Leslie H. Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. As a former editor and columnist for The New York Times, however, he transforms into the Amazing Gelbo and gets to spout his ill-informed paeans to denial on that paper’s op-ed page. February 2, 2005 saw the publication of a little something called “The Lessons of 1787,” in which Gelbo waxed poetic about the “truly heartwarming effects of Sunday’s (Iraqi) elections.” He reminded us: “Elections decide who is to govern” but warned that only a Constitution can “define the reach and limits of electoral power, and the viability and legitimacy of a government.”
The new Iraqi National Assembly, says Gelbo, “should forgo drafting the constitution and establish a special constitutional committee” that engages “Iraq’s James Madisons and Ben Franklins” (I’m not making this up). That where the whole 1787 thing comes into play. Iraq needs to follow in America’s footsteps (then again, doesn’t everyone?) It’s as if Gelbo was asking those poor Iraqis: “Who’s your daddy?” because, as we all know, you ain’t nothing without Founding Fathers(tm).
The year 1787 saw a certain Daniel Shays arrested, thus this op-ed reminded me of a lesson about constitutions that the Amazing Gelbo neglected to reference.
“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 decidedly non-support-the-troops mentality, 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 heeding 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: 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 he authorities to jail anyone without a trial.” Shays’ army swelled to more than 1000 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: “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, yes, 1787. Within a year, a penniless Shays was dead. In other words, the government took from the poor to give to the rich and anyone with the audacity to protest was brutally put down.
Now, there’s a lesson most Iraqis have learned the hard way.
And speaking of putting down protest and how it might pertain to our beloved Founding Fathers(tm), there’s the recent issue of Ward Churchill. The longtime activist and author is now the poster child for “we like free speech and all but you’ve dang gone too far, red man” crowd.
As Ward has meticulously documented, the history of repressing dissent in America goes back almost as far as the Amazing Gelbo’s lessons…all the way to the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798. In section two, this Ashcroftian piece of legislation reads:
“If any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers in him vested by the constitution of the United States, or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act, or to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.”
President John Adams signed the bill into law and soon after, Americans were put in jail for criticizing their government. The Amazing Gelbo might call this “heartwarming,” but in solidarity with Ward Churchill and so many others persecuted for not toeing the party line, it’s high time we learn some new lessons.
MICKEY Z. is the author of four books, most recently: “The Seven Deadly Spins: Exposing the Lies Behind War Propaganda” (Common Courage Press). He can be found on the Web at http://www.mickeyz.net.