Saturday, September 29, 2012

August 1774 MA Farmers Rejected financial domination

from page 13

"2. Advances for Freedom and Democracy Associated with the American Revolution, 1765-1800

“The American Revolution”, according to Keyssar,50 “produced modest, but only modest, gains in the formal democratization of politics. ... Overall, the proportion of adult men who could vote in 1787 was surely higher than it had been in 1767, yet the shift was hardly dramatic. ... By 1790, ..., roughly 60 to 70 percent of adult white men ... could vote”, compared to “probably less than 60 percent” before.
Important advances achieved by the American Revolution included (a) the widespread adoption of written constitutions with locally elected governors and councils replacing those appointed in England and (b) bills of rights explicitly guarantying certain rights to individuals and limiting the powers of governments. This trend was partly a response to the Coercive Acts of Parliament of 1774, which closed Boston harbor and
changed the Massachusetts colonial charter without consulting the colonists, giving the crown-appointed governor the power to appoint and remove many public officials including judges, justices of the peace, and marshals.51
Introduction of State Constitutions: Farmers in Massachusetts, who were already concerned about the possible confiscation of their property for inability to pay taxes or to repay loans, feared that the new rules would make these public officials less responsive to local concerns and more susceptible to bribery. Beginning in August 1774, when circuit court judges arrived in rural towns all across Massachusetts, they were met by thousands of angry farmers who filled the streets and refused to permit the judges to hold court under the new laws. Judges were asked to resign or at least to ignore the new act and hold court only under the Massachusetts charter of 1691. Each declaration of judges was put to a vote of the locals to determine whether it was acceptable. Under this onslaught of citizen resistance, most of the courts were closed although a few were allowed to operate under the 1691 charter.52
This resulted in a power vacuum in Massachusetts, which was filled53 “[o]n June 19, 1775, [when] the Massachusetts Congress elected a 28-member council that replaced the governor as executive. With this one alteration, ..., the Massachusetts Charter of 1691 became the first state constitution.” The Coercive Acts did not officially affect the other 12 rebellious colonies. However, believing the acts threatened them as well, by 1777 all 13 had adopted new constitutions consistent with their declared independence.54 Facing a King and parliament attempting by fiat to eliminate 150 years of democratic tradition, the colonists agreed to instead to eliminate Britain from their colonial charters. After the war, painfully aware of their vulnerability as 14 independent states (including Vermont, which had previously been disputed between New York and New Hampshire) and of the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation, revolutionary leaders crafted the current US federal constitution and subjected it to vigorous debate in all the states.

While these were not the first written constitutions in history, they started a trend that has provided written constitutions for nearly all of the world’s advanced industrial democracies and many totalitarian and authoritarian nations. One of the few exceptions is Great Britain, which is a constitutional monarchy without “a written constitution. There is no agreed mechanism [in Britain] for changing the (unwritten) de-facto constitution and not even agreement about what it actually contains.”55
Bills of Rights: Ten of the early state constitutions included bills of rights,56 as had colonial charters since 1639 and the English Bill of Rights57 of 1689, updating the Magna Carta58 of 1215. Major US constitutional documents were translated into many languages and disseminated widely. These included the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and state constitutions. After the war, the Federalist Papers and the US Constitution of 1787 were also translated and distributed widely. They had a profound effect on constitutional thought around the world, especially in Europe in part via their impact on the French Revolution,59 including the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” of 1789. Rutland says, “Three months before the French acted, James Madison had already fulfilled a pledge he made during the ratification struggle over the Constitution drafted in 1787” by introducing in the first US House of Representatives 16 proposed amendments, 10 of which had been officially approved by 1791. These became the US Bill of Rights.60
Keyssar reports that the post-war period saw several liberalizations of the right to vote in different states as disfranchised revolutionary war veterans successfully pushed for suffrage in spite of their inability to meet property requirements.61 A study of these changes may help explain the apparent contradiction between Sharp’s comment that violence tends to concentrate power and Keyssar’s observation that the American Revolution contributed to a modest growth in the percent of the population eligible to vote.62

In sum, the American Revolution produced modest but important gains for freedom and democracy. Furthermore, the evidence summarized in this essay suggests that most of these gains were obtained through nonviolent discussions, motivated in part by the political exigencies of the war and facilitated by the accompanying turmoil. However, without the previous 150 years of democratic experience, the colonists might not have found it so easy to agree to disagree agreeably. In particular, the claim that the revolutionary war itself directly advanced freedom and democracy seems inconsistent with the weight of the available evidence.

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R.D. Laing

R.D. Laing
Speaking on Autonomy