During Shay’s Rebellion, farmers taxed to death marched on the courts and closed them down. Can you imagine people losing their homes to foreclosure rising up in gangs today and doing the same thing? Of course not. We are such slaves compared to our beginning time when people did think it possible to rise up and rebel against taxation. Now machine guns and huge numbers of black thugs in prisons make rebelling for an Europanic American a frightening prospect.  They have learned how to cow tow us into meekness. It’s sad really.

 

— from

Rethinking the Articles of Confederation

by H. Arthur Scott Trask

Shay’s Rebellion and the Ratification of the Constitution

Alas, the nationalists took advantage of a propitious rebellion, that of Daniel Shays, a former Continental Army officer. Shay and other local leaders led an uprising of distressed farmers from western Massachusetts groaning under the load of heavy taxes assessed to pay the interest and principal (at face value in specie) of the state’s wartime debt. During an economic depression, with farm prices low and foreign markets closed, the state government was taxing the farmers (payable in hard money only) to pay wealthy eastern creditors who had lent depreciated paper (accepted at full face value) to the state government for bonds during the war.

The farmers either could not or would not pay, and when they failed to do, state judges were quick to confiscate their farms. The farmers organized into a militia and marched on the courts, which they closed. Seeing an opportunity, the nationalist leaders were quick to misrepresent the grievances and aims of the insurgents. They claimed that the Shaysites, and similar groups in other states, were radical inflationists, communists, and levelers out to defraud their creditors and redistribute property, instead of being, what in truth they were, property-owning, anti-tax rebels who wanted to keep their farms.

Obviously, the nationalists wanted to scare the country into supporting a more vigorous government. George Washington was terrified. “We are fast verging toward anarchy and confusion,” he wrote. His nationalist friends did their best to heighten his terror. Henry Knox wrote Washington of the Shaysites that “their creed is that the property of the United States” having been freed from British exactions “by the joint exertions of all, ought to be the common property of all.”  This was utterly false, but it did the trick. Washington agreed to be the presiding officer at the constitutional convention. Later, Madison in Federalist No. 10 warned that without the strong arm of a vigorous central government, the states would be vulnerable to movements motivated by “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property” and for other “improper or wicked project[s].”  The Massachusetts historian Mercy Otis Warren, a contemporary of these events, warned of “discontents artificially wrought up, by men who wished for a more strong and splendid government.” 

We know the consummation. The nationalists were able to exploit the situation sufficiently to secure a federal convention to be held in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. Exceeding their instructions (which were only to draw up a few amendments), the delegates decided to throw out the Articles altogether and write a new national constitution which was subsequently ratified by the states (but not without considerable opposition and probably a national majority opposed to it). Rothbard described it as the triumph of “a radically nationalist program that would recreate as much as possible the pre-liberal situation existing before the Revolution. . . . In short, they were able to destroy much of the original individualist and decentralist program of the American Revolution.”  We live with the consequences today.