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Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Little Rebellion

Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty, as well as by the abuses of power.

 - James Madison, Federalist 63 

Shay's Rebellion
 began on this date in 1786, ultimately showing the Articles' glaring weaknesses and gave rise to our Constitution.  In its wake, Thomas Jefferson famously lauded revolution:

I hold it 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 on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.

However, that was before the excesses of the French Revolution, which made him reconsider a bit.  Many years later his friend John Adams wrote testily:

The coolest and firmest minds, even among the Quakers in Philadelphia, have given their Opinions to me that nothing but the Yellow Fever could have saved the United States from the total Revolution of Government.

I have no doubt You was fast asleep in Philosophical Tranquility...

But getting back to 1786, George Washington wrote to Henry Lee in late October:

You talk, my good Sir, of employing influence to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts. I know not where that influence is to be found; and if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is no Government. Let us have one by which our lives, liberties and properties will be secured; or let us know the worst at once. 

And James Madison wrote to Washington the following week:

The intelligence from Genl. Knox is gloomy indeed, but is less so than the colours in which I had it thro’ another channel. If the lessons which it inculcates should not work the proper impressions on the American public, it will be a proof that our case is desperate. Judging from the present temper and apparent views of our Assembly, I have some ground for leaning to the side of Hope...

[T]he expediency of complying with the Recommendation from Annapolis in favour of a general revision of the federal system wasunanimously agreed to. A bill for the purpose is now depending and in a form which attests the most federal spirit. As no opposition has been yet made and it is ready for the third reading, I expect it will soon be before the public.

Shay's wasn't the immediate cause to call for a Convention, but was certainly a symptom of the myriad problems of Confederation.  Madison enumerated vices he saw in the existing weak system, including:

2. Encroachments by the States on the federal authority.
5. want of concert in matters where common interest requires it.
7. want of sanction to the laws, and of coercion in the Government of the Confederacy.

We have a long tradition of rebelling in this country.  And an equally long tradition of losing.  Here is a non-comprehensive list of revolts and other violent incidents after the Constitution was implemented:

Recommend nonviolent tactics and strategies--including using the electoral process--if you want to change things.  Lasting, meaningful rebellions don't require violence.  YMMV.


August 29, 2013 in Constitution, Schmonstitution | Permalink


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