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by William H. Benson

September 1, 2011

     Daniel Shays was bankrupt and angry. A farmer in rural Massachusetts and a former captain in the army, he gathered about him a number of debt-ridden farmers who had fought in the last war, and together they marched on Springfield, Massachusetts in September and forced the terrified justices on the state’s Supreme Court to adjourn. The year was 1786. The following January he led 1200 men, each clutching a pitchfork, back into Springfield and demanded muskets and canons plus laws in their favor.

     State officials hunted these rebels down over the next few weeks, but the Massachusetts legislature caved in: They dropped direct taxation and lowered court fees. As a result of Shays’ Rebellion, officials understood that without a national government, the thirteen states were powerless to protect themselves from large-scale domestic violence, like Shays. Hence the need for a strong national government.

     Before, during, and after a revolution, a question continues coming up, “What is next?” And the answers are “fight or cower,” “keep struggling”, or “build a new government.”

     At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, delegates from the thirteen states struggled to write a plan for a new national government. Compromise may have guided their practical decision-making, but their overall ideology was decidedly focused upon the historical past, specifically upon the ancient Greeks and the Romans. One of those delegates, John Dickinson, said, “Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.”

     One scholar of the Constitutional Convention, Douglass G. Adair, said that when Dickinson referred to “experience” he was meaning “both political wisdom gained by participation in events, and wisdom gained by studying past events.”

     Certain of the delegates—especially Alexander Hamilton and James Madison—knew their history well, and came to the Convention convinced that each of the three kinds of government—monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy—by themselves had “mortal diseases” or defects. Monarchy degenerated into tyranny, an aristocracy evolved into a corrupt and unjust oligarchy, and a pure democracy disintegrates into anarchy, class conflict, and social disorder.

     Indeed, a pure democracy had “existed in Greece and Italy only for short spaces of time” and each time had ended in a dictatorship.

     It was the delegates’ genius to bring the three types of government together into a single plan: a democracy in the lower House, an aristocracy in the upper House or the Senate, and the monarchy in the Presidency. “If there is one certain truth, it is this: that the people’s rights and liberties can never be preserved without a strong executive, or without separating the executive from the legislative power.”

     “The office and power of the President was consciously designed to provide the energy, secrecy, and dispatch traditionally associated with the monarchical form.”

     On September 17, 1787, the day the Convention adjourned, Benjamin Franklin spoke up and urged all the delegates to vote for the plan, saying, “It will astonish our enemies.”

     This experience, this history, this Constitution casts a perpetual shining light upon America’s people and her events, and some fail to see that light. A month ago the news reports were quite grim: “Is the political system broken? Last weeks relentless debt-ceiling showdown in Washington revealed a government that can no longer address our nation’s problems.” Huh? Really? Is that right?

     Others saw it differently: There is “a word for the rancor and the division that you describe. It’s called democracy.” Indeed, if anything, the fight for fiscal responsibility demonstrated a government that is capable of working toward a better solution, and the rest of the world took notice.

     The year of 2011 is now being called the year of rebellion by the dispossessed, an Arab Spring. First, in Tunisia, then in Egypt, in Libya, in Yemen, and in Syria people revolted, demanding a change.

     The slaughter in Syria has appalled the world; more than 2000 killed. “The tanks are firing at random. Their aim seems to kill and terrify as many people as possible.” So anxious is President Bashar al-Assad to retain his power, he thinks he can slaughter his own people without any personal consequences. What is next? More confrontation and more bloodshed. One side will win, and it is doubtful it will be the rebels.

     Last week, Libya’s emboldened rebels marched into Tripoli and strode through Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s fortress-like compound, anxious to lay their hands on him. After the revolution, what is next? The answer is that the rebels will draft plans for a new government, and hopefully it will be better than the horrific dictatorship that the Libyans endured for forty-two years. We can “hope for the best, stop predicting the worst, and prepare for something in between.”


     Shays’ Rebellion prodded the wiser men of the thirteen states to create a strong federal government, one better than what they had, and after 224 years, I think we can conclude that they did.