Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Little Rebellion now and then

So here's the thing - I was walking to work one Sunday morning (August 27th), and I'd gotten almost as far as Veteran's Bridge over the West River where it meets the Connecticut. Next to the bridge there's a US flag and an MIA flag on display. Just to the right of the flagpole is some sort of an electronic power substation. It might have something to do with the train tracks whose bridge is about 30 feet away. Or not. There's enough of a sliver of land for weeds to grow, then there's the Connecticut River.The sky was beginning to grow light and there was a slight fog that would have to burn off.  The figure of a large man, a full trash bag slung over his shoulder, was walking into the middle of the road. A car went by and in that second, the guy disappeared. On the far side of the bridge, weeds have overgrown a small area next  to the beginning of  the bridge's tourist sidewalk and Kodak Moment spot.

 The weeds were not tamped down. He hadn't crossed thru or walked there. So where was he? Was he real, a trick of the light, a trick of memory, a shadow person crossing momentarily between realities? Maybe I had crossed into his.

August 29th was the anniversary of the start of Shays' Rebellion (1786). It's been relegated to a footnote in U.S. history. When I was in grade school, it was mentioned in a quick exhalation of breath which included the words "Whisky Rebellion"  all jumbled together.

It was just after the Revolution. Times were considered pretty good. Shipping of goods from England had resumed, and the pent up demand was starting a boom economy. Many merchants, lawyers, and lenders, (most of them Loyalists to the Crown) had returned after having evacuated with the British army back in March of 1776. They knew when to cover their asses. The Bostonian elite was happily out of control with its spending. The poor, of course, were suffering. The U.S. Government at the time barely existed. It was also broke and in debt. European investors in the Revolution began demanding payment - in gold and silver. The Loyalist merchants and money lenders in Boston followed suit, demanding payment on pre-war loans. The Massachusetts legislature laid the heaviest tax in the history of the state. It was time to squeeze the poor some more.

The small land owners and farmers had no money. Many had been soldiers in the Revolution, some as conscripts, some as volunteers. They had never received any of their promised pay. After returning home, they soon found themselves deeply in debt and sent to prison. People started to organize. Those in the movements became known as "Regulators".  Their squads would surround courthouses attempting to prevent the convening of bankruptcy hearings. They closed down courts from Great Barrington to Worcester, Concord, and Northampton. In Northampton, there had been person to person combat.

Daniel Shays had joined the Revolution and fought his way from Lexington to Bunker Hill to Saratoga. He'd been decorated and made a captain. Wounded, and without his pay, he had journeyed home and started a new life on a hardscrabble farm in Pelham, Mass. As the economic noose tightened, he saw a sick woman have her bed taken out from under her, confiscated to pay debts. He would soon find himself  being sued for payment of debt.

After the Northampton incident, the Regulators pressed upon Shays to present to the government a request that bankruptcy court not meet in Springfield until the state governor "had a chance to address the grievances of the people". Shays reluctantly agreed to become involved.

As tensions mounted, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts indicted what it thought were eleven leaders of the insurgency as "disorderly, riotous, and seditious persons." Shays, incensed by the indictments, organized an army of 700 farmers - mostly veterans like himself. He led them on a march to the court at Springfield. As the men marched, they were joined by deserting militia members, former soldiers, and townsfolk. In the meantime, General William Shepard - head of a local militia of 900 - sought permission from the US Secretary of War for the militia's use of weapons stored at the Springfield Armory.

On Sept. 26th, Shays and his men, now numbering around 1,400,  arrived at the Springfield court. General Shepard and his militia were guarding the Courthouse. Shays had his men surrounded both Shepard's forces and the Courthouse. They broke into the jail and freed imprisoned debtors. Shays summed up General Shepard and his troops; they were well armed, well fed, and possessed warm clothing for the oncoming winter. His men were poorly clothed and fed, and had a mix of guns, clubs and pitchforks for weapons. He met with Gen. Shepard, whose militia was easily outnumbered by Shays'. The two former war officers reached a settlement - Shepard would withdraw his troops, the judges would leave without starting hearings. Shays and his men would peaceably march around the courthouse, demonstrate, and "go home friendly".

The Boston elite, seeing the implications, were mortified and pressured the Governor to do something. No less a personage than Sam Adams, Patriot,
organizer and leader of the first "Tea Party", claimed that "foreigners" were instigating treason among the "commoners". He further added ,"the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death". He helped write and enact a Riot Act, which allowed county sheriffs to kill the rebels with impunity. On sight.

In November, the Legislature suspended habeous corpus. It was being said that the “rebels”' goal was to share all private property as “the common property of all...” The governor dispatched a militia of 4,400 financed by Boston merchants, to re-open courts so they could continue to process property confiscations.

There were other "close the courthouse" operations, and many turned ugly. Rumors of atrocities inflicted by Government troops on innocent bystanders, including women and children, alarmed and inflamed the Regulators. Shays and other leaders began organizing more towns and farmers.

General George Washington, seeing the powerless position of his new country, left retirement and began to advocate a change in the Articles of Confederation for a stronger national government. In letters from France, Thomas Jefferson wrote; "A little rebellion now and then is a good thing. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government. God forbid that we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion." 

 Shays attention tuned to the Springfield armory. Aside from providing weapons for his men, the armory would also provide safe shelter against the cold. He planned with other regulators to have three regiments take the armory on January the 25th.

On that day, one of Shays regiments was, unknown to him, delayed. He marched his other two regiments through 4 feet of snow towards the armory. General Shepard and his men, without authorization, "borrowed" weapons from the armory and were waiting to defend it. They had set up two cannons at the door. General Lincoln was about a day's march away. As Shays and his men approached, Shephard's men opened fire with the cannon. Four of Shays' men fell dead. Over forty were wounded. They had never thought that their neighbors and fellow veterans would fire at them. They  faded into the woods.

Over the next two months, Shays and his men were pursued from Massachusetts to New Hampshire. Many, Shays included, found refuge in Vermont. Death sentences were handed down against the rebels. Most would be reprieved at the last moment as they stepped to the gallows noose. Eventually, only two were hung - and they had been horse thieves. After being pardoned, Shays landed in upstate New York, where he eventually died at the age of 76 or so, broke and in obscurity.

A few months after the rebellion, a convention opened in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation. As the rich and powerful began to circle around, it was decided to do away with the Articles and write a new document.
As one proposal was being debated, another letter from Thomas Jefferson noted; "Wonderful is the effect of impudent; persevering lying. The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers to repeat and model into every form lies about our being in anarchy, that the world has at length believed them, the English nation has believed them, the ministers themselves have come to believe them, & what is more wonderful, we have believed them ourselves. Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusetts?... The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it's natural manure."
The new document to emerge from Philadelphia became the Constitution of the United States.

Post Script :

It has taken over a month to write all of this. On the second day at it, back in August, I saw another shadow form, this one thin, carrying a full garbage bag slung over its shoulder. He faded into the darkness.

At the end of August, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and members of the "Tea Party" met on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to “reclaim the civil rights movement” (Beck’s words) on the same spot where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed his dream exactly 47 years earlier.

Beck and Palin are both on the payroll of Fox News, which heavily promoted the event. Fox News is owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. is the world's third largest media conglomerate. Click here for a list of Media Corp's assets, which range from the Times of London, to the Wall Street Journal,  the New York Post, 20th Century Fox, Direct TV, the Fox TV network, and My Space. He is a principal backer of the Tea Party movement, along with the Koch brothers.

The Koch brothers are both Libertarians who advocate for the abolition of Social Security, federal regulatory agencies, welfare, the F.B.I., the C.I.A., and public schools. They operate oil refineries in Alaska, Texas, and Minnesota, control some four thousand miles of pipeline, and own products from Brawny paper towels, to Dixie cups, and Georgia-Pacific lumber. Their secret war against Obama was recently exposed by Jane Mayer's article, "Covert Operations", in the New Yorker. (Click here for article)

A couple of days ago, just as twilight was passing into darkness, I saw another shadow carrying a full garbage bag slung over one shoulder. He crossed through my apartment building's front yard. A neighbor, out on his balcony for a smoke, hollered out to the shadow that the recycle bin of bottles and cans had moved around the corner. The figure continued on its way.

In the 1930's, in order to expand the water supply for Boston, the Swift River Valley was dammed and flooded. Parts of Pelham, Mass. including Daniel Shays' home and farm, along with several other towns and sites tied to the rebellion, now sit at the bottom of the Quabbin Reservoir.


Austan said...

God help us is all I can say. The rich have always had their boots on our necks, and their worms in our ears with falsities.

"The poor, of course, were suffering.".. when I first read that, I laughed the bitter laugh of knowing. I could cry right now. Cry, the beloved country...

Thank you for a wonderful history lesson.

Anonymous said...

the useful thoughts u presented do help our team's research for our group, thanks.

- Lucas