After the Revolutionary war was over New England merchants were eager to reestablish trade with Great Britain. By importing large amounts of goods into postwar New England, merchants glutted the market. Export markets had yet to be fully developed thus a trade imbalance existed that led to a nationwide debt crisis and a chain of debt collections. [Sounds just a bit like the U.S. today with our enormous trade/debt problems.]
David Szatmary writes in Shay's Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection, that "To satisfy British creditors, New England wholesalers tried to collect their outstanding loans" from their customers who tended to be inland shop keepers and small farmers. "Having difficulty with debt collections, merchants increasingly chose legal action that contributed to a great increase in debt suits," Szatmary concludes.
Soon the local shopkeepers and farmers faced creditors who took their land. State governments helped in the confiscation process as the local working class could not afford to pay their property taxes. Many found themselves in prison because of their debts. Szatmary writes that, "Yeomen, husbandmen, day laborers, and rural craftsmen comprised 91% of these debtors while no prominent retailer were behind bars [in one Worcester County, MA. jail]."
It soon came that the coastal traders, in the big cities like Boston, were of one class and the inland workers another. A rebellion, ultimately to be called Shays' Rebellion, ensued as those who were oppressed went to their town meetings and county conventions seeking legal remedy to their plight. The working class began to elect their own representatives who tried to reform the harsh laws through nonviolent means. According to one leader of the revolt they "advocated reforms that would ease the payment of debts, reduce taxes, publicize the expenditure of state funds, and pare down the powers of the court of common pleas."
During this time poor economic conditions even forced revolutionary war veterans to sell their Continental and state certificates. Large speculators, many of them coastal merchants, bought this paper for a fraction of its stated value. Szatmary quotes one farmer, "A very few men in each state have monopolized these obligations to such an immense amount, and originally on so easy terms, that there are now some fortunes among us which would tolerably well support the expenses of an Earldom."
The divide between rich and poor was established early on in the new America. Remember too, that under the new Constitution only white men who held land could vote. Thus legions of small farmers and land owners who lost all they had no longer were able to participate in the new "revolutionary" government. Their attempts to use existing government reform measures to hang onto what little they had largely failed.
In 1786 New England small farmers gave up on peaceful protest and took up arms. A rebellion leader urged others to join the fight against "all the machinations of those who are aiming to enslave and oppress us" and to strike down "that aristocratical principle too generally prevalent among the wealthy men of the state." Szatmary reports that "By the end of the year, an uprising that involved almost 9,000 militants or about one-quarter of the 'fighting men' in rural areas had surfaced in every New England state except Rhode Island."
Rich merchants and the "professional class" feared the insurgency, if successful, would spread and redistribute property throughout the nation. Thus the new Colonial government turned to George Washington to form the first national army to suppress the rebellion. But first they made sure that the new Constitution gave the federal government the powers to control the "internal insurrection."
According to one man of property, "the new Constitution is received with great joy by all the commercial part of the community. The people of Boston are in raptures with it as it is...and all men of considerable property, the clergy, the lawyers, including the judges of the court, and all the officers of the late army advocated the most vigorous government." The reaction of the "insurgents" naturally was quite different to the news that a national army was being created to put down the unrest. One farmer argued that "With national military power lawyers and men of learning, and monied men expected to get all the power and all the money into their own hands, and then they will swallow up all us little folks, like the great Leviathan" turning independent farmers into tenants or wage laborers.
In his book The Creation of America: Through Revolution to Empire author Francis Jennings states, "The farmers of Shay's rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion were not so much intent on tearing down as simply bettering their own conditions. Resentment against the perceived ruling class deflected into aggression against Indians. Instead of conflict with the ruling class, seizure of Indian lands could be effected with its complicity. Thus perpetual conquest diverted rebellious sentiment into the satisfaction of demands for personal advancement at the expense of Indians instead of the wealthy. "
Empire was born. And today it remains as we see those in Washington continually making decisions that perpetuate the privilege of wealth and power. Words like freedom, patriotism and liberty have become the tools of the elite to control the rest of us and to spread empire.
Issues like abortion, flag burning, school prayer, gay marriage, and immigration are these days used to divide the public and keep the focus away from the real rulers of the land.
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