Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Shays's Rebellion Lives On

Is there one factor that has the highest correlation to political leaning? Is it income level? gender? attitudinal factors? There are already available data, from November 6, 2018 exit polls, showing both the breakdowns between the two major parties on a variety of characteristics, as well as stabs at correlations. But surely only one election cannot reliably predict future trends.

I have not taken the time to review these data over the years and, despite a search on Google Scholar and the Pew website, I have been unable to find any. So, my stab is just that. 

It is that, over time, the split is largely based on the age-old cultural and political divisions between city dwellers (recently joined by more suburbanites) and country folk. Let's call it, loosely, metropolitan v. rural. 

This has been a persistent theme throughout American history, perhaps most graphically expressed in the brief rebellion against the political status quo waged by residents of Massachusetts in 1786 and early 1787--colloquially known as "Shays's Rebellion." It may be worth studying these events to try to make sense of what is occurring now.

Shays's Rebellion has typically been portrayed as an effort by dirt-poor farmers to avoid their debts and, along the way, overturn the established order (they did try to seize the federal armory in Springfield). In other words, there was supposedly a correlation between income level and participation in Shays's Rebellion. Indeed, most of the “Rebellion” consisted of semi-successful attempts at shutting down the operations of courts in various localities throughout Massachusetts, most in the western portion, and because, history being written by the victors, so casting the rebels was a propitious way for the victors (merchants from Boston, among them Samuel Adams, and their political allies) to characterize the rebels and their cause. 

Professor Leonard L. Richards, in his 2002 book, Shays's Rebellion, found that this traditional portrait of Shays's Rebellion was wrong. Based on the Richards book, I summarize his findings on two questions: what was the Rebellion about and who were its participants and sympathizers? 

Take the concerns and demand Richards cites as being typical of the complaints addressed to the Massachusetts legislature by local governments in Western Massachusetts since the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783: relief for farmers unable to obtain hard money to pay debts; simplification and reform of court system; elimination of upper chamber of state legislature; redistricting of lower chamber; and moving of state capital from Boston to a more central location. These reforms stemmed from perceived defects in Massachusetts' 1780 constitution, which enshrined conservative principles aimed at preventing the poor or landless from exercising political power, including the creation of an upper legislative chamber based on tax payments and comparable provisions.

On the second question--who were the rebels?--Richards reveals that impoverished farmers were a minority. The vast majority were "yeomen" farmers--not "gentlemen," but not dirt-poor either. Meanwhile, most leaders of what became known as Shays's Rebellion were established, even wealthy, citizens in their local communities in Western Massachusetts. As can be expected, the vast majority, even in the most rebel-laden jurisdictions, were observers, but there was unmistakable widespread sympathy with the central demands of the early protests, as illustrated by the refusal of local militias to put down attempts by semi-armed rebels to shut down a few courts. Importantly, the militia was made up of men who owned property--"men of substance with deep roots in the community since militia law rather systematically excluded the poor and the transient from service," according to Richards. 

In all, from September to December 1786, courts in six towns, including the eastern towns of Taunton and Concord, were forced to be closed. Eventually, Shays's Rebellion was put down by a force of soldiers assembled for this purpose largely by the efforts--and funds--of wealthy Bostonians. Importantly, amidst active attempts of state-sponsored recrimination against the rebels, especially their leaders, Governor Bowdoin was defeated in a landslide by John Hancock. And the general who ordered his state troops to shoot to kill in the battle over the Springfield-based federal armory was vilified for the rest of his life and died a pauper. The first political parties, under President John Adams, were roughly split on these lines. Divisions during the eras of Jacksonian democracy and prairie populism were, arguably, direct descendants of this split, and a quick look at a red-blue national map by counties show the concentration of Democrats in metropolitan areas, especially on the coasts.   

The key point is that just as participants in Shays's Rebellion were largely comfortable if not wealthy men from rural areas, Donald Trump's following is composed very substantially of  member of the "establishment" of small town and rural America.

Realistically, I am not optimistic about the Democrats' ability to break down the barriers between metropolitans and country folks. Organized Democrats--or at least many of those who vote for Democratic candidates--seem to have a preternatural ability to offend their country cousins. This year, it was calls to "abolish" ICE, harassment of their political opponents at restaurants and homes, and unquestioned acceptance of women's accusations against men because they were made by women. These tactics play into the hands of Republicans like Trump (and have done so at least since the days of Richard Nixon) by enabling them to portray all opponents as discourteous mobs. They were taking a page from the playbook of opponents of Shays's Rebellion nearly 250 years ago.

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