Monday, July 24, 2017


      In January of 1787, just a few months before the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, four thousand armed men, led by several revolutionary war officers, including Daniel Shays, marched on the federal armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. Their purpose, clearly stated, was to overthrow the government in Boston and write a new constitution. These same men had been active throughout the winter of 1786-1787, shutting down courthouses in six, widely-separated counties.

      Farmers all, they had grievances aplenty, though whether an outright rebellion was justified is a matter of debate among historians. But justification isn’t the point of this posting. We don’t have to root for one side or the other to admit that this was a Second Amendment remedy and every bit as purposeful (if not as effective) as the Revolution that ousted King George. Most of the rebels – and each of their leaders – were battle-tested Revolutionary War veterans and they knew how to fight.

      The State of Massachusetts initially called out its various militias, only to discover that many of them were already under arms. They were marching alongside Daniel Shays. The State then petitioned the federal government, formed at that time under the Articles of Confederation. Though sympathetic, the Congress took a pass. It had neither an army, nor the taxing power to raise an army. So sorry.

      The mercenary force that eventually rode out to confront the rebels was hired by a small group of Boston bankers, the same bankers who’d been preying on the farmers now in revolt. General William Shepherd commanded this army as it headed off to battle, forty-five hundred strong. No fool, Shepherd knew that if Shays took the Springfield Armory, the rebels would be the best-armed force in the region, more than a match for anything the state could throw at them. He had to get there first and he did.

      Shepherd found what he needed inside, several cannons, one of which he filled with grapeshot and fired waist-high into a rebel charge. And that was that, at least as far as the revolt was concerned.

      Shays and his cohorts weren’t the first to rebel, even in Massachusetts, only the most famous. In 1782, five years before, a preacher named Samuel Ely organized a Second Amendment solution of his own. The muster form for his ragtag, and ultimately unsuccessful, army included the following pledge: “We do Each of us acknowledge our Selves to be Inlisted… for the Suppressing of the tyrannical government in the Massachusetts State.”

       Other states experienced similar uprisings as courts were shut down by angry farmers in one state after another. Shays’s Rebellion was special because it caught the attention of a relatively small group of men who wanted a more powerful central government, men like George Washington, James Madison Alexander Hamilton, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, James Wilson of Pennsylvania and Charles Pinkney of South Carolina. One and all, they were outspoken nationalists who wished to transform what amounted to an alliance of nation-states into a single nation.

      Writing as an observer of Shays’s Rebellion, General Henry Knox, Washington’s Artillery Commander during the Revolution, described the rebels as “levelers”, equivalent in that era to the 20th Century charge of Communist. “Their creed is that the property of the United States has been protected from the confiscation of Britain by the joint exercise of all, and therefore ought to be the common property of all….”

      Writing back, Washington told Knox that he expected the nation to be “much tumbled and tossed, and possibly wrecked altogether.” Later, he explained, “I could not resist the call to a convention of the States which is to determine whether we are to have a Government of respectability… or are to submit to one which may be the result of chance or the moment, springing perhaps from anarchy and Confusion….”

      Others chimed in. According to James Madison, “The insurrection in Massachusetts admonished all the States of the danger to which they were exposed.” James Wilson, later a Justice of the Supreme Court, echoed Madison’s and Washington’s opinions. “The flames of insurrection,” he declared, “were ready to burst out in every quarter….” Wilson wasn’t describing the situation in Massachusetts, but conditions in western Pennsylvania.

     Charles Coatesworth Pinckney of South Carolina committed the obvious remedy to paper. “There must be a real military force,” he wrote. “The United States has been making an Experiment without it, and we see the consequences in their rapid approach to anarchy.”

      On May 25, 1787, representatives from every State except Rhode Island met to form a new, far more powerful, truly national government. These men (all, of course, were male) were among the richest and most powerful in the country. They represented many interests, including men with large agricultural holdings, like the Livingstons who owned 160,000 acres spread out along the Hudson, and George Washington who owned 317 slaves. One agricultural interest, however, went virtually unrepresented, the interest of small farmers like Daniel Shays, who comprised 70% of the population. No, the delegates in Philadelphia were determined to put this class of Americans in its place. And they did.

      Five Examples, all found in Article 1:

      Article 1, section 10, clause one: No state shall “impair the obligation of contracts.” One form of relief certain states allowed hard-pressed farmers was a postponement of the due date for payments on mortgages and loans. These were called “stay laws” and states would no longer have the power to write them.

      Article 1, section 8, clause 5: “No state shall… make Anything but gold and silver Coin a Tender in payment of debts.” Some states had issued paper money because gold was so scarce. In rural areas, where these small farmers raised their families, gold was literally not to be found, which made it impossible to pay taxes and debt obligations. Paper money, under these circumstances, was a blessing when it was handled properly, but it would be a blessing no more. Once the Constitution was ratified, the federal government would control the supply of money.

      Article 1, section 8, clause one: “The Congress shall have the Power to lay and collect Taxes….”

      Article 1, section 8, clause 12: “The Congress shall have the power to… raise and support armies.”

      Article 1, section 8, clause fifteen: Congress is given the power, “To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.”

      Article 1, section 9, clause 2: The privilege of the writ of habeus corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.”

      OK, so I stuck in my own italics. The obvious nevertheless remains the obvious. The framers of our founding legal document  (the Declaration of Independence is not a legal document) provided the delegates with the means to confront and contain a problem, not in the distant past or the far future, but a problem at hand, an ongoing problem as events would prove.

      Beginning in 1791, two years after George Washington became our first President, farmers in western Pennsylvania, incensed by an excise tax on whiskey, started what has come to be called the Whiskey Rebellion. Again leaving aside the merits of their grievances, they initially enjoyed enough success for them to be declared, by Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, to be in a state of rebellion. That allowed Washington to call up the militia which he promptly did, eventually assembling an army of 13,000 men from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. With Washington in the lead (the only time in American History when a President rode into war at the head of an army), they proudly marched off. True, the rebellion was pretty much over by then, but a point had to be made. Never again would the United States of America tolerate a Second Amendment solution for any grievance, no matter how just.

      Second Amendment solution advocates commonly turn to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence for justification. So, I’m going to close with a passage Jefferson included in a letter to C. W. F. Dumas shortly after the Constitution was signed.
      “Happy for us, that when we find our constitution defective and insufficient to secure the happiness of our people, we can assemble with all the coolness of philosophies and set it to rights, while every other nation on earth must have recourse to arms to amend or to restore their constitutions.”

       Sorry, but I can’t resist on more jibe. In 2014, Clivon Bundy, assisted by a few hundred Second Amendment remedy types, stood off the Bureau of Land Management for a couple of months. I’m sure they were very proud of themselves, what with the cammo gear, the cartridge belts, the side arms, the AR-15’s, the K-Bar knives, the MRE’s. But I particularly recall video of perhaps fifty of them stretched out along a highway overpass. Though I’ve never been to war, even I had the good sense to pose an obvious question.
      “What exactly do they plan to do when the helicopter gunships come over the hill?”

      Credit where credit is due. I drew the facts in this piece from a number of sources, but I owe a special debt to a book by Leonard L. Richards: Shays’s Rebellion. It’s impossible to come away from reading the book and still believe the founding fathers supported Second Amendment remedies.

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