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“The U.S. has never been a society riven by class resentment.”
– David Brooks
According to wealthy conservatives, class and wealth inequality has never been a factor in American history. Of course these are the same guys who believe that the Boston Tea Party was about high tea taxes when in fact it was a protest against government tax breaks for a huge multinational corporation.
Can you imagine today’s Tea Party movement protesting corporate tax cuts? I can’t.
Today’s Tea Party, which is largely ignorant about the event that it is named from, would be shocked to discover the revolutionary spirit of America was founded on class war.
A century before the Declaration of Independence, America was undergoing a revolution. However, this revolution was not based on a desire for independence from England. This revolution was all about fighting class and racial oppression.
Society in the Virginia Colony of the 1670’s was beginning to resemble society of England. The Tidewater Gentry made up only about 5% of the population of the colony, but owned nearly all the best land. The lower classes were pushed into the interior country were Indian attacks were frequent and the land was rocky.
The causes of the rebellion were included such items as lack of protection from native American attacks, high taxes, restrictions on the right to vote, and subordination to an aristocratic minority.
The two protagonists were William Berkeley, already 70-years old during Bacon’s Rebellion, and Nathaniel Bacon, 40 years younger than Berkeley.
Both were members of the ruling class, but only Bacon fought for the interests of the lower classes.
It became a rebellion of the poor and landless against the established planters of the day. Further intensifying this division, Bacon freed all servants who would agree to take up arms against their former masters.
The Tidewater Gentry was temporarily expelled from Jamestown, their mansions burned. But when Bacon unexpectedly died from disease, the rebellion collapsed. The aristocracy was brutal in their return. Indentured servants were re-enslaved. 23 rebel leaders were hanged. The fallout had significant ramifications to the racial makeup of the future nation.
these plantation-owning families came to realize that unemployed former indentured servants were a threat to social stability. They turned increasingly to the use of slaves, who were regarded as a safer source of labor and were less expensive.
Nine years later James II decreed the creation of the Dominion of New England, which quickly expanded to include the colonies of New York and New Jersey. The creation of the Dominion was an attempt to enforce more central authority upon the restive colonies.
This did not go over well.
Sir Edmund Andros, the governor of the dominion in Boston, almost immediately clamped down on local legislatures and town meetings. His rule didn’t last long. When news of the Glorious Revolution reached Boston on 18 April 1689, Andros had the messenger arrested, but it was too late.
The people of Boston rioted. Andros dressed himself as a woman and tried to flee, but was captured. He was sent back to England to stand trial.
Meanwhile, due to the distance involved, New York had been administered by a Lieutenant Governor of the dominion, Francis Nicholson.
After the Boston Revolt, the dominion collapsed. In that collapse a immigrant merchant turned militia captain named Jacob Leisler took action. Like Bacon, Leisler was one of the few upper-class citizens who sympathized with the lower classes.
When word of rebellion reached New York, the local militia took control of Fort James and renamed it Fort William. A popular revolt followed and the mob convinced Leisler to be their leader.
The aristocrats opposed the rebellion. When they began fearing for their safety they fled to Albany.
Leisler soon began making the laws more egalitarian.
Backed by Dutch laborers and artisans who resented the English ruling elite, Leisler enacted a government of direct popular representation. By some counts, he also moved to redistribute wealth to the poor. Both policies earned him the scorn of New York’s predominantly Anglican merchant and aristocratic classes.
On January 28, 1691, English Major Richard Ingoldesby and a large force of troops landed in New York and demanded the surrender of Fort William. Lesiler refused. Ingoldesby then attacked the fort and two soldiers died in the skirmish. Leisler and eleven others were arrested for treason. The trial was judged by personal and political opponents of Leisler.
On the 16 May 1691, Leisler and his son-in-law were hung and then beheaded while still alive.
Daniel Shays was an original patriot. He was a poor farmhand who fought at Lexington, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga. General Lafayette himself honored Captain Shays for his bravery. He was wounded and resigned from service in 1780.
When he got home he soon found himself in court for unpaid debts, debts he couldn’t pay because the military pay was in arrears. He soon discovered that he wasn’t alone. Creditors demanded to be paid in “hard money”, while most farmers had their money tied up in land and livestock. Dozens of towns petitioned for debt relief, but the government sided with the creditors. Thousands of armed men began organizing to disrupt business at the courts. They called themselves Regulators.
“I have been greatly abused, have been obliged to do more than my part in the war; been loaded with class rates, town rates, province rates, Continental rates and all rates…been pulled and hauled by sheriffs, constables and collectors, and had my cattle sold for less than they were worth…The great men are going to get all we have and I think it is time for us to rise and put a stop to it, and have no more courts, nor sheriffs, nor collectors nor lawyers.”
– Plough Jogger, a farmer
By spring 1782, before the end of the Revolutionary War, there were near riots at courthouses across Massachusetts, the most notable being Ely’s Rebellion.
One of the men responsible for suppressing Ely’s Rebellion was a man named Luke Day, another veteran of the Revolution. Ironically, Luke Day’s financial fortunes would be crushed by taxes, inflation and recession. By 1785 Day was in a debtors prison for failing to pay 34 Pounds. Day would later escape debtor’s prison and become a leader of Shay’s Rebellion on August 29, 1786, when hundreds of men closed the Northampton courthouse by force.
On September 19, Daniel Shay joined the revolt by leading a large contingent to Springfield to shut down the Supreme Judicial Court. Shay was able to parlay with the militia to avoid any bloodshed. The Massachusetts government considered it a direct assault on the sovereignty of the state.
Within a month the state issued the Militia Act, which threatened court-martial and execution for any militia member taking part in the disturbance.
A few days later the Riot Act was passed, which forbade a gathering of 12 or more armed persons. Samuel Adams himself helped draw up the Riot Act. Adams also wanted to arrest everyone who had been involved in the rebellion. The following month Habeas Corpus was suspended in Massachusetts.
“In monarchies the crime of treason and rebellion may admit of being pardoned or lightly punished, but the man who rebels against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.”
– Samuel Adams
During the fall and winter Day and Shay were leaders of a bloodless revolt that closed several courthouses to keep the courts from seizing the property of indebted farmers. The Boston elites were mortified.
The state government decided the time to act has arrived. Their target was Job Shattuck.
Job Shattuck, a veteran of Bunker Hill, had been leading protests against the policies against the eastern financiers since 1782.
In late November the government sent a company of men with an arrest warrant for Shattuck. They found him alone near his home. When they tried to arrest him he resisted and Shattuck suffered a deep cut in his knee from a saber. Shattuck and three other men were taken from their rural town to Boston where they were held in solitary confinement.
Governor James Bowdoin decided to take a hard line. Unable to pay to mobilize the state militia, Bowdoin turned to the Boston aristocrats to fund it.
In January 1787, 4,400 militia volunteers, under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln, marched out of Boston towards Springfield armory.
Meanwhile, Shay realized that the poorly armed Regulators, some only armed with sticks and clubs, needed more leverage against the increasingly hard-lined Boston aristocrats. On January 25, Shays began a march of 1,400 men towards the Springfield armory.
The militia already had 1,200 members under the command of William Shepard at the Springfield armory a week before Shay’s Regulators arrived on the afternoon of January 25.
So far there had been very little violence in the rebellion, and it appears that Shay’s Regulators didn’t expect any now. When the militia fired warning shots over their heads, they ignored them and continued to advance.
Then Shepard gave the command to fire the cannon “at waistband height” into the advancing troupe. Three Regulators were killed instantly, and 20 wounded.
The insurgents were shocked that their countrymen would fire on them. They broke and ran.
Later that day Lincoln arrived with reinforcements. They pursued the Regulators to the town of Petersham, where they caught them by surprise on February 4 and captured nearly 1,000 of them without further bloodshed.
Later on a violent encounter between Regulators and the militia occurred at the town of Stockbridge that left three dead. The rebellion was broken.
In April the Supreme Judicial Court convicted and sentenced to death seven member of the rebellion. That same month Governor Bowdoin overwhelmingly lost the election to John Hancock, who supported a more lenient treatment of the prisoners.
After an overwhelming response for leniency from the citizens of Massachusetts, all of the Regulators are pardoned in the next few months except for Shays and Day. Although several are given mock executions on the gallows.
Shay and Day were pardoned the following year.
Much of America’s early rebellious nature revolved around fighting the aristocracy at home. Americans weren’t a new breed separated from the rest of human history. We were the same people who simply had a chance to start again.
It didn’t end with Shay’s Rebellion. A few decades later Rhode Island witnessed Dorr’s Rebellion. Then there was the Great Strike of 1877 which sparked a nationwide labor movement. By the early 20th Century most people in America discussed politics and economics in terms of class. Socialism was a viable alternative.
It’s only in the last half century that discussing class has been taboo. That doesn’t mean that class is no longer an issue. It only means that it isn’t discussed.