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Authors: James MacGregor Burns

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Later that fall more portentous reports arrived, and Jefferson hardly knew whether to be more concerned about the alarums or the alarmists. The Adamses in London in particular seemed to want to share their concern with Jefferson. He enjoyed cordial relations with both. He had taken a great fancy to the sprightly and knowledgeable Abigail; he and John had toured English towns and estates earlier that year. Although the Virginian had been more interested in the layout of roads and ponds and in contraptions like an Archimedes’ screw for raising water, and the Bostonian more attracted to places where Englishmen had fought for their rights—Adams had actually dressed down some people in Worcester for neglecting the local “holy Ground” where “liberty was fought for”—the two men had got along famously.

Still, Jefferson was uneasy at the turn that his correspondence with the Adamses was taking. John had reassured him in November, stating that the Massachusetts Assembly had laid too heavy a tax on the people, but that “all will be well.” But in January, when the Shaysites seemed more threatening, Abigail wrote a letter that troubled him. “Ignorant, wrestless desperadoes, without conscience or principals, have led a deluded multitude to follow their standard, under pretense of grievences which have no existance but in their immaginations. Some of them were crying out for a paper currency, some for an equal distribution of property, some were for annihilating all debts.…Instead of that laudible spirit which you approve, which makes a people watchfull over their Liberties and alert in the defense of them, these mobish insurgents are for sapping the foundation, and distroying the whole fabrick at once.…”Jefferson knew that Abigail was
speaking for John as well as herself. Indeed, her views were shared in varying degrees by the most important leaders in America—by Washington, John Jay, Rufus King, Alexander Hamilton, by powerful men in every state.

Jefferson, almost alone among America’s leadership, rejected this attitude toward insurgency. The spirit of resistance to government was so important that it must always be kept alive. It would often be exercised wrongly, but better wrongly than not exercised at all.

“I like a little rebellion now and then,” he wrote Abigail Adams late in February 1787. “It is like a storm in the Atmosphere.” Yet he knew that the problem was not this simple. He did not really approve of rebellion, certainly not a long and bloody one; he simply feared repression more. The solution, he felt, lay in better education of the people and in the free exchange of ideas. Unlike Washington, he believed in reading the newspapers, not because the press was all that dependable, but because a free press was vital to liberty. If he had to choose, he said, he would prefer newspapers without a government to a government without newspapers. Still, Jefferson had to recognize that liberty was impossible without order, just as one day he would prefer to run a government without certain newspapers. The problem now was to reconcile liberty—and equality too—with authority. As summer approached, he wondered whether the planned convention in Philadelphia could cope with this problem that had eluded so many previous constitution-makers.

But he would not yield to the panic over rebellion. Had they not all been revolutionaries? Months later, he was still taking the line he had with the Adamses:

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

Back in western Massachusetts, in January 1787, people were suffering through the worst snowstorms they could remember. But weather could not stop the insurrection. For months both government men and Regulators had been eyeing the arsenal at Springfield, with its stores of muskets and ammunition. Late in January, Captain Shays led one thousand or more of his men, in open columns by platoons, toward the arsenal. General William Shepard, commanding the “loyal” troops, sent his aide to warn the Regulators to stop. Shays’s response was a loud laugh, followed by an order to his men, “March, God damn you, march!” March they did, their muskets still shouldered, straight into Shepard’s artillery. A single heavy
cannonade into the center of Shays’s column left three men dead and another dying, the rest in panic. In a few seconds the rebels were breaking rank and fleeing for their lives.

What now? The Regulators were not quite done. Those who gathered in friendly Berkshire towns after the long flight west calculated that the mountain fastness to the north and the long ranges stretching south provided natural havens for guerrilla resistance. But they underrated the determination of the government to stamp out the last embers of rebellion. The well-armed militia ranged up and down the county, routing the rebels. Hundreds of insurgents escaped into New York and Vermont, whence they sent raiding parties into Berkshire towns.

One of these towns was Stockbridge, where people had been divided for months over the insurgency. For hours the rebels roamed through the town, pillaging the houses of prominent citizens and “arresting” their foes on the spot. At the house of Judge Theodore Sedgwick, an old adversary, they could not find the judge but they encountered Elizabeth Freeman, long known as “Mum Bett.” Arming herself with the kitchen shovel, Mum let them search the house but forbade any wanton destruction of property, all the while jeering at their love for the bottle. She had hidden the family silver in a chest in her own room. When a rebel started to open it, she shamed him out of it, according to a local account, with the mocking cry, “Oh, you had better search that, an old nigger’s chest!—the old nigger’s as you call me.”

Soon the raiders streamed out of town to the south. They had time to free some debtors from jail and celebrate in a tavern. Then the militiamen cornered them in the woods, killing or wounding over thirty of them.

The uprising was over. Some Regulators felt that they had gambled all and lost all. As it turned out, they had served as a catalyst in one of the decisive transformations in American history. Though their own rebellion had failed, they had succeeded in fomenting powerful insurrections in people’s minds. Rising out of the grass roots of the day—out of the cornfields and pasturelands of an old commonwealth long whipped by religious and political conflict—they had challenged the “system” and had rekindled some burning issues of this revolutionary age:

When is rebellion justified? Granted that Americans had the right to take up arms against the Crown, which had given them taxation but no representation, were people who felt cheated of their rights justified in a
in turning to bullets rather than ballots?

If decisions were indeed to be made by ballots, how would ballots count? By majority rule—by a majority of the voters in an election or of their representatives in a legislature? Or would the minority be granted special
rights and powers in order to protect elites against the populace? And under either system would all people—all adult men, women, poor persons, Indians, black people—have an equal voice and vote?

If the rebellion had touched people’s basic fears about their safety and security, what price stability and unity? The response of the social and political elites to the rebellion was drastic: build a stronger national government that could cope with domestic unrest and fend off foreign foes. What local and regional rights would be swallowed up in the new Leviathan? Would precious personal liberties be engulfed by the new federal government? Or might they be better protected and enhanced by it?

If the immediate goal was a wider union, what was the ultimate purpose and justification of this union? Was it essentially for internal harmony and national defense? Humankind had higher needs—for individual liberty and self-expression, for a sense of sharing and fraternity, for the equal rights and liberties proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. How would such aspirations and expectations be fulfilled?

To these questions Americans—rebels and elites, common and uncommon—would bring vast experience, a big stock of common sense, a large assortment of misconceptions and prejudices, boundless optimism, and a quality less evident in some of the older nations of Europe: a willingness to experiment. Americans were accustomed to being tested, in their churches, on their farms, out in the wilderness. They were used to trying something, dropping it, and trying something else. They were good at figuring, probing, calculating, reasoning things out. The American people, Alexander Hamilton would soon be writing, must decide “the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Americans were willing to test themselves on this issue.

Some Americans thought of their country, or at least of their new young republic, as a received design, as a sanctified destiny, as a sacred mission for a selected people. Others saw it as a venture in trial and error, as a gamble, above all as an experiment. Sacred Mission or Grand Experiment—by what yardstick, by what purposes or principles or moral values, would American leadership be measured?


In Philadelphia, in early 1787, Benjamin Franklin busied himself with adding some rooms to his house on High (later named Market) Street. Now eighty-one, he found dealing with glaziers, stonecutters, timber merchants
and coppersmiths a bit fatiguing, but, as he wrote a friend in France, building was an “Old Man’s Amusement” and “Posterity’s advantage.” He still had time for his main pleasures: cribbage, playing with his grandchildren, exercising with his dumbbell, and reading while soaking in his boot-shaped copper tub. Surrounding him were mementos from his years as a printer, Philadelphia politician and official, colonial agent in London, spokesman in Paris for the new nation. His library, to which he would retreat from the children’s tumult, was lined ceiling-high with books from Europe and America, including his own world-famous
Poor Richard’s Almanack.
He made use of his own inventions too—his “Franklin stove,” a freestanding fireplace, lightning rods atop the house, and a mechanical device to pick books off the top shelves, a device later adapted for use by grocers to reach cans and boxes.

In his years in France, Franklin had become an international celebrity, so popular that crowds followed him as he passed along Paris streets. He had returned to Philadelphia in 1785 to equal acclaim. Cannon boomed; bells rang out; the town fathers waited on him; and shortly, he was elected president of Pennsylvania. He did not cut a dramatic figure; visitors found “a short, fat trunched old man in a plain Quaker dress, bald pate, and short white locks,” often sitting hatless under a mulberry tree in his garden on a warm day. But mentally he was as acute and wide-ranging as ever, shifting easily in correspondence and conversation from politics to diplomacy to types of thermometers to agriculture to gossip to the constitutional questions that would arise at the convention to be held in Philadelphia in the spring.

Despite the gout and kidney stone that tormented him, the patriarch occasionally made his way about town, often in a sedan chair. Much of Philadelphia was a monument to him. He could proceed down High Street toward the public landing on the river, passing nearby Christ Church, which he had served thirty years earlier as a manager of a lottery to raise money for the steeple. On the way back he could observe Presbyterian churches and Friends’ meeting houses he had often attended. Or he could head over to the American Philosophical Society, which he had helped found and over which he had presided for years. If he chose to turn down High Street in the opposite direction, he might come to City Hall on the corner of Fifth and Chestnut and then to the Library Company, the first subscription library in America, which he had conceived in 1731. If he turned right at the corner of Fifth and Chestnut, he encountered the long facade of Independence Hall, the most famous building in the city, indeed in America.

To this building—formerly the State House—Franklin’s life also had
been linked. Here he had been a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, where he supported the petition to the King for a redress of grievances, drew up a plan of union, and organized the first post office; it was Franklin, naturally, who was appointed the first postmaster general. In this building too he had signed the Declaration of Independence, after serving on the drafting committee with Adams and Jefferson and others. Here he was alleged to have said, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Franklin was in Paris when the Articles of Confederation were signed in this building but now he was back, and in the spring of 1787 Independence Hall was being readied for the grandest occasion of all—the convening of the Constitutional Convention.

Atop Independence Hall stood the Liberty Bell, which had rung out the news of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and of Revolutionary War victories. The tocsin had had a flawed existence. It had been cast in England, for no colony could make a bell like this, weighing over a ton. It was cracked on arrival and had to be crudely recast by a local firm. It was spirited out of Philadelphia and ignominiously submerged in a New Jersey river when the redcoats threatened the city. But now it was back in place, and still girdled by a noble sentiment: “Proclaim Liberty throughout the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof.”

Proclaim Liberty! No bell need ring it out; the idea had transfixed Americans for generations, and never more than in the last twenty years. Liberty had been the clangorous rallying cry against the British. It was the Sons of Liberty who had denounced the Stamp Act, conducted funerals of patriots killed in street brawls, tarred and feathered Tory foes and American renegades. It was the Liberty Poles around which the Sons had assembled to pledge their sacred honor to the cause, the Liberty Tree in Boston from which they had hanged Tory officials in effigy, only to see the redcoats cut down the noble elm and convert it into firewood. Although Liberty was not the only goal for Americans in the 1770s and 1780s—they believed also in Independence, Order, Equality, the Pursuit of Happiness—none had the evocative power and sweep of Liberty, or Freedom—two terms for the same thing. To preserve liberty was the supreme end of government.

BOOK: American Experiment
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