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

 

 

 

Reclaiming Our History

plutocracy

Plutocracy: Political Repression in the United States

Scott Noble (2015)

Film Review

As German philosopher Walter Benjamin famously stated, “History is written by the victors.” In the US, most history books are written by and for the corporate oligarchs who run our government. Plutocracy is the first documentary to comprehensively examine early American history from the perspective of the working class. Part II (Solidarity Forever) will cover the late 19th Century to the early twenties. The filmmaker is currently seeking donations to complete the project. If you’d like to help, you can donate to their Patreon account.

The film can’t be embedded but can be viewed free at Plutocracy

Plutocracy starts with Shay’s Rebellion in 1786, the insurrection of Massachusetts farmers against the courts and banks that were fleecing them of their meager wealth and property. Similar rebellions in Rhode Island and Virginia would cause leading US bankers, merchants and plantation owners to organize a secret convention to create a central government and standing army. Each of the 13 original states, which in 1787 were still independent and sovereign, sent delegates to Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation.

Instead of revising the Articles, as authorized by their state legislatures, the delegates closed the meeting to the public and voted to replace them with a federal constitution. The latter substantially limited the freedom and power of state legislatures and ordinary Americans.

Plutocracy moves on to cover the massive Irish immigration of the mid-nineteenth century and the appalling squalor so-called “white Negroes” lived in. During the 19th century, 80% of babies born to Irish immigrants died in infancy.

The film touches only briefly on the Civil War, describing laws that enabled robber barons like John Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt to evade the Civil War draft by paying a poor person $300 to replace them.

It offers a detailed depiction of post-Civil War Reconstruction, which coincided with the 1871 Paris commune and saw blacks collaborating with poor whites to establish the South’s first public schools and hospitals. This was in addition to the election of numerous former slaves to judgeships and legislative positions.

Their eagerness to return Negroes to productive status on plantations led northern industrialists to pressure Congress to end Reconstruction by removing the federal troops protecting the rights of former slaves. It also led to their passive acceptance of unconstitutional Jim Crow laws and Ku Klux Klan terrorism. The chief aim of both was to prevent poor backs and whites from associating with one another.

The federal troops withdrawn from the South were redeployed in genocidal campaigns against Native Americans and Mexicans. By the end of the 19th century, not only had Mexico ceded half their territory to the US (including California, Texas, Utah, Nevada and parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Montana – in the 1984 Treaty of Guadalupe), but US corporations enjoyed de facto control of all land remaining under sovereign Mexican control.

Stripping the Native Americans and Mexicans of their land in the West, readied the US for the rise of the robber barons of industry (Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie and Vanderbilt) and a corrupt system of federal and local government run entirely by bribery and patronage.

The corruption and squalid living conditions of the late 19th century would give rise to militant trade unionism, socialism, anarchism and populism. Plutocracy depicts the Pullman and similar strikes in which strikers were brutally beaten and killed by Pinkerton’s Detectives and other goons hired by industrial bosses, as well as national guardsmen and, on several occasions, federal troops.

The film opens with a poignant depiction of the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in US history. It’s the largest armed uprising since the Civil War, involving 10,000 coal miners. Denise Giardini memorializes the Battle of Blair Mountain in her 1987 novel Storming Heaven.


*Rockefeller and Morgan had a relative monopoly on the banks, Carnegie on steel and Vanderbilt on the railroads.