part in the war; been loaded with class rates, town rates, province rates, Continental rates … been pulled and hauled by sheriffs, constables and collectors, and had my cattle sold for less than they were worth.… The great men are going to get all we have and I think it is time for us to rise and put a stop to it, and have no more courts, nor sheriffs, nor collectors nor lawyers.
The riots and uprisings that followed were not a consequence of too much democracy but rather its lack. The citizenry was driven to desperation when its basic needs were not being addressed. One uprising was of particular importance in mobilizing support for a change in government. Small farmers in western Massachusetts, many of them veterans of the Revolution, watched as their cattle and lands were taken away and as their neighbors were imprisoned, all as a consequence of their inability to pay taxes and debt obligations. Daniel Shays had been a captain in the Continental Army. Having fought at Lexington, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga, Shays resigned once it became clear that he was not going to be paid for his efforts. Soon thereafter, he found himself in court for nonpayment of debts. He was one of many. At one point, he witnessed a sick woman who was unable to pay her debt have the bed taken out from under her.
The farmers of Massachusetts began organizing under the leadership of Continental Army veterans. They appeared at courthouse steps, demanding fair treatment; they used guns to prevent the courts from taking their property. Many of the state’s militia—whose job it was to safeguard the courts—sided with the farmers instead. In the fall of 1786, Shays and a group of seven hundred armed farmers appeared in Springfield, Massachusetts. As they marched past the courthouse their ranks grew. Proceedings were cancelled. When Shays began a march of a thousand men to Boston, where the state legislature would be holding its next meeting, a blizzard forced them back. One of his men froze to death.
A militia sponsored by wealthy Boston merchants offered stiff opposition to Shays’ rebels. A few shots were fired. There were several deaths. Finally, the outnumbered rebels dispersed. Shays took refuge in Vermont, and his followers began to surrender. About a dozen rebels were tried and condemned to death. Some were pardoned, but others were hanged.
The men under Shays’ leadership were all patriots. Many had fought in the Revolution and had risked their lives to escape the burden of excessive debt and taxation. Now, under the new government, they found themselves caught in a new web of merchants and bankers who were no more reasonable or fair-minded than their predecessors had been. The rebels were well disciplined. They were not out to take other people’s land. Their sole purpose was to hold on to what little they had so they could continue their sustenance farming.
All of this was still going on in September of 1786, when a handful of state delegations met in Annapolis, Maryland—under the leadership of nationalists like Hamilton and Madison—to discuss issues concerning commerce and trade among the states. Only five states were actually represented. Hamilton was one of two delegates from the state of New York. The small assembly decided they lacked sufficient numbers to take any action and agreed to reassemble in May of 1787 to address broader issues than those that had originally brought them together.
The period between these two conclaves was critical. Without the support of key figures like George Washington, the Constitutional Convention might never have taken place or else would have accomplished little of what men like Hamilton had in mind. In the space of eight months, energies had to be galvanized, and convincing arguments had to be mounted, in support of a program that would do away with one government and replace it with another. Washington was the key figure in this enterprise. He was the symbol of the new America. He was, to the public eye, beyond reproach, a figure of integrity whose judgment the nation would follow. In other words, he was the essential symbol for plotters like Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, and Alexander Hamilton. Shays’ Rebellion came at just the right moment. It was the perfect source of necessary propaganda: “Men of property and wealth, watch out. We need a new powerful, central government to put the lid on such dangerous uprisings.”
In a letter to Washington appealing to his wish for stability, hoping he could be persuaded into coming out of retirement to play a role in the Constitutional Convention, General Henry Knox refers to the “insurgents” (i.e., loyal Americans such as Daniel Shays and his followers) as people who have paid little or no taxes, who see wealth around them that they covet and a weak government in no position to offer serious opposition. Hence, claims Knox, they will take what they want. By common effort, the property of the United States has been wrenched from British hands and therefore, they believe, it belongs to everyone. And, says Knox, speaking for the Shayites, anyone who would put himself in opposition to this program for equity and justice will be “swept from off the face of the earth.” In essence, reality had been stood on its head. It was powerful bankers and propertied interests who were taking land from small farmers, not the other way round.
Although the Shayites might have argued that they had equal claim to any and all land, they never did. All they wanted was to stay out of jail and to retain their meager holdings. Knox had distorted the reality behind the rebellion and chosen inflammatory language as a means of stirring up a sentiment of fear for purposes of mobilizing the wealthy and powerful against a relative handful of farmers in need of debt relief. Men like Washington, with vast land holdings on the western frontier, became convinced that the country was on the verge of anarchy and that only a vigorous government could maintain order. The propaganda had worked. Without Shays’ Rebellion and the propaganda that fed off it, it is doubtful that the nationalists would have succeeded. For George Washington, the case was convincing, and it factored into his decision to attend the Philadelphia convention. In a letter to James Madison, he wrote, “What stronger evidence can be given of the want of energy in our governments than these disorders?”
Considering the circumstances that prevailed at the time of the Constitutional Convention, it is certainly not surprising that the gathering enjoyed little popular support. For one thing, it seemed to be the doing of a cabal operating in secret. For another, it represented a radical change in direction. Some might say a coup had taken place. Prior to the convention, it was the general understanding that the Articles of Confederation were to remain in force. There had been no groundswell for abandoning one form of government in favor of another. Yet that is what happened.
What was under way was a struggle between those of modest means and a wealthy elite. “Appius,” of South Carolina, speaking of two different sections of his state, described the differences as follows:
One is accustomed to expence [sic], the other to frugality. One will be inclined to numerous offices, large salaries, and an expensive government; the other, from the modest fortunes of the inhabitants, and their simple way of life will prefer low taxes, small salaries, and a very frugal civil establishment.… One will favor commerce, the other manufactures; one wishes slaves, the other will be better without them.
Wrote “Cornelius,” of Massachusetts, in December of 1787, “I conceive a foundation is laid for throwing the whole power of the federal government into the hands of those who are in the mercantile interest; and for the landed [i.e., the small farmers], which is the great interest of this country, to lie unrepresented, forlorn, and without hope.” Similar sentiments were expressed by “Appius.” The rich can take care of themselves. Government should attend to those of modest means. “A rich citizen ought to have fewer votes than his poor neighbor; … Wealth should be stripped of as many advantages as possible and it will then have more than enough.… And finally, … in giving property the power of protecting itself, government becomes an aristocracy.”
The author of an essay that appeared in the Boston Gazette on November 26, 1787, argued eloquently against a rush to judgment on the Constitution:
The deceptive mists cast before the eyes of the people by the delusive machinations of its INTERESTED advocates begins to dissipate.… Those furious zealots who are for cramming it down the throats of the people without allowing them either time or opportunity to scan or weight it in the balance of the intelligences, bear the same marks in their features as those who have been long wishing to erect an aristocracy in this COMMONWEALTH—their menacing cry is for a RIGID government, it matters little to them of what kind, provided it answers THAT description.… These violent partisans are for having the people gulp down the gilded pill blindfolded, whole, and without any qualification whatever, these consist generally, of the NOBLE order of [Cincinnatus], holders of public securities, men of great wealth and expectations of public office, … these with their train of dependents [form] the arisotcratick [sic] combination. (capital letters in the original)
Rhode Island refused to send any delegates to the Philadelphia convention, suspecting that the organizers were up to no good. New Hampshire chose delegates but neglected to supply them with the funds they needed to attend. Patrick Henry of Virginia refused to attend. He “smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy.” Once the Constitution had been drafted, Mason and Randolph of Virginia, as well as Gerry of Massachusetts, refused to sign. Lansing and Yates of New York, Martin of North Carolina, and Mercer of Maryland had previously withdrawn from the convention.
In An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, first published in 1913, Charles Beard argues that the Constitution was a counterrevolution, set up by rich bondholders for whom bonds were “personal property,” in opposition to the farmers and planters for whom land was property, “real property.” According to Beard, the Constitution was designed to reverse the radical democratic tendencies that had been unleashed by the Revolution among the common people, especially farmers and debtors. As he points out, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were wealthy lawyers, merchants, and speculators. “Not one member represented in his immediate personal economic interests the small farming or mechanic classes.” Bear in mind that, at the time, small farmers made up eighty to ninety percent of the country’s population.
The new government was carefully constructed with two goals in mind, both of them anti-democratic: (1) to circumscribe the power of the state legislatures, which were sympathetic to the plight of debtors and small farmers, and (2) to create a central power structure in which the majority (eighty to ninety percent of the population) could be dominated by a minority of wealthy oligarchs. The government’s first goal (to circumscribe the power of the states) was achieved by (1) taking unto itself the power to raise taxes, (2) denying states the right to issue paper money, and (3) insisting that contracts (i.e., public securities) were sacrosanct.
The second goal (to create a central power structure) was achieved by means of “checks and balances.” In fact, there were no balances, only checks—that is, checks on the House of Representatives, the popularly elected branch of government. The Senate, the presidency, and the judiciary were all aligned against grassroots interests. This was understood and intended from the outset. Suppose the House of Representatives, the body with the larger number of members and the only one elected directly by the people, were to be sympathetic to the cause of debtors. Under the system of checks and balances, the Senate, the president (with his veto), or the Supreme Court could override them. Edmund Randolph, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention from Virginia, declared that the origin of “the evils under which the U.S. laboured” was “the turbulence and follies of democracy.” Some check was needed against this tendency. A “good Senate seemed most likely to answer the purpose,” since it would “restrain, if possible, the fury of democracy.” Beard described the plan thusly: “Property interests may through their superior weight in power and intelligence, secure advantageous legislation whenever necessary, and they may at the same time obtain immunity from control by parliamentary majorities.”
But many saw right through the strategy of a divided government and, if fact, had been warning against it for years. In this statement from 1776, the “Centinel,” of Pennsylvania, advocates for a government of simple structure, similar to that in his home state:
The highest responsibility is to be attained in a simple structure of government.… If you complicate the plan by various orders, the people will be perplexed and divided in their sentiment about the sources of abuses or misconduct. … By imitating the constitution of Pennsylvania, you vest all legislative power in one body of men …, elected for a short period, and necessarily excluded by rotation from permanency and guarded from precipitancy and surprise by delays imposed on its proceedings, you will create the most perfect responsibility; for then, whenever the people feel a grievance, they cannot mistake the authors and will apply the remedy with certainty and effect, discarding them at the next election.
Anti-democratic sentiments were on display like a leitmotif throughout the speeches and writings of Convention delegates. Said Massachusetts delegate Eldridge Gerry, “The evils we experience flow from an excess of democracy.” Nathaniel Gorham, of the same state, concurred: “All agree that a check on the legislature is necessary.” And, of course, there is the voice of Alexander Hamilton: “The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.… Can a democratic assembly who annually revolve in the mass of the people,” he asks rhetorically, “be supposed steadily to pursue the public good? Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy.” The bottom line, according to William Livingston of New Jersey, was this: “The people have been and ever will be unfit to retain the exercise of power in their own hands.”