Blogs > Cliopatria > Masters and Children (II)

Apr 6, 2010 3:17 am

Masters and Children (II)

How Historians Might See the Tea Party Movement
Part Two of Four

(Part One is here.)

In 1786 and 1787, western Massachusetts militants took up armed resistance to the state's government. They forced courts to close, preventing them from hearing merchant lawsuits against indebted farmers. State officials and seaboard merchants -- closely interwoven groups -- regarded the participants in Shays's Rebellion to be a poor and ignorant rabble, western dirt farmers lashing out against eastern law and order.

For two centuries, historians mostly padded along behind the Boston elite, accepting the script but changing some of its meaning. In 1980, David Szatmary described the two sets of belligerents as people engaged in change and people resisting change: on one side," coastal artisans" with an"acquisitive bent" who"passed commercial values on their children"; on the other side, a people"dragged into the marketplace" at the cost of the"disintegration of the traditional culture." Nicely completing the theme, Szatmary described the world of the yeoman farmer as having been"penetrated" by merchant capital.

Shays's Rebellion, Szatmary concluded,"represented the reaction of subsistence farmers against an intruding commercial society."

Twenty years later, Leonard Richards undertook an effort that seems like a near-miracle of scholarship, radically changing our understanding of an event that historians had thought they understood pretty well.

Four thousand participants in Shays's Rebellion were eventually granted indemnity against prosecution by a state that had just passed a series of laws allowing for their punishment by death. In exchange, each had to appear before a court to swear his future allegiance to the commonwealth.

In a series of accidents, Richards -- a professor at UMass-Amherst, in Shays's country -- discovered that the state archives had preserved the records of those four thousand oaths of allegiance. And he learned that no historian of the event had ever used them. Looking at the records, he found out why: They were nearly indecipherable. But he eventually extracted many of the names -- and then compared them to local tax rolls for the period around the rebellion.

Richards discovered that the seacoast elite of the 1780s had misunderstood and misrepresented Shays's Rebellion, passing down an entirely false story about the identity of the rebels and the nature of their grievance.

The dirt poor yeomen who took up arms against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1786 weren't dirt poor, and they weren't unsophisticated; rather, they were often substantial property owners, led by well-placed local officials and former Continental Army officers. Families took up arms together; in Amherst, for example,"nineteen Dickinson men took up arms against the government," along with still more in-laws and others connected closely to the family.

"Of the nineteen Dickinsons who took up arms against the state, ten held the office of selectman or state representative at one time or another, and three were sons of selectmen. This was hardly unusual...Among these wealthier rebel leaders was Moses Dickinson, who ranked in the top 5 percent in taxable wealth."

So the dirt-poor rebels weren't dirt poor -- and they also"never depicted themselves as dissident debtors. Nor did they refer to themselves as rebels, insurgents, or Shaysites." Rather, they saw themselves (in a long tradition) as"Regulators," citizens correcting a government that had abandoned the common interest.

They saw themselves that way because the seacoast merchant elite had carefully rigged state government to operate under their own control, and were paying off public debt at par to speculators -- seacoast merchant speculators -- who had acquired that debt by dubious means (much of it from veterans of the Revolution, who had been paid in miserably devalued promissory notes for years). The Commonwealth was trying to pay those debts, this is the clincher, by imposing taxes in hard money on a countryside that had been drained of hard money.

And one more thing, a point about the privately funded ad hoc army that put down the rebellion."Of the 135 men who dug into their purses to hire Lincoln's army, over half were speculators, and many undoubtedly had high hopes of making a killing on state notes."

So the dirt-poor, irrational rebels weren't dirt-poor, weren't irrational, and weren't rebels. They weren't lashing out in an expression of cultural rage against progress and change. They were sophisticated people acting on a reasonable grievance. They recognized that a clientelist government had been rigged to steal from them, and they went to work in a disciplined way to stop the theft. (This is, I think, a scenario that will feel familiar to us.)

And then? The first supposedly authoritative account of Shays's Rebellion was written in 1788 by the Boston lawyer George Richards Minot,"a full-fledged member of the Boston gentry." The account written by a sober, responsible elite wasn't sober or responsible. It was deeply self-interested, and it got the most important parts of the story entirely wrong. (Again: familiar.)

This is longer than I'd anticipated, so I'm going to cut this post off here, and make a three-part series into a four-part series. More tomorrow.

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More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 4/7/2010

Senator Coburn (R-OK) tells constituents they need multiple sources of information, not just Fox News.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 4/5/2010

And when I was growing up, the LA Times Sunday paper was used by weightlifters as a training challenge, we walked uphill to school both ways, and they had Jim Murray as a sports columnist. Well, 2 out of 3 ain't bad...

Chris Bray - 4/5/2010

It just amazes me, in 2010, that anyone gets all their news from a single source. Or I guess I should say that it depresses me.

Speaking of things that depress me, the Los Angeles Times. I grew up here -- I remember the World section and the strong regional editions and all that jazz. Today it's just so thin I can't even look at it.

More later.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/5/2010

Do Fox News viewers get a less ridiculous depiction of the world than readers of the New York Times?

Again, we have actual survey data on this sort of thing and people whose primary source of news is Fox have repeatedly scored lower on basic understanding of events; the consensus, as I understand it, is that news consumers who rely heavily on a single source generally do worse on basic understanding than news consumers who peruse balanced sources or multiple sources (which is why, ironically, Rush Limbaugh's listeners score as well as NPR listeners; they tend not be listening only to Rush). At risk of falling into your rhetorical traps, I'd say that this is an educational issue: people who realize that you need multiple sources to corroborate and test facts are the ones who do better, and that's generally a learned skill.

If, however, I had to chose between getting all my news from either Fox or the NYT, I'd go with the Times, flaws and all. (Though I'd rather have the LA Times, for Asia coverage)

I read the Washington Times for a brief trial period when I was an undergrad, by the way -- it was free and I didn't know any better -- so I've experienced the newspaper equivalent of Fox, and it was rather a relief, actually, when it stopped coming. I had no idea Jesse Helms had so much to say.

Chris Bray - 4/5/2010

I'll deal with all of this in the next few posts, but here's my immediate thought: Do Fox News viewers get a less ridiculous depiction of the world than readers of the New York Times (Judith "WMD" Miller, Tom "Suck on This" Friedman, Michael "The Iranian Menace is Growing!!!!!!!!" Gordon...)?

I see nothing but fantasy and stenography in the news media -- Fox News is just a different brand of shit.

Thomas Effing Friedman wrote a few weeks ago that we shouldn't just bomb the wogs -- we should also build schools for them, to teach them civilized values. The most imperialist sophisticated thinking of the nineteenth-century, printed fresh every day.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/5/2010

Tom Conlan's work on the medieval samurai is the same sort of 'near-miracle': by reading the records instead of the literary sources (and really reading the literary sources instead of accepting later accretions of meaning), he's radically altered our understanding of the weaponry, battle practices and ideologies of Japan's 'warrior culture' at its putative height.

On the TEA Parties, though -- taking the Shay's Rebellion discussion as analogue -- we have fairly good survey data on the participants and fairly good reporting on the institutional and organizational background. The participants are overwhelmingly Republican (with a substantial minority of Republican-leaning independents), older, well-off, caucasian, college-educated, and report FOX news as their primary source of information on the world.