“I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere…”

Hmm, I’ve made a few comments on other’s blogs, but they don’t seem to have appeared. Perhaps they haven’t been approved?

Anyway, in Chapter 3 of Wages of War we learn about Henry Knox, before he became the first Secretary of War and started the Society of the Cincinnati. Knox seemed pretty well off before the war, with a popular bookstore and a sweet, soon to be bursting from the seams with acres of land lady friend. He even liked the British and their comfortable lifestyle. So all and all, he would’ve been fine with or without the war. During the war, Knox proved to be an important man to General Washington. There’s a tiny glimpse into Washington’s apparent sense of humor as the good general sent Knox, a quite plump and pleasantly fed individual, out to represent the starving army to the citizens, in order to raise money. After the war, Knox started the Society of the Cincinnati to recognize and honor officers. Though mostly supported by Washington, many other founding fathers weren’t too happy about the new society. Jefferson, Jay, Adams, and others especially disliked the notion of membership being passed down through generations. Understandable, considering they had just fought a war against an enemy who did just this sort of thing. Franklin’s biggest problem, however, seemed to be the eagle the society used as its symbol. Who would want a cowardly eagle when you could have a majestic turkey?

Chapter 4 mentioned government honors given to soldiers. It was all well and good to have a society dedicated to officers, but that had nothing to do with the government, which obviously had much more power and distinction. Meanwhile, the vets, including the ones that were honored, were facing serious problems, most especially in Massachusetts. The vets were only left with useless paper money when they needed hard coins. Many wealthy individuals took part in speculation (buying paper money for less than it’s worth); even the Governor of Massachusetts was taking advantage of these vets. Many veterans in MA and others New England states were yeomen farmers. The tax system in MA basically forced those with the most land to pay the most taxes. So farmers with the least money were paying more taxes, while merchants with the most money were paying fewer taxes. MA tax collectors and coastal merchants (who traded with the British) wanted coins not cash. Farmers unfortunately did not have hard money, which was difficult to come by as most of it was what was left by the British, so many lost their farms or were put in debtor prisons. The farmers tried to peacefully protest with petitions and later sit-ins. These protests went unheeded. This was the start of the so-called Shays’ Rebellion, though it hardly belonged to Shays’ nor was it a rebellion. Shays was just a normal, down-to-earth fellow who fought in the war with distinction and somehow ended up being thought of as the major head of the movement.

Chapter 5 revealed an interesting bit about journalists of the time. What self-respecting journalist has ever been uninterested in exposing injustice? Apparently journalists after the Revolution. Shays and other leaders of the ‘rebellion’ were essentially depicted as unpatriotic brutes terrorizing an innocent newborn nation. When did fighting against unfairness, the very thing the Revolution was about, become wrong? Certainly these people were nothing like the journalists we know today, though both prove to be obnoxious. In order to put down the rebellion, the MA government needed to raise an army. Congress couldn’t give any money as it couldn’t even pay the vets their half pay, so it came from private sources of wealthy individuals. The militia consisted of, ironically or not, city dwelling vets who were without money. This army had support from many blacks, some who were veterans themselves, mostly to keep the wrath of the irritated government from turning onto them. Massachusetts may have abolished slavery, but that certainly didn’t mean blacks were free from discrimination. Eventually, after some conflict, all of which was started by the MA army, the rebellion was put down as the farmers went back home to prepare for spring planting, proof that these men just wanted to farm and live simple lives. Years later, Shays was pardoned, but he never returned to his farm. He did, however, seem to live a generally fulfilling life despite all that had occurred.

History tends to paint the whole thing in a bad light, certainly because the farmers lost, the government won, and the victor always writes history. In school we learn about the impact of Shays’ Rebellion as something that showed the nation under the Articles of Confederation was not going to work. Perhaps it was part of the reason, but it wasn’t the only one. So what did it really accomplish? To Jefferson, “a little rebellion now and then” was just a normal and healthy part of being a nation.

One Response to ““I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere…””

  1. Prof. McClurken Says:

    Thorough thoughtful summary.

    Do you think TJ would have had the same view of the “little rebellion” if it hadn’t been so little?