By Harold Moskowitz
In the thirteen colonies, as in England, all free men were entitled to keep arms. All able-bodied men in the colonies were expected to use those arms as members of the local militia when mustered in defense of the community. Without that tradition of personal firearm ownership, the successful revolt for independence from Great Britain could not have been possible. It is true that much aid was supplied by France, Spain, and Holland. However, those nations resisted getting involved until colonial military success could be demonstrated on the battlefield. At the onset, colonial farmers may have lacked the skills of military drill but knew how to accurately fire their muskets, fowling pieces, and hunting “long rifles” against British regulars and hired Hessian mercenaries.
Having succeeded in winning independence from the British Empire, the leaders of the new nation wrote the Articles of Confederation as their constitution. Under it, during the “Critical Period” (1781-1789), the former colonies became sovereign states loosely cooperating in a confederation. The central government was given almost no power. In particular, it had neither the power to tax nor the power to raise an armed force to maintain “domestic tranquility.”
The states held government powers which in our present Constitution are delegated to the national government. Under the Articles of Confederation, only states taxed their people and could muster a state militia to put down threats to life, property, or the civil society.
Considering that British tax policies were a major cause of the Revolution, it is perhaps ironic that the first armed citizen revolt was triggered by taxes. Massachusetts farmers such as Daniel Shays were subsistence farmers growing basically just enough to provide enough annual family food with a little extra for use as payment for goods and services in a barter system.
Credit payments and state real estate taxes could only be paid with gold or silver coins. Shays and his neighbors were saddled with bank loans. In addition, Massachusetts took land taxes equaling about one-third of their total yearly income. State courts foreclosed on the farmers leaving many homeless and without any means of support. Many were still waiting for promised payment for their military service during the Revolution. Since they were now debtors for non-payment of bank loans or state taxes, they faced being sentenced to spend years in the hellish conditions of debtors’ prison.
In 1786, Daniel Shays, a former captain in the Revolutionary War, became a major leader in an armed revolt triggered by Massachusetts tax policies. Western Massachusetts farmers demanded tax policy reforms. After years of poor harvests and low crop prices, they wanted lower taxes and the printing of more state-issued paper currency. The state legislature had suspended tax collections for the previous year but now required immediate full payment of all owed taxes. Shays and his followers protested at state courthouses. Their actions prevented the collection of taxes.
News of the tax protests spread to other states. George Washington was disturbed by them and wrote to a friend that: “commotions of this sort, like snow-balls, gather strength as they roll, if there is no opposition in the way to divide and crumble them.” Under the Articles of Confederation the national government had no power to act.
In December, 1786, Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin mobilized a 1,200-man militia paid for by private merchants to stop the tax revolt. In January, 1787, Shays’ band of farmers attacked the federal armory at Springfield. The attack on the armory failed due to the state militia’s use of artillery against the attackers. Four of the rebels were killed and twenty of them were injured.
Many of the rebelling farmers scattered into the countryside ending the tax rebellion. Four thousand men signed confessions stating their participation. They were given amnesty. Several hundred were indicted at a later date on charges related to the revolt. Most of those indicted were pardoned but eighteen, including Shays, were sentenced to death for treason. Two of them were hanged for thievery. The rest were pardoned, had their convictions overturned on appeal, or had their sentences commuted. Daniel Shays had fled to Vermont where he lived the life of a fugitive in a forest. He was pardoned in 1788, and moved to Conesus, New York, where he lived in poverty until his death in 1825.
The “threat” posed by Shays’ Rebellion convinced George Washington to leave retirement to get back into public service. According to Robert Longly of “Thought Co” which is part of the Dotdash publishing family, Thomas Jefferson was not frightened by the armed uprising. His belief was that it was important for liberty that there be a rebellion from time to time. Longly states that in a letter from Jefferson to U.S. Representative William Stephens Smith dated Nov.13, 1787, Jefferson wrote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
Although Shays’ Rebellion was easily ended, it was a catalyst which prompted men of wealth and property to push for a constitutional convention. Their goal was to create a stronger central government than what existed under the Articles of Confederation. They feared that asmaller state than Massachusetts might not have been able to stop such a revolt before it was able to spread to other states. From their perspective, the national government needed to be strong enough to protect order and stability for commerce as well as for protection of life and property.
Despite the fears raised by this grassroots rebellion against unfair court practices and high taxes (four times higher than New Hampshire), the Founders still believed that the right of free men to keep and bear arms was essential for the constitutional republic which they had created only months after the rebellion was quashed. Four years after this revolt by angry and scared farmers, the Second Amendment was enshrined in our Bill of Rights for the prevention of oppressive government and tyranny, as well as for personal defense. Today, an armed populace still has a better chance of remaining a free populace.