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UNDER THE CONFEDERATION-CONTINUED. At length a crisis arrived which no temporizing measures 'could avert or postpone. The involvement, perplexity, and actual distress of a very considerable part of the people had been steadily accumulating until the galling load of troubles could be scarcely endured. Every expedient had failed to bring relief. Debtors were daily becoming less able to meet their contracts. Numerous families, although industrious and careful, had lost under execution the great bulk of their property, and were sorely pressed to find the means of a respectable living. Multitudes of others were threatened with the same harsh misfortune. Confidence between man and man was at an alarmingly low ebb. Gloom, despondency, adversity, and apprehension were chronic afflictions in tens of thousands of households. No prospect of better times cheered those who sought to penetrate the veil of the future. To many minds, wrought upon by a sense of being wronged by the laws and the courts, government itself appeared transformed into a grievance, since the very taxes essential to keep the machinery of authority in motion could be collected, in frequent instances, only by proceeding to a legal extremity which sacrificed the estate of the citizen, and which was felt as an oppression.
Soon the growing desperation found vent in outbursts of tumultuous resentment. In New Hampshire, an armed force marched to Exeter, surrounded the meeting-house where the Houses of Assembly were holding a conference, placed sentries at the doors, held the members prisoners, and threatened death to any person who should attempt to escape before the demands made upon the Legislature had been granted. This violence continued until the malcontents were dispersed by companies of militia summoned from a distance. With like intent, mobs made a tumult in Connecticut, but they were overawed by the prompt action of the Governor, and restrained from any overt act. In Massachusetts, however, where a third of the inhabitants were thought to be disaffected toward the government, actual insurrections took place, followed by what is known as Shay's rebellion, which was not fully subdued until the spring of 1787, after some bloodshed and large expense. Indeed, the spirit of insubordination and a tendency to disintegration was spreading rapidly throughout the Confederation. Three western counties of North Carolina declared their independence, and set up a State named Franklin or Frankland. There was a movement in the county of Washington to secede from Virginia for the purpose of becoming part of this new State.
The Connecticut settlers at Wyoming, greatly dissatisfied by the refusal of Pennsylvania to confirm their titles, rose in insurrection against the Pennsylvania authorities, and openly aimed at forming a State of their own. A convention of the people of Maine was held at Portland to consider the expediency of erecting that division of the country into an independent commonwealth. Thus lawlessness, generated by universal suffering and discontent, seemed about to destroy the peace, liberty, and safety gained by the patriotic exertions and heavy sacrifices of many years.
Otto, the French Minister at New York, writing
home to his government, under date of September 20, 1786, gives the following description of the disorganizing tendencies in New England:
The want of energy in the separate government of the States had till now occasioned few commotions to the repose and to the security of the citizens, and it was hoped that Congress would insensibly take the stability that was supposed to be observable in the interior organization of the States; but the licentiousness of a “greedy populace has just shaken the basis of the government which had hitherto been regarded as the most solid and the most perfect of the whole Confederation, and it is seen too late that the American constitutions, so generally admired, are far from being exempt from defects.
The common people of Massachusetts, indignant at not having obtained the emission of paper money, ran together in certain districts, with arms in hand, to suspend the courts of justice and to prevent the recovery of debts. Governor Bowdoin having neglected instantly to assemble the militia, the insurgents went so far as to disperse the judges and the advocates. They demanded with loud cries the abolition of courts of justice, the holding of the sessions of the legislative assembly in any other town but Boston, the reduction of salaries granted to public officers, a new emission of paper money, the liberation of those imprisoned for debt, the settlement of the accounts of the United States, the prohibition of every object of luxury imported from abroad, the diminution of taxes, the absolute liberty of the press, and the abolition of the Senate or upper chamber.
* The courts of justice are at present protected by troops and by several companies of artillery. Congress being informed that the seditious had drawn near to Springfield, and that the arsenals of the United States were in danger, General Knox, Minister of War, received orders to go there immediately, and to order a respectable corps of militia to march there. The proclamation of the Governor of Massachusetts; the circular letters of the town of Boston, and other principal towns; the proceedings of the different municipal assemblies; and the measures taken by the seditious to disperse the courts of justice, are to be found in the gazettes that I have the honor to send you. To these details I will only add the reflections of the most enlightened patriots on this factious event. They perceive that, in forming the different constitutions, they had too great need of the assistance of the common people not to grant to them much more than the repose of the republic, the security of the citizen, and the energy of the government can sustain; that an entire and unlimited liberty is a phantom which has never been able to exist but at the expense of public tranquility; that the theory of the three powers equally distributed is sublime, but that practice offers a thousand difficulties which ought to have been foreseen; that the executive power is much too weak in America; that the simplicity of the chiefs renders them contemptible in the eyes of the multitude, which judges only by the senses; and that there is need of strokes of authority, of arms, and of lictors, to make the government respected. These principles are confirmed by a scene like that in Massachusetts which took place in New Hampshire. About three hundred mutineers met near Exeter to break up the courts of justice; but Governor Sullivan, a distinguished officer during the war, instantly put himself at the head of the militia, dispersed the insurgents, and dispersed the chiefs of the revolt. The people of Connecticut have equally made some efforts for the abolishment of debts and breaking up of the courts of justice, but the vigilance of the Governor has thus far prevented any overt act. It must be agreed that these insurrections are in a great part due to the scarcity of specie.
The last sentence in the above extract is equivalent to saying that the insurrections were largely attributable to the free-trade system, under which specie flowed out as foreign merchandise flowed in; for events, in one relation of their existence, are effects; in some further relation, these effects become causes of other effects. Thus the motions of the planets are the effects of ascertained causes, and these complex motions are, in their turn, the causes of eclipses, and of other phenomena, such as daylight and darkness, these effects being also, in their turn, causes of new classes of effects. It is necessary to go to the sun to find the source of the light of the moon; and it is necessary to go to the free-trade system to find the source of the scarcity of specie which, in its turn, was the source of the distress, and of the discontent and the demoralization which incited large numbers of the people to insurrection.
Mr. Temple, the British Consul-General at New York, wrote to Lord Carmarthen, in London, under date of Oct. 4, 1786, as follows:
Mobs, tumults, and bodies of men in arms are now on tiptoe in various parts of this country, all tending to the dissolution of not only what is called the supreme power (Congress), but to bring into contempt and disregard the Legislatures and governments of the several States. At this hour, while I am writing, I have undoubted intelligence that at Springfield (a county town in the State of Massachusetts) more than fifteen hundred men in arms are there assembled to stop the proceedings of the courts of justice until the constitution of government be altered and reformed to their approbation! and that about one thousand militia (horse and foot), by order of the Governor, are there also assembled to support government against the said insurgents! In the meantime, the Governor of that State hath, by special proclamation, called the Legislature to meet as upon last Thursday; and upon the proceedings and doings of that Legislature it seems to depend whether or not arms shall decide the matter between the contending parties! Public affairs are much the same in the State of New Hampshire. The whole legislative body of that State were, for four hours, prisoners in the hands of a tumultuous assembly in arms! Indeed, dissatisfaction and uneasiness prevail more or less throughout this country; the greater part of the people poor, and many in desperate circumstances, do not, it seems, want any government at all, but had rather have all power and property reduced to a level, and it is more than probable that general confusion will take place before any permanent government be established in this unhappy country.