J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Constitutional Challenge

A few weeks back Al Carroll, a retired history professor, argued on History News Network that the U.S. Constitution has been an elitist, deeply flawed, and technically illegitimate document from the start.

Certainly there were many more democratic experiments that came out of the Revolutionary War.
After the war, there were early experiments in anarchism, socialism, and other notions very revolutionary for that time. For a year, Pennsylvania tried shutting down the government entirely. Pennsylvania also tried outlawing the collection of debt, a form of wealth redistribution. Slavery ended in seven northern states. One out of eight slaves in the US were freed. New Jersey even gave women the right to vote. Though first done accidentally in 1776, it stayed on the books until 1807. [More on that here.]

Aristocracy and feudalism were ended in the US. Noble titles, primogeniture, and entailment (the wealthy being able to seize public property) all ended. There was enormous confiscation and redistribution of wealth during and after the revolution. (Try telling that to a Tea Party member.) Most British loyalists and many aristocrats, whether they sided with the colonists or with Britain, lost their property. Established state churches in nine of the thirteen colonies were abolished. These were all fairly radical changes, and many Americans wanted to go even further.

American elites’ fear of class warfare created the US Constitution. The most pivotal event was Shays’ Rebellion. Farmers in western Massachusetts tried to stop foreclosures on their farms, so they shut down state courts. [Thomas] Jefferson called this, “liberty run mad.” [George] Washington called it, “anarchy and confusion.” What horrified the founders was not the size of the rebellion. It was minor, with few deaths. The fact that it took so long to break the rebellion worried them. And at the same time, the French Revolution was going on. [No, it didn’t start until 1789, and didn’t turn really radical until the 1790s.] They feared this minor rebellion might grow into a similar class revolution. All the radical experiments in wealth redistribution added to that fear. The founders called the convention in direct response to Shays’ Rebellion.
Carroll followed his analysis by proposing a whole new constitutional blueprint, which is thought-provoking.

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