American Legal History
-- MattEckman - 10 Jan 2010

It turns out that every document I had hoped to scan is already available on the internet.

  • That's hardly a bad outcome.

Shays' Rebellion and the Founding Fathers

Did General Knox and others misrepresent Shays' Rebellion to General Washington in order to lure him into attending the Constitutional Convention? Assuming that the answer is Yes, how did they do it? Why? What were the intended and actual effects? And what does this episode tell us about the bent and temper of the founding fathers? My project is to answer these questions in light of Rock Brynner’s doctoral dissertation, “Fire beneath our feet”: Shays’ Rebellion and its constitutional impact (1993).

  • A little too narrow. In the end, that means you're a book reviewer treating Brynner's dissertation as a thesis to be agreed with or dissented from. Independently considering his ideas might be more helpful

Shays’ Rebellion

Shays’ Rebellion—participants referred to it as “the Regulation”—constituted a series of demonstrations that occurred in western Massachussets between August and December 1786 followed by a violent armed confrontation at the Springfield Armory in January 1787 (Brynner 2). The Rebellion occurred at a time when the Articles of Confederation provided the framework for our national government.

  • Recognizing that "the Regulation" might be a clue, seems like you might want to link up with Chris Fasano's project and take another look at Jameson.

Social, constitutional, and historical context

According to Brynner, in pre-Revolutionary Massachusetts there was a significant cultural divide between the west and the east. The east was more rigidly socially stratisfied: a citizen’s social class was more important and easily ascertainable and had not so much to do with wealth. This rigid structure was undermined and replaced with a more “egalitarian concensus” when, beginning in 1764, the British began to impose harsh taxes indiscriminately upon citizens regardless of social standing. (13) Egalitarianism was the norm (at least more so) when the colonies went to war against the British.

After the war influential political figures were determined that an American monarchy should not be allowed to rise in place of the British. According to Brynner, the framers of the Articles of Confederation were mindful of the lessons of history:

Since the Puritan Revolution was the only precedent for the disposal of monarchy, the horrifying implication was that the continental government might represent nothing more than an American interregnum…the notion of a military dictatorship followed by an American king lurked in the shadows of the political culture. 23

  • Use HTML <blockquote> tags as I did above, or equivalent, to set off your quotations.

In the spirit of the time standing armies were viewed as a terrific threat to the liberty and autonomy of the citizenry. (21) Post-Revolutionary concerns about standing armies and the rise of a military dictatorship led the framers to incorporate into the Articles of Confederation certain safeguards that severely limited the ability of the continental government to raise and maintain troops of soldiers. To establish a strong national military, nationalists like General Knox would have to overcome deep-seated—if not constitutional—opposition. According to Brynner, the nationalists misrepresented Shays’ Rebellion to effect that end.

Brynner suggests that nationalists had other ends in mind as well, informed by lessons gleaned from the Puritan Revolution:

If history were to repeat itself, then the American Revolution would be followed by years of civil war between the officers of a Standing Army that refused to disband, like Lilburne and the Levellers, and troops recruited by an unrepresentative General Court, like Parliament. The Senate, representing property, would be abolished, thus ending the mixed government to which…English thinkers attributed the peculiar excellence of their government. 24 (internal citation omitted)

After the Puritan Revolution, alongside the Levellers more radical groups like the Diggers emerged, calling for a redivision of all real property and communist reforms as the just reward of the common people who fought to overthrow the British monarchy. (24-25) Wary of similar post-Revolutionary developments, nationalists were particularly concerned that propertied interests and influence in the national government be protected against a populist uprising and subsequent (and, in light of English history, seemingly inevitable) rise of an American monarchy.

The Shaysites’ grievances and goals

As characterized by Brynner, the Shaysites were no Diggers. They were citizens of western Massachusetts—many of them, like Daniel Shays himself, had fought under Washington—who resented the eastern establishment’s success in establishing a State constitution that diminished popular (and in particular westerners’) representation in the General Court and gave too much power to propertied interests in the State Senate. (30ff.) They were also upset that officers who served in the Continental Army “had procured benefits (five years’ pay and Ohio land), when the common soldiery received little or nothing of what they had been promised upon enlisting.” (41) Other grievances included excessive taxation and especially the practices of the courts, which were ordering westerner farmers who could not pay their taxes to give up their farms. “Had a political remedy been available to the under-represented westerners,” Brynner hypothesizes, “these immediate circumstances would not have led to the Regulation; indeed, all the Regulators sought was a chance to vote Hancock [a more sympathetic former Massachusetts governor] back into office and win more seats in the General Court, before their farms were seized by the courts.” (41) Brynner emphasizes that “the Regulation made only one consistent, specific demand throughout the commotions: to postpone the sitting of the courts until the next election.” (60) From August to December of 1786 the Regulators appeared—often armed—at courthouse steps throughout the State to insist that court sessions be postponed. Not once did the Shaysites use violence to force a court closing, but courts in Northampton, Worcester and elsewhere did close. (77ff.) In Brynner’s account the Shaysites, though a rag-tag and dishevelled bunch, conducted themselves with an admirable military discipline. (91) While effective, their militaristic conduct have fed into the impression that the Shays’ Rebellion constituted an armed insurrection. (75)

Knox and Washington

Though the Shaysites were largely peaceful, had legitimate grievances and took reasonable measures to address them (taking Brynner at his word; in Chapter Two takes pains to show that the Regulation belonged to a democratic tradition of staging opposition to government suppression), it was in the best interests of Knox and other nationalists to paint Shays’ Rebellion as a latter-day Diggers’ uprising. As noted above, many Americans may have been primed to perceive flashes of the English interregnum in post-Revolutionary America. Brynner’s thesis is that Knox himself most likely knew better—he knew what the Rebellion was really about, having been at Springfield when Shays’ men surrounded the Arsenal—but he intentionally misrepresented the Regulation to Washington so as to entice the General out of retirement and into attending the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia:

The chance of achieving constitutional reform, the nationalists agreed, lay largely in the hands of Washington…Without his participation, the Philadelphia Convention would probably have had no more success than the Annapolis Convention eight months earlier, when only five states bothered to send delegates. And the key to bringing Washington out of retirement was an event that could excite in him the dread of an imminent collapse of all government. 8-9

Knox’s personal motivation in seeking to establish a stronger national government need not occupy us. Suffice it to say that, in Brynner’s characterization, Knox saw the opportunity to cement his own economic and social status (before the war he had been a bookseller) and protect against public mobilization toward “annihiltion of debts and a division of property.” (127)

The letter

Brynner contends that Knox deliberately misrepresented the Shaysites as violent radicals pursuing a communist agenda to Washington in a letter composed in October 1786. His evidence for this claim is rather weak, consisting of strong epistolary evidence of Knox’s deviousness in raising a de facto standing army under the pretense of fighting Indians in the west and Knox’s personal stake in the establishment of a strong national government. (127ff.) Brynner even admits that the greater part of the epistolary evidence shows Knox expressing an alarmist view of the Shaysites and contains no candid acknowledgement of their true, legitimate goals. (127)

The more interesting question is: what effect did the letter or the general sentiments expressed therein have on Washington, and what does that tell us about his attitude toward the common folk? Knox wrote:

high taxes are the ostensible cause of the commotions [Shays’ Rebellion], but that they are the real cause is as far remote from truth as light from darkness. The people who are the insurgents have never paid any, or but very little taxes – But they see the weakness of government; They feel at once their own poverty, compared with the opulent, and their own force, and they are determined to make up the latter, in order to remedy the former…

Their creed is, “That the property of the United States has been protected from confiscation of Britain by the joint exertions of all, and therefore ought to be the common property of all, and he that attempts opposition to this creed is an enemy of equity and justice, and ought to be swept off the face of the earth…” In a word, they are determined to annihilate all debts, public and private… 132, 133

Obviously Knox’s “fears” echo those voiced by citizens determined not to allow post-Revolutionary America devolve into an American interregnum. Even if Knox’s fears are not genuine, it would be interesting to know how they and similar sentiments—conveyed to Washington by numerous correspondents—influenced Washington’s decision to attend the Continental Congress.

  • So rather than following Brynner into the weak evidentiary land of dependence on the interpretation of a single document, we can put matters more broadly and indicate the nature of the turbulent west of the revolutionary republics (with their "regulation" movements from the 1770s to the 1790s), the politics which surrounded and interpreted those movements in various conflicting ways, and the effect those representations had on the official politics of the republics and the resulting empire.

Mr. Washington goes to Philadelphia

Less than two weeks after receiving Knox’s letter, “Washington tentatively admitted to Madison that, under the circumstances, he might foresake his retirement from public life to lend his reputation to the Convention proposed in Philadelphia.” (134) Brynner acknowledges that it “was not, perhaps, the oft-quoted key phrases of Knox’s letter that concerned [Washington] as much as the broad picture of rebelliousness that Knox painted of New England and, by implication, of the whole continent.” (203) In any case, it was obvious to many that the Articles suffered from numerous severe defects and needed to be revised, if not unceremoniously scrapped. Given these other reasons for wanting the Philadelphia convention to succeed, given that Washington knew (or at least believed) that his presence at the Convention would assure its success, given the hyperbole of Knox’s letter, and given that Washington was familiar with more temperate reports of Shays’ Rebellion, the timing of Knox’s letter and Washington’s decision provides little evidence that Washington was as plebophobic as Knox and his ilk. He may have been, but this particular line of evidence does not constitute a prima facie case that he in fact was. A letter to Henry Lee composed just days before he received Knox’s letter may give us a better idea of Washington’s reaction to inflammatory reports of the Regulation and his attitude toward the masses:

The picture which you have exhibited, and the accounts which are published…exhibit a melancholy proof of what our trans-atlantic foe has predicted; and of another thing, perhaps, which is still more to be regretted, and yet is more unaccountable, that mankind when left to themselves are unfit for their own Government. I am mortified beyond expression when I view the clouds that have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned upon any Country. 202



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r4 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:17:14 - IanSullivan
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