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Taxation Without Represenatiom

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These paragraphs are abstracted from Reversing America's Decline: Jefferson's Remedy, p. 152, by Neal Q. Herrick. They relate Shays' rebellion to our present state of taxation without representation.


I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments of the rights of the people which have produced them. (They are) a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.

Thomas Jefferson in a letter to James Madison dated January 30, 1787. 

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A privately funded Massachusetts militia defeated Shays' Rebellion about four months prior to the Philadelphia convention. These words of Jefferson's are certainly supportive of Shays. They should be read, however, side-by-side with his letter of Sept. 6, 1789, also to James Madison. In this later epistle he wrote ". . . every constitution . . . naturally expires at the end of 19 years, if it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right." He evidently believed that non-violent revolutions brought about by chan ges in a country's constitution might not only call "encroachments to the rights of the people" to the country's attention. They might also bring about remedies to these "encroachments." Generational constitutional conventions might, therefore, achieve results even more beneficial than those brought about by unsuccessful armed rebellions. They might also avoid the loss of lives that accompanies armed rebellions. 

The Rebellion[1]

In August of 1786, groups of farmers and rural artisans began stopping the courts in their western Massachusetts counties from granting judgments in civil cases. Many were losing their farms and other property through foreclosures and debt collections. On January 25, 1787, Captain Shays, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, led an "army" of more than a thousand of these disgruntled "Bay Staters" in an attempt to seize the weapons in the Springfield armory. Much to the surprise of Captain Shays and his men, they were greeted by cannon fire. They hadn't thought their former comrades-in-arms would fire on them. In fact, the militia general had only ordered a warning shot. Nevertheless, four "Shaysites" were killed by cannon fire. Twenty more were wounded and two were subsequently hanged.

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The armed resistance in Massachusetts ceased the following month. This sad end to Shays' Rebellion happened about four months before George Washington arrived in Philadelphia in mid-May, 1787. Shays and his followers believed they were acting in a manner consistent with the principles of the American Revolution. They were protesting, among other things, heavy taxation by a Massachusetts government they felt ignored their plight while favoring commercial interests.

Its Beneficial Results

There is no doubt, however, that Shays' "unsuccessful" Rebellion did achieve beneficial results. Not only did Massachusetts enact laws ...

End of Abstract

[1] I am indebted to "Shays's Rebellion" in West's Encyclopedia of American Law for much of the factual material in these pages. Except where otherwise indicated, the opinions expressed are mine.


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Neal Herrick is author of the award-wining After Patrick Henry (2009). His most recent book is (2014) Reversing America’s Decline. He is a former sailor, soldier, auto worker, railroad worker, assistant college football coach, (more...)

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