By the 1980s, it was clear to me that my goals for Black social and economic liberation could only be achieved by developing a framework of economic democracy and economic rights that would provide a foundation for the liberation of all of our citizens.
The experience of slavery and its denial of humanity created a horror for Africans in this country not experienced by others. Yet, as I studied the history of this country, it became clear that “the founding fathers - white men of property” had cleverly created a system that kept everyone in a state of economic servitude except themselves.
However, it was not until a warm summer day in 1984 that I realized that the decision by farmers in Western MA to protect themselves and their land against the greed of the Boston bankers so frightened the leaders of the Revolutionary War that they put in place a document designed to keep power in the hands of the rich and powerful. That document was the Constitution.
Ironically, this revelation took place on a trip to western MA on behalf of the Industrial Cooperative Association to meet with a group of carpenters interested in forming a company that they would own cooperatively. On the way to the meeting, Inoticed a small wooden sign by the side of the road outside of Great Barrington. My organizer curiosity prompted me to stop the car to see what motivated someone to put this sign no taller than a foot by the side of this country road.
My curiosity grew even greater when I read the inscription on the sign that said that the last battle of the Revolutionary War was fought here in 1786. Knowing that the Revolutionary War ended officially in 1783, I was not only curious but confused. After the meeting with the carpenters, I asked whether anyone could tell me what the sign said. A couple of the men smiled and said to others, “Apparently he doesn’t know our history”.
As a Harvard grad (1963) and a student of history, I thought I was well educated, particularly about the formation of this country. However, that afternoon, as they proceeded to tell me about Captain Daniel Shay and the Regulators,I learned how much I didn’t know about the history of this country and its founding.
Let me briefly share what I learned that afternoon and have added to over the years. After the Revolutionary War, farmers in central and western MA who had joined Massachusetts militia to fight for their economic and political freedom from England returned to their land. However, while the British were no longer present to terrorize and exploit them, the Boston bankers were seizing their land through the foreclosure process.
Pressured to pay off debts resulting from the war, the Mass legislature began to enact a variety of taxes that fell heavily on the small farmers. When unable to pay, their lands and goods were confiscated and if unable to pay the entire debt, the farmers were then put in debtor prison.
Having fought only a few years before to end British tyranny, the farmers began to organize to confront courts and judges to suspend the foreclosures and confiscation until the legislature acted. But the legislature rejected their demands for reduction of taxes, the issuance of paper currency, and other measures that would relieve their crisis.
While not granting relief to the farmers from the crisis, the legislature under the leadership of Sam Adams, revolutionary war hero and now MA Senate president, took action to crush the “second revolution”. Not only was habeas corpus suspended allowing the government to keep those arrested indefinitely in jail but also the legislature passed the Riot Act, authorizing the execution of those who challenged the government.
Feeling that they had no alternative, the farmers continued to organize and confront courts in Worcester, Northampton, and Springfield, and recruited Captain Daniel Shay, son of Irish immigrants, small farmer, and popular Revolutionary War leader to lead their rebellion.While Shay believed that action had to be taken, he also believed that they needed to avoid blood shed and focused on negotiations. In August of 1786, Shay led over 1000 men to the Springfield Court House where the Supreme Judicial Court was preparing to issue indictments against some of the farmers arrested in earlier confrontations. Through negotiations he and his fellow Regulators were able to persuade the Court to end their session without issuing indictments.
Despite this partial victory, the confrontations continued at courthouses in central and western MA and the attacks on the people by the militia continued to intensify. By December, Shay and the movement leadership decided that to sustain themselves and their struggle they needed arms and supplies and decided to march on the Springfield Armory.
Shay initially believed that they would be able to negotiate a government withdrawal from the army given an “army” of nearly 2000 farmers and townspeople who had been recruited. Unfortunately, the MA militia fired on Shay and his troops who were not able to hold and fled to Petersham where they were again attacked and crushed a month later ending Shay’s rebellion.
However, inspired by the actions of Shay and his troops, similar uprisings were taking place in other states. Frightened by the fact that “citizens” were taking the idea of freedom from economic tyranny seriously, there was a call for a Constitutional Convention to be held in Philadelphia with representatives to be selected by the state legislatures.
The declared purpose of the Convention was to consider amendments to the Articles of Confederation; however, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and others saw it as the opportunity to over turn the Confederation and develop a Constitution that would create a centralized government and standing army capable of protecting the interests of the oligarchy. While only 39 of the original 62 appointees signed the final draft, by 1789 the nine states necessary for ratification had adopted the Constitution and the oligarchy had put in place the protections needed to build their dynasty.
My next article in this series will be “Civil Rights without Economic Rights makes Constitution a Tool for Oligarchic Control”.
Click here to read any of the commentaries in this series.BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board Member Chuck Turner - Served as a member of the Boston City Council for ten years and eleven months. He was a member and founder of the Fund the Dream campaign and was the Chair of the Council’s Human Rights Committee, and Vice Chair of the Hunger and Homelessness Committee. Click here to contact Mr. Turner.