Most of us think that right on the heels of the Declaration of Independence came the greatest work of mankind, the Constitution: Thomas Jefferson closeted himself up after declaring the country separate and independent from Great Britain, and then wrote the Constitution.
The Declaration of Independence was written over 10 years before the Constitution. The Founders tried a thing called the Articles of Confederation, first. It ended up not working out very well, or at least as many of the Founders believed.
It took a little known and little understood rebellion to bring about the birth of the Constitution. Daniel Shays, a farmhand who had fought in the Revolutionary War, at Bunker Hill and Lexington, came home to Massachusetts to find himself penniless, property-less and on his way to debtor’s prison due to back-breaking taxes and debt and no compensation for his military service. He also found that he was not alone in his suffering.
The long and short of it is that Shays was one of many Revolutionary War veterans and farmers who demanded redress from the government and the government retaliated by doing some really unconstitutional things like suspending habeas corpus – holding people in jail without trial – denying the right of assembly and confiscating property.
To be clear, these farmers didn’t want to topple a government. They just wanted a fair shake from the sheriffs, the courts and the government. To show they meant business, they would swoop in to villages and surround courthouses, menacing the law officials and the judges. Local officials were loath to call out a militia, knowing that they would likely desert rather than take up arms against the unhappy farmers and their former Revolutionary comrades-in-arms.
But make no mistake, this was not a bloodless revolt. Hundreds were killed and thousands thrown in jail.
This rebellion put a real fear in the ambassador to the Court of St. James, John Adams, whose cousin and great American Revolutionary leader, Samuel Adams, had a hand in suspending habeas corpus and wrote a Riot Act in Massachusetts. This particular act was similar to one in Great Britain that gave power to local officials to order crowds larger than twelve to disperse if they were deemed unlawful or riotous. If the group failed to break up in a certain amount of time, they were held as guilty of a felony and the penalty, in Great Britain at least, was punishment by death.
George Washington, who had returned to his beloved Mount Vernon to once again be a gentleman farmer and landowner became alarmed at the news trickling down from the Northeast. “For God’s sake tell me what is the cause of all these commotions,” he implored a friend in the fall of 1787. Was it being promoted by the Tories to cause unrest and discontent or, he wondered, were these real grievances by the citizens that required just attention from the government? The most worrisome part of this all, for Washington, was the appearance to the Brits and Europeans that America could not govern itself.
Far from all this in Paris was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson didn’t seem to be as alarmed as his revolutionary comrades were. To Abigail Adams, he wrote “I like a little rebellion now and then. It’s like a storm in the atmosphere.” Of course, he didn’t favor a bloody rebellion but he feared repression and tyranny more. Jefferson believed that a better educated citizenry and the free exchange of ideas was the path for a great republic. He believed in a free press and said that he’d rather have newspapers and no government than a government without newspapers.
Jefferson could not be too alarmed, yet at least, at the rebellions in Massachusetts because after all, they had ALL been rebels and revolutionaries, and only a short time ago. That year – 1787 – with constant correspondence between John and Abigail (in London) and himself, he kept the same steady line with the Adamses that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
At 81, Ben Franklin was at home in Philadelphia, overseeing the addition to his house, spending time at the city’s public library which he had established, enjoying his grandchildren and visiting with friends at the American Philosophical Society, which he helped found. He would soon be called back into service when the 2nd Continental Congress would meet again and establish for all time, the Constitution of the United States of America.
Ben’s brother, James, the editor of the New England Courant was thrown into jail when Ben was 16. At that time, Ben wrote that there is “no such thing as publick Liberty, without Freedom of Speech which is the right of every Man, as far as by it, he does not hurt or control the Right of another.” He believed that the overthrow of a nation will only begin with the subduing of free speech and a free press.
Enter the Father of Federalism, James Madison, Father of the Constitution; the Bill of Rights; an author of the Federalist Papers (which is still acknowledged as the most important commentary on the Constitution); a Founding Father of the United States of America; as Secretary of State for Jefferson, he would be instrumental in the Louisiana Purchase which would double the size of the nation and he would become the 4th president of the United States. His ingenious three-branch federal system with its checks and balances was the basis for the Constitution that we have today. Madison, like Jefferson and Washington, was a Virginian and like both men, he would leave the presidency poorer than when he entered it. This man alone could take up volumes of blog for me. Suffice it to say that this was the intellectual hero who rode into Philadelphia, in 1787 and was instrumental in creating the true and sustaining great nation that the United States of America would become.
And the catalyst to this Constitutional Convention of great thinkers and Founders, which produced the most magnificent document of all mankind was a little known, little understood grassroots rebellion in Massachusetts. To be clear, there were other things, aside from the Shay’s Rebellion that were happening at the same time and were weighing heavily on creating a “more perfect union” and that called together such great minds as those mentioned: high tariffs, a financial depression, non-uniform currency, to name a few.
But in the subconscious of the modern day Leftist, grassroots uprisings like the TEA Parties strike fear in their hearts (if any have hearts) of a 222 year old rebellion that was the lightening rod for the Founders and the foundation of the greatest nation known to man.
Yes, they should be afraid.