Hidden History: Shays’ Rebellion – the First Civil War

Shays’ Rebellion 1797

Real American History (2013)

Film Review

This documentary is a very tasteful cartoon about Shay’s Rebellion – in my view one of the most important events of US history. Which for some strange reason I never studied in school.

It begins by describing the painful discovery by Revolutionary War veterans that the tyranny of the Eastern banking establishments was just as unjust and brutal as that of the king of England.

When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the farmers who served in the Continental Army returned home to find the discharge pay they were given (in British pounds) was worthless. All 13 states were on the verge of economic collapse, due to heavy war debts they owed to European banks. Eighty percent of the prison inmates in Western Massachusetts, where Daniel Shay had his farm, were charged with non-payment of debts.

Shay Organizes Veterans to Shut Down Debtors Courts

In 1786 Shays, who had been dragged into court twice over merchant debts, began organizing other Revolutionary War veterans – most of whom also faced debtor prison or seizure of their farms. He assembled a force of 9,000 supporters and, in bands of 1,000 – 2,000, shut down numerous debtors courts all over western Massachusetts.

In response, Samuel Adams,* president of the Massachusetts senate, pushed through a Riot Act,** which suspended the right of habeas corpus and called for any meeting of more than 12 dissidents to be tried for treason. In addition, the governor of Massachusetts bankers and merchants to finance a mercenary army to March against Shays’ rebels.

Shays’ Rebels March on Boston

Up to this point, Shays and his supporters had merely desired to reform the system. However both the Riot Act and the new mercenary army radicalized them. In January 1787, they embarked on a mission to seize the weapons from in the federal arsenal in Springfield and marched on Boston. Although they had much greater numbers (22,000 vs 900 militia), they were foiled when a member of the state militia intercepted one of their messengers.

Although Shays fled to flee to Vermont, his supporters continued to shut down debtors trials for the next several years.

Secret Constitutional Convention Overturns Articles of Confederation

The wealthy bankers and merchants who governed the newly independent states were so concerned Shays’ Rebellion and similar farmers revolts that they convened a convention in Philadelphia, where they met in secret to overturn the Articles of Confederation – the founding document of the United States of America. The latter was replaced with a federal Constitution which granted them powers to tax, raise a federal army, issue money and suppress dissent.

While the filmmakers acknowledge the enactment of the US Constitution was essentially a coup stripping states and local government of power and sovereignty, they maintain it was necessary to prevent poor people from rebelling against their oppressed state.

Obviously I don’t agree with this conclusion. Many other options were possible, such as abolishing debtors prisons, ending US reliance on the British pound and European banks, renouncing European debt, ending the exclusive privilege of private banks to create money out of thin air and allowing states to issue their own debt-free currency.***

The Iroquois Confederation, on which the Articles of Confederation were based, operated very effectively for 200 years before it was defeated militarily by the US government.


*This is ironic as Samuel Adams was one of the primary radicals who led the movement that became the American Revolutionary War.

**The right of habeas corpus was a basic right based on British common law and incorporated into many state constitutions.

***The issuing of state currency is specifically forbidden in Section 10 of the US Constitution: “No State shall  . . .coin Money; Emit Bills of Credit, make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payments of Debts.” Unlike states, private banks are permitted to issue as much money as they want. See How Banks Create Money Out of Thin Air

 

 

 

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