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Remembering Shays’ Rebellion
“Military men are dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns for foreign policy.”
- Henry Kissinger
Two hundred and twenty-eight years ago this month — long before the cries of “support the troops” became commonplace during every U.S. military intervention — the powers-that-be made it clear how little they intended to follow their own mantra.
“When Massachusetts passed a state constitution in 1780, it found few friends among the poor and middle class, many of them veterans from the Continental Army still waiting for promised bonuses,” explains historian Kenneth C. Davis. To add to this, excessive property taxes were combined with polling taxes designed to prevent the poor from voting.
“No one could hold state office without being quite wealthy,” Howard Zinn adds. “Furthermore, the legislature was refusing to issue paper money, as had been done in some other states, like Rhode Island, to make it easier for debt-ridden farmers to pay off their creditors.”
Perhaps heading the advice of Thomas Jefferson that “a little rebellion” is necessary, Massachusetts farmers fought back when their property was seized due to lack of debt repayment. Armed and organized, their ranks grew into the hundreds. Local sheriffs called out the militia… but the militia sided with the farmers.
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts indicted eleven members of the rebellion. Those who had so recently fomented revolt were no longer tolerant of such insurrection.
Enter Daniel Shays (1747-1825): Massachusetts farmer and former Army captain. He chose not to stand by idly as battle lines were being drawn and friends of his faced imprisonment. In September 1786, Shays led an army of some 700 farmers, workers, and veterans into Springfield.
“Onetime radical Sam Adams, now part of the Boston Establishment, drew up a Riot Act,” says Davis, “allowing the authorities to jail anyone without a trial.”
Meanwhile, Shays’ army swelled to more than 1,000 men.
Writing from Paris, Jefferson offered tacit approval for, at least, the concept of rebellion. Closer to home, the American aristocracy was less than pleased. Sam Adams again saw things differently: “In monarchy, the crime of treason may admit of being pardoned or lightly punished, but the man who dares rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.”
In a classic shape-of-things-to-come scenario, Boston merchants pooled money to raise an army to be led by General Benjamin Lincoln, one of George Washington’s war commanders. Clashes were fierce but the outnumbered rebels were on the run by winter. Most were killed or captured. Some were hanged while others, including Shays, were eventually pardoned in 1787.
Shays eventually died in poverty and obscurity but the rebellion he helped lead not only served as an example of radical direct action, it resulted in some concrete reforms including: the end of direct taxation, lowered court costs, and the exemption of workmen’s tools and household necessities from the debt process.
Perhaps the more important lesson Shays’ Rebellion can offer today is exposing the lie of “support the troops.” This mind-numbing mantra specifically ignores any real examination of who those troops are, what those troops are doing in war zones, what happens to them when they come home, and why many of us don’t want them waging war in the first place. In other words, when we’re told to “support the troops,” we are, in essence, being compelled to support the policies that exploit those troops.
Reminder: It takes more than obscene amounts of taxpayer subsidies to keep this criminal enterprise afloat. It also takes more than the volunteer mercenaries willing to be paid to wage illegal, immoral, and eco-system-destroying wars. The Department of Defense [sic] is able to maintain its crime spree because most of us continue to unconditionally support [sic] the troops.
As long as the yellow ribbons fly, the future of most life on earth remains in doubt. The choice is ours: Support the troops or preserve the future.
Mickey Z. is the author of 12 books, most recently Occupy this Book: Mickey Z. on Activism. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on the Web here. Anyone wishing to support his activist efforts can do so by making a donation here.