Civil War Threatens New Democracy

It's a story that by now seems all too familiar.  The concept was fine in theory — self government and democracy for a people oppressed by the heavy hand of an autocratic ruler. 

Unfortunately, no one seems to have thought through the aftermath.  The overthrow of the forces of oppression left only a limited, inexperienced infrastructure for self—rule.  Liberation removed the forces of unification in society, leaving a populace with mixed loyalties and deep regional and socio—economic rivalries.  Warfare had undermined the economy, straining the new social contract.  To add to this volatile mix were the militias — lots of armed men, many loyal not to a central government but to smaller factions.

It was hard to judge the risk of civil war, but there is no doubt this was a combustible situation.  Finally, three years after the forces of liberation cried, 'Mission accomplished!' a serious insurrection erupted.  Countrymen would kill countrymen, there was kidnapping and hostage taking, and outsiders rooted for the fledgling democracy to fail.

The year, of course, was 1786.  Three years after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, what is now referred to as Shays' Rebellion began in Western Massachusetts.  The uprising would be the first major challenge to the great American experiment in democracy, but hardly the last.  The early stages of this insurgency would lead George Washington to despair, writing to James Madison,

'We are fast verging to anarchy and confusion.... How melancholy is the reflection, that in so short a space, we should have made such large strides towards fulfilling the prediction of our transatlantic foe! 'leave them to themselves, and their government will soon dissolve.''

It was this very threat of civil war that would cause Washington to write,

'No Morn ever dawned more favourable than ours did—and no day was ever more clouded than the present!'

The uprising was led by Captain Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War soldier and farmer. The roots of the rebellion lay in the severe economic recession that followed the Revolutionary War. Many of the insurgents were, like Shays, veterans of the War, coming home to their farms with only devalued government scrip as thanks for their service, and a rising tax burden as their welcome home.  With expectations raised by independence, the harsh reality of the threat of debtor's prison and financial ruin was all the more bitter.  The citizens of the agricultural regions felt further alienated by the perception that the mercantile classes of Eastern Massachusetts were being favored over agricultural interests by the government.

Although elements of the rebellion erupted in Connecticut and Rhode Island, the center of action was Massachusetts. At first, the farmers expressed their grievances by petitioning the state legislature for judicial relief, currency and lower taxes.  However, with only token reforms enacted, the protests turned violent.  In August of 1786, armed farmers disrupted the Court of Common Pleas in Northampton, preventing the court from sitting.  With the goal of preventing the further imprisonments of debtors, other groups attacked courthouses throughout Massachusetts in the weeks that followed. 

Springfield, Massachusetts became the central battleground of the insurgency when Shays and 1500 followers prevented the Supreme Judicial Court (the state supreme court) from sitting.  The move prompted the governor to raise troops to defend the government and its courts.  In January of 1787, Shays sought a defensive position against the advancing troops and attacked the Federal Arsenal in Springfield.  For the first time the conflict turned deadly as defending troops fired cannon at the attacking force, killing 4 and wounding 20.  Shays' forces retreated, and were then pursued as the governor's forces arrived.  The rebellion was ultimately dismantled by a surprise attack on their forces in February of 1787.  Most of the Rebellion's participants were able to take advantage of a proffered amnesty or were later pardoned or otherwise reprieved.  The wounds in the young nation healed quickly.

Shays' Rebellion would be far from the last test of the American experiment.   The Whisky Rebellion of 1794, the secessionist proposals of the secret Hartford Convention of 1815, the antebellum political battles over slavery, and finally the Civil War itself, would all challenge the very concept of the nation.  Yet, the response to each challenge brought the opportunity for greater unity.  Shays' Rebellion itself is credited with providing impetus for the ratification of the Constitution.  Thomas Jefferson was well aware of the potential benefits of these challenges; it was this insurrection that prompted him to famously write,

'I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing....'

It is of course doubtful that Jefferson would have been so sanguine about a rebellion that included IEDs, suicide attacks, treacherous foreign influence, and the other hallmarks of the Iraqi insurgency.  Indeed, it is possible that Shays' Rebellion might have had a very different end had the insurgents lived in an era where the tools of murder have become so advanced. 

There is little comfort here for either side of the debate on our involvement in Iraq.  Those who support the democracy—building efforts in the Middle East should worry about the centuries—long timetable of our own experience; those who view each day's bombings as sure signs of an inevitable disaster should question their certainty.  Nonetheless, Shays' Rebellion and its successor insurgencies do hold lessons for 2006.

We 21st century Americans sit in the comfort and security of our own democracy, some with the belief that we have somehow deserved, or have earned our freedom.  If we look back instead, we would recall that it is only some 143 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, 85 years since American women won suffrage, and 31 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. 

Before we have expectations of a perfect democracy for others, we should remember the long, difficult path of those Americans who came before us.  There are no easy conclusions for present day foreign policy in this reflection.  But, perhaps, in our time of partisanship and acrimonious debate, we can come together as Americans to reflect on our common history, appreciate the challenges faced by our political ancestors, and maybe, just maybe, gain a little wisdom.

Jeff Korzenik is President of a Salem Five Investment Services, LLC, a boutique wealth management firm in Salem, Massachusetts.

It's a story that by now seems all too familiar.  The concept was fine in theory — self government and democracy for a people oppressed by the heavy hand of an autocratic ruler. 

Unfortunately, no one seems to have thought through the aftermath.  The overthrow of the forces of oppression left only a limited, inexperienced infrastructure for self—rule.  Liberation removed the forces of unification in society, leaving a populace with mixed loyalties and deep regional and socio—economic rivalries.  Warfare had undermined the economy, straining the new social contract.  To add to this volatile mix were the militias — lots of armed men, many loyal not to a central government but to smaller factions.

It was hard to judge the risk of civil war, but there is no doubt this was a combustible situation.  Finally, three years after the forces of liberation cried, 'Mission accomplished!' a serious insurrection erupted.  Countrymen would kill countrymen, there was kidnapping and hostage taking, and outsiders rooted for the fledgling democracy to fail.

The year, of course, was 1786.  Three years after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, what is now referred to as Shays' Rebellion began in Western Massachusetts.  The uprising would be the first major challenge to the great American experiment in democracy, but hardly the last.  The early stages of this insurgency would lead George Washington to despair, writing to James Madison,

'We are fast verging to anarchy and confusion.... How melancholy is the reflection, that in so short a space, we should have made such large strides towards fulfilling the prediction of our transatlantic foe! 'leave them to themselves, and their government will soon dissolve.''

It was this very threat of civil war that would cause Washington to write,

'No Morn ever dawned more favourable than ours did—and no day was ever more clouded than the present!'

The uprising was led by Captain Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War soldier and farmer. The roots of the rebellion lay in the severe economic recession that followed the Revolutionary War. Many of the insurgents were, like Shays, veterans of the War, coming home to their farms with only devalued government scrip as thanks for their service, and a rising tax burden as their welcome home.  With expectations raised by independence, the harsh reality of the threat of debtor's prison and financial ruin was all the more bitter.  The citizens of the agricultural regions felt further alienated by the perception that the mercantile classes of Eastern Massachusetts were being favored over agricultural interests by the government.

Although elements of the rebellion erupted in Connecticut and Rhode Island, the center of action was Massachusetts. At first, the farmers expressed their grievances by petitioning the state legislature for judicial relief, currency and lower taxes.  However, with only token reforms enacted, the protests turned violent.  In August of 1786, armed farmers disrupted the Court of Common Pleas in Northampton, preventing the court from sitting.  With the goal of preventing the further imprisonments of debtors, other groups attacked courthouses throughout Massachusetts in the weeks that followed. 

Springfield, Massachusetts became the central battleground of the insurgency when Shays and 1500 followers prevented the Supreme Judicial Court (the state supreme court) from sitting.  The move prompted the governor to raise troops to defend the government and its courts.  In January of 1787, Shays sought a defensive position against the advancing troops and attacked the Federal Arsenal in Springfield.  For the first time the conflict turned deadly as defending troops fired cannon at the attacking force, killing 4 and wounding 20.  Shays' forces retreated, and were then pursued as the governor's forces arrived.  The rebellion was ultimately dismantled by a surprise attack on their forces in February of 1787.  Most of the Rebellion's participants were able to take advantage of a proffered amnesty or were later pardoned or otherwise reprieved.  The wounds in the young nation healed quickly.

Shays' Rebellion would be far from the last test of the American experiment.   The Whisky Rebellion of 1794, the secessionist proposals of the secret Hartford Convention of 1815, the antebellum political battles over slavery, and finally the Civil War itself, would all challenge the very concept of the nation.  Yet, the response to each challenge brought the opportunity for greater unity.  Shays' Rebellion itself is credited with providing impetus for the ratification of the Constitution.  Thomas Jefferson was well aware of the potential benefits of these challenges; it was this insurrection that prompted him to famously write,

'I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing....'

It is of course doubtful that Jefferson would have been so sanguine about a rebellion that included IEDs, suicide attacks, treacherous foreign influence, and the other hallmarks of the Iraqi insurgency.  Indeed, it is possible that Shays' Rebellion might have had a very different end had the insurgents lived in an era where the tools of murder have become so advanced. 

There is little comfort here for either side of the debate on our involvement in Iraq.  Those who support the democracy—building efforts in the Middle East should worry about the centuries—long timetable of our own experience; those who view each day's bombings as sure signs of an inevitable disaster should question their certainty.  Nonetheless, Shays' Rebellion and its successor insurgencies do hold lessons for 2006.

We 21st century Americans sit in the comfort and security of our own democracy, some with the belief that we have somehow deserved, or have earned our freedom.  If we look back instead, we would recall that it is only some 143 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, 85 years since American women won suffrage, and 31 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. 

Before we have expectations of a perfect democracy for others, we should remember the long, difficult path of those Americans who came before us.  There are no easy conclusions for present day foreign policy in this reflection.  But, perhaps, in our time of partisanship and acrimonious debate, we can come together as Americans to reflect on our common history, appreciate the challenges faced by our political ancestors, and maybe, just maybe, gain a little wisdom.

Jeff Korzenik is President of a Salem Five Investment Services, LLC, a boutique wealth management firm in Salem, Massachusetts.