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The American Experiment
The Vineyard of Liberty
By James MacGregor Burns
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 James MacGregor Burns
All rights reserved.
The Strategy of Liberty
Western Massachusetts, late January 1787. Down the long sloping shoulders of the Berkshire Mountains they headed west through the bitter night, stumbling over frozen ruts, picking their way around deep drifts of snow. Some carried muskets, others hickory clubs, others nothing. Many wore old Revolutionary War uniforms, now decked out with the sprig of hemlock that marked them as rebels. Careless and cocksure they had been, but now gall and despair hung over them as heavy as the enveloping night. They and hundreds like them were fleeing for their lives, looking for places to hide.
These men were rebels against ex-rebels. Only a few years before, they had been fighting the redcoats at Bunker Hill, joining General Stark in the rout of the enemy at Bennington, helping young Colonel Henry Knox's troops pull fifty tons of cannon and mortars, captured from the British at Ticonderoga, across these same frozen wastes. They had fought in comradeship with men from Boston and other towns in the populous east. All had been revolutionaries together, in a glorious and victorious cause. Now they were fighting their old comrades, dying before their cannon, hunting for cover like animals.
The trouble had been brewing for years. Life had been hard enough during the Revolution, but independence had first brought a flush of prosperity, then worse times than ever. The people and their governments alike struggled under crushing debts. Much of the Revolutionary specie was hopelessly irredeemable. People were still paying for the war through steep taxes. The farmers in central and western Massachusetts felt they had suffered the most, for their farms, cattle, even their plows could be taken for unpaid debts. Some debtors had been thrown into jail and had languished there, while family and friends desperately scrounged for money that could not be found.
Out of the despair and suffering a deep hatred had welled in the broad farms along the Connecticut and the settlements in the Berkshires. Hatred for the sheriffs and other minions of the law who flung neighbors into jail. Hatred for the judges who could sign orders that might wipe out a man's entire property. Hatred for the scheming lawyers who connived in all this, and battened on it. Hatred above all for the rich people in Boston, the merchants and bankers who seemed to control the governor and the state legislature. No single leader mobilized this hatred. Farmers and laborers rallied around local men with names like Job Shattuck, Eli Parsons, Luke Day. Dan Shays emerged as the most visible leader, but the uprising was as natural and indigenous as any peasants' revolt in Europe. The malcontents could not know that history would call them members of "Shays's Rebellion." They called themselves Regulators.
Their tactic was simple: close up the courts. Time and again, during the late summer and early fall of 1786, roughhewn men by the hundreds crowded into or around courthouses, while judges and sheriffs stood by seething and helpless. The authorities feared to call out the local militia, knowing the men would desert in droves. Most of the occupations were peaceful, even jocular and festive, reaching a high point when debtors were turned out of jail. Most of these debtors were proud men, property owners, voters. They had served as soldiers and junior officers in the Revolution. They were seeking to redress grievances, not to topple governments. Some men of substance—doctors, deacons, even judges—backed the Regulators; many poor persons feared the uprisings. But in general, a man's property and source of income placed him on one side or the other. Hence the conflict divided town and country officials, neighbors, even families.
Then, as the weather turned bitter in the late fall, so did the mood of the combatants. The attitude of the authorities shifted from the implacable to the near-hysterical. Alarmists exaggerated the strength of the Regulators. Rumors flew about that Boston or some other eastern town would be attacked. A respectable Bostonian reported that "We are now in a State of anarchy and confusion bordering on a Civil War." Boston propagandists spread reports that British agents in Canada were secretly backing the rebels. So the Regulators were now treasonable as well as illegal. The state suspended habeas corpus and raised an army, but lacking public funds had to turn to local "gentlemen" for loans to finance it. An anonymous dissident responded in kind:
"This is to lett the gentellmen of Boston [know?] that wee Country men will not pay taxes, as the think," he wrote Governor Bowdoin in a crude, scrawling hand. "But Lett them send the Constabel to us and we'll nock him down for ofering to come near us. If you Dont lower the taxes we'll pull down the town house about you ears. It shall not stand long then or else they shall be blood spilt. We country men will not be imposed on. We fought of our Libery as well as you did....
Country people and city people had declared for independence a decade before. They had endorsed the ideals of liberty and equality proclaimed in the declaration signed by John Adams and others. But now, it seemed, these ideals were coming to stand for different things to different persons. Fundamental questions had been left unresolved by the Revolution. Who would settle them, and how?
THE GREAT FEAR
Through the autumn weeks of 1786, George Washington had been savoring the life that he had hungered to return to years earlier, during the bleak days of Boston, Valley Forge, Germantown. Mornings he came downstairs past the grandfather's clock at the turning, strode through the long central hall and out the far door, to stand on the great porch and gaze at the Potomac flowing a mile wide below him, and at the soft hills beyond. Later he usually "rid" to the plantations that flanked the mansion, fields called Muddy Hole, Dogue Run, and Ferry, where he closely supervised his white work hands and his slaves—"the People," he liked to call them—as they planted the fall crops of wheat and rye, "pease" and Irish potatoes. As commanding a figure as ever, with his great erect form and Roman head, he would readily dismount to supervise rearrangement of his plows and harrows breaking up the soil sodden with the heavy rains of that autumn.
On returning to the mansion he might find a goodly company of neighbors, or of old political and military comrades from distant parts; these he entertained in a manner both friendly and formal. After the years of harrowing struggle with Britain and of earlier bloody combat against Frenchmen and Indians, with the possibility of slave uprisings often in mind, Washington luxuriated in the sense of order that enveloped Mount Vernon, with its formal gardens, greenhouses, deer park, and graceful drives. He took heart also in the political calm that now seemed to have settled on Virginia. Then the news of disturbances to the north came crashing in on this serenity. Washington's first reaction was of sheer incredulity.
"For God's sake tell me what is the cause of all these commotions," he implored a friend late in October; "do they proceed from licentiousness, British-influence disseminated by the Tories, or real grievances which admit of redress." If the latter, why were the grievances not dealt with; if the former, why were the disturbances not put down? "Commotions of this sort, like snow-balls, gather strength as they roll, if there is no opposition in the way to divide and crumble them." Most mortifying of all to the general was the likely reaction in London; the Tories had always said that the Americans could not govern themselves, and how London would scoff at this anarchy.
Anxiously Washington tried to discern what was actually happening in Massachusetts. Distrusting the vague and conflicting reports in the newspapers, he depended heavily on his old companion-in-arms General Henry Knox, who had been asked by Congress to investigate the disorders. The rebels would annihilate all debts public and private, Knox warned Washington, and pass agrarian laws that would make legal tender of unfunded paper money. "What, gracious God, is man!" Washington cried out to another friend, "that there should be such inconsistency and perfidiousness in his conduct? It is but the other day, that we were shedding our blood to obtain the ... Constitutions of our own choice and making; and now we are unsheathing the sword to overturn them." He felt that he must be under the illusion of a dream.
An impudent rebellion, an impotent Congress, a jeering Europe—these were the catalysts for George Washington, and hundreds of others like him, who believed that national independence and personal liberty could flourish only under conditions of unity and order. If government could not check these disorders, Washington wrote James Madison, "what security has a man for life, liberty, or property?" It was obvious that, in the absence of a stronger constitution, "thirteen Sovereignties pulling against each other, and all tugging at the federal head will soon bring ruin on the whole." No one knew better than the commanding general of the Continental armies the price of division and weakness in Congress, and he had been as little impressed by the nation's leadership in the years since the war.
Washington saw one sign of hope, in September, commissioners from five of the middle states had met in Annapolis to discuss vexing restrictions on commerce among them. They had proposed a larger convention to be held in Philadelphia in May of the coming year. But what could such a convention accomplish, given the strange fears and distempers abroad in the land?
In London, in the fall of 1786, John and Abigail Adams also waited anxiously for news from Massachusetts. As American minister to the Court of St. James's, Adams presided over a large house in Grosvenor Square near Hyde Park, which Abigail pictured to her relatives back home as rather like Boston Common, only "much larger and more beautified with trees." Maddening weeks passed without word from home, across the wayward Atlantic; then a fever of excitement took over the house when the butler or a footman brought a tray full of letters to the little room, off the formal drawing room, that Abigail Adams had made into a parlor. Tea and toast would turn cold as the family tore open their letters and drank in family and political news.
The political news seemed more and more clouded. Not only was Congress as irresolute and slow-moving as ever, but the unrest in Massachusetts appeared to be getting out of hand. What in earlier letters had been termed "disturbances" now were verging on anarchy and civil war. The state authorities seemed helpless to put down the commotion; the legislature dawdled, and the governor, reported Adams' son John Quincy from Harvard, was called the "Old Lady." His friends left John Adams in no doubt about the true nature of the rebels. They were violent men who hated persons of substance, especially lawyers. Some were of the most "turbulent and desperate disposition," moving from town to town to enflame the locals. They would annihilate the courts, and then all law and order. Among the leaders there were no persons of reputation or education. Not one of Adams' correspondents sympathized with the rebels, or even explained their hardships, except as the result of speculation and prodigality.
Isolated in London's winter smoke and fogs, Adams seethed in his frustration. This was his state that was setting such a bad example; it was the state, in fact, of whose constitution he was the main author. But there was something he could do, even in London; he could warn his countrymen of the dangers ahead. "The Sedition in Massachusetts," Abigail Adams wrote John Quincy at Harvard, "induced your Poppa to give to the World a book" contending that "salutary [?] restraint is the vital Principal of Liberty," that turbulence could bring only coercion.
A sense of desperate urgency possessed Adams. He had to rebut the erroneous notions of such men as Tom Paine and the French thinker Turgot; he had to demolish false ideas before his fellow Americans made further decisions about their system of government. Snatching every available minute from his official duties, barring his study door to all but his wife, surrounding himself with the works of the greatest philosophers and historians, he scribbled so quickly that his hand turned sore, so fast that his work was disorganized, strewn with errors, packed with badly translated quotations. But it was also a powerful argument that the new institutions in America must be built properly to last thousands of years; that free government, with all its woes, was superior to even the wisest monarchy; that the tendency of republics to turbulence could be curbed by a system of checks and balances within government; and that men were equal in the eyes of God and under the law but manifestly unequal—and always would be—in beauty, virtue, talents, fortune.
Aware that he himself, with his medium height, balding pate, and pointed features set oddly in a soft and rounded head, hardly met the popular image of the leader, Adams had no doubt that he possessed the wisdom and virtue necessary to the natural aristocracy that republics too must zealously protect.
In Paris, in the spacious town house that he had rented on the Champs-Elysées, just within the city wall, the American minister, Thomas Jefferson, pondered early reports of the disturbances in Massachusetts. He felt not so much alarmed as mildly embarrassed, for he did not expect independent farmers to disrupt law courts and abolish debts—or so he had explained to European friends.
Later that fall more portentous reports arrived, and Jefferson hardly knew whether to be more concerned about the alarums or the alarmists. The Adamses in London in particular seemed to want to share their concern with Jefferson. He enjoyed cordial relations with both. He had taken a great fancy to the sprightly and knowledgeable Abigail; he and John had toured English towns and estates earlier that year. Although the Virginian had been more interested in the layout of roads and ponds and in contraptions like an Archimedes' screw for raising water, and the Bostonian more attracted to places where Englishmen had fought for their rights—Adams had actually dressed down some people in Worcester for neglecting the local "holy Ground" where "liberty was fought for"—the two men had got along famously.
Still, Jefferson was uneasy at the turn that his correspondence with the Adamses was taking. John had reassured him in November, stating that the Massachusetts Assembly had laid too heavy a tax on the people, but that "all will be well." But in January, when the Shaysites seemed more threatening, Abigail wrote a letter that troubled him. "Ignorant, wrestless desperadoes, without conscience or principals, have led a deluded multitude to follow their standard, under pretense of grievences which have no existance but in their immaginations. Some of them were crying out for a paper currency, some for an equal distribution of property, some were for annihilating all debts.... Instead of that laudible spirit which you approve, which makes a people watchfull over their Liberties and alert in the defense of them, these mobish insurgents are for sapping the foundation, and distroying the whole fabrick at once...." Jefferson knew that Abigail was speaking for John as well as herself. Indeed, her views were shared in varying degrees by the most important leaders in America—by Washington, John Jay, Rufus King, Alexander Hamilton, by powerful men in every state.
Jefferson, almost alone among America's leadership, rejected this attitude toward insurgency. The spirit of resistance to government was so important that it must always be kept alive. It would often be exercised wrongly, but better wrongly than not exercised at all.
"I like a little rebellion now and then," he wrote Abigail Adams late in February 1787. "It is like a storm in the Atmosphere." Yet he knew that the problem was not this simple. He did not really approve of rebellion, certainly not a long and bloody one; he simply feared repression more. The solution, he felt, lay in better education of the people and in the free exchange of ideas. Unlike Washington, he believed in reading the newspapers, not because the press was all that dependable, but because a free press was vital to liberty. If he had to choose, he said, he would prefer newspapers without a government to a government without newspapers. Still, Jefferson had to recognize that liberty was impossible without order, just as one day he would prefer to run a government without certain newspapers. The problem now was to reconcile liberty—and equality too—with authority. As summer approached, he wondered whether the planned convention in Philadelphia could cope with this problem that had eluded so many previous constitution-makers.
Excerpted from The American Experiment by James MacGregor Burns. Copyright © 1982 James MacGregor Burns. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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