Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Quote of the Day (Philip Roth, on Fiction and Autobiography)

"I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t." ―Philip Roth, Deception: A Novel (1990)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Quote of the Day (Andy Rooney, on Two Kinds of Clothes in His Closet)

“The back of my closet is filled with clothes that I'll be able to wear again just as soon as I lose 10 pounds. On the other side of those on the pole is another, older bunch of clothes. I'll be able to wear those again just as soon as I lose about twenty pounds.”—Journalist Andy Rooney (1919-2011), On Second Thought (1984)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Flashback, January 1787: Shays' Rebellion, First U.S. Revolt of the Have-Nots, Crushed

In late January 1787, an attack on a federal armory in Springfield, Mass., led by a wounded Revolutionary War veteran now barely making ends meet on his farm, was crushed, leaving four dead and 20 wounded, with its scattered remnants brought to heel in early February.

But Shays' Rebellion—originating in debt-burdened farmers’ desperate but unheeded pleas for postponement of tax collections, elimination of unfair mortgages, and a fairer hearing in the courts—reverberated far beyond the confines of Western Massachusetts in that winter. Its causes and consequences were endlessly analyzed and debated not only by the aristocrats who largely governed America, from New Hampshire to Georgia, at the time, but also by historians from coast to coast who continue to shape interpretations of the event more than two centuries later.

Events That Continue to Echo

Indeed, through the mists of history, the unrest in the Connecticut River Valley sounds terrifyingly familiar to anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with current events in this country:

*A wrenching recession that left white male breadwinners already in a precarious position on the brink of total collapse;

*Massive and unfair seizure of homes at the behest of entrenched financial interests;

*A protracted legislative stalemate that failed to solve anything;

*Have-nots exploding in counterproductive, if understandable, ways; and

*Elites, utterly bewildered by the recent astonishing turn of events, undergoing intense soul-searching over the recent divisions revealed and the possibility that a foreign power could exploit them.

Shays' Rebellion was the first protest movement of the newly independent United States. Its outburst of violence, though limited and contained, awakened, to an unprecedented degree, most of the leaders of the American Revolution to the weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation, the compact of the 13 colonies that had governed the new nation since 1781. Though the material conditions that sparked the protest eased only gradually, a consensus formed that the Articles not only needed to be drastically revised, but even scrapped in favor of what became the U.S. Constitution.

It almost certainly forced a reluctant General George Washington out of retirement, making him the focal point of the Constitutional Convention held later that year in Philadelphia.

The Origins of Unrest

The issue bearing down on Western Massachusetts after the cessation of hostilities with England in 1783 was similar to the one that set off the Boston Tea Party the decade before: taxes. The commonwealth’s constitution, passed in 1780, used property as the qualification for voting and considerable property as part of the criteria for holding office.

But the compact not only limited the power of the common man but hindered his ability even to make a living. With merchants and investors on the coast devastated by the hit delivered by Britain in the war, they insisted on a stepped-up schedule of “hard-money” repayment from their small creditors to handle their own often whopping debt, and the new commonwealth government turned a deaf ear to farmers’ demands that the cash-only basis of transactions be modified. Not only could the government not issue paper money, but farmers could not even employ the bartering that had gotten them through earlier hard times.

It all came to a head in 1786, when the Commonwealth sought to make up for lower-than-expected revenues in the prior year by hiking poll and property taxes. These were not graduated taxes—the same heavy duties were placed on land without regard to their value. Moreover, almost 40% of revenue was derived from head taxes—again, levied without regard to income levels.

Resentment against the new measures grew especially high in central and western Massachusetts, where the new burdens compounded the dual suffering caused by the just-concluded war and by notably inhospitable soil. Before long, confiscation of farms and imprisonments for debt had multiplied.

A Stymied Reform Movement and Its Fallout

At first, the unrest was confined to a few conventions across the state that called for these reforms:

*lower court and lawyers’ fees

*reduced salaries for state officials

*paper money

*relocating the state capital away from Boston, the center of commercial interests

*lower taxes

*shifting the tax burdens

*abolishing the state senate

*reining in the governor’s appointive power.

By late summer 1786, the deadlocked legislature had not moved on any of these measures. In reaction, 1,500 farmers marched on Northampton to halt foreclosure proceedings. But tensions escalated dramatically in September, when another group of farmers took arms and closed the courthouse in Springfield.

While offering a pardon that fall, Gov. James Bowdoin also condemned the protesters’ “riot, anarchy and confusion.” It was already too late: the rebellion was picking up steam, with the mantle of leadership settling on 45-year-old Daniel Shays of Pelham—who, by virtue of his sterling record in the American Revolution (including serving at Bunker Hill, Ticonderoga, Saratoga, and Stony Point), rose to command the insurgents known as the “Regulators.”

Seeing himself as a mediator between his force and the government, Shays wrote to a fellow Regulator that he was "unwilling to be any way accessary to the shedding of blood, and greatly desirous of restoring peace and harmony to this convulsed Commonwealth." But he agreed to a move against the arsenal in Springfield—partly because the barracks would provide shelter to his men in the winter, partly because the arms there would bolster his force’s position against the recalcitrant governor and legislature.

He hadn’t reckoned that soldiers were already inside the barracks, nor that the reinforcements from other Regulators would not be there when he launched his assault. Small arms and artillery were enough to rout the Regulators that January. Several weeks later, Gen. Benjamin Lincolnanxious to repair a reputation damaged by his surrender to the British at Charleston in 1780—marched his men 30 miles through a howling snowstorm in early February, then surprised and routed Shays’ remaining force at Petersham. The insurrection was, for all intents and purposes, over.

The Horror of the Elite

Except among outsiders who had been eyeing events with mounting alarm. Alexander Hamilton, a young aide-de-camp to Washington who had established a thriving law practice in New York, wrote: “Who can determine what might have been the issue of [the] late convulsions, if the malcontents had been headed by a Caesar or a Cromwell? Who can predict what effect a despotism, established in Massachusetts would have upon the liberties of New Hampshire or Rhode Island, of Connecticut or New York?"

Hamilton's remarks were typical of those who feared the unrest could spread to other states. While some, like Hamilton, worried that mob rule could lead to a dictator, still others dreaded the possibility that the weakened republic could fall back into the hands of England.

Afterlife of a Rebel

A year after the collapse of the rebellion, Shays—seeing that most of the Regulators had received pardons in exchange for laying down their arms—requested clemency. New Gov. John Hancock, more lenient than his predecessor, granted the request.

In 1795, Shays relocated to New York in an attempt to improve his fortunes, but, despite moving around several times within the Empire State, continued to experience difficulties. Finally, at age 77, he applied for and received a pension based on his meritorious record in the American Revolution. He died in obscurity in 1825, a half-century after fighting at Bunker Hill and nearly 40 years after being denounced as a traitor by his commonwealth’s “haves.”

For a century, Shays was regarded as an emblem of disorder and a mortal threat to the young republic. In the early 1900s, however, he came to be viewed as a precursor of the Populist movement, and more recently still he has been embraced by New Left historians such as Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the United States.  

Among those who now eyed Shays with considerable sympathy was the contrarian American man of letters Gore Vidal, who in 1972 wrote an essay that became the centerpiece of his collection Homage to Daniel Shays. Only late in the 20th century, Vidal felt, was the time right for "the egalitarian vision of Daniel Shays and his road not taken":

“Property is power, as those Massachusetts veterans of the revolution discovered when they joined Captain Daniel Shays in his resistance to the landed gentry’s replacement of a loose confederation of states with a tax-levying central government. The veterans thought that they had been fighting a war for true independence. They did not want London to be replaced by New York. They did want an abolition of debts and a division of property. Their rebellion was promptly put down. But so shaken was the elite by the experience that their most important (and wealthiest) figure grimly emerged from private life with a letter to Harry Lee. ‘You talk of employing influence,’ wrote George Washington, ‘to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts. I know not where that influence is to be found, or if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is no government. Let us have one by which our lives, liberties and properties will be secured or let us know the worst at once.’ So was born the Property Party and with it the Constitution of the United States. We have known the ‘best’ for nearly 200 years. What would the ‘worst’ have been like?”

Mechanisms for Quelling Disorder 

The federal government had not been able to move against the rebellion because the Articles left it no enforcement mechanism to collect the taxes needed to raise even a small force. Thus, it was left to the Massachusetts militia to deal with the event--and the money to raise those troops came from the coastal merchants with the most money to lose. The Constitution, despite the lack of egalitarianism decried by Vidal and others, at least went some way to assuring that less parochial interests would not hold sway in the United States.

While the momentum that this domestic insurrection provided to the creation of the Constitution has been analyzed quite a bit over the years, less discussed has been its impact on a key provision of that founding document. Article 1, Section 8 gave Congress the power to provide for calling forth the militia "to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.”   

Seven years later, President Washington used that power to stamp out the first significant challenge to federal authority under the Constitution, the Whiskey Rebellion. And, nearly 75 years later, Abraham Lincoln used this same legal authority to move against secession by defining it as a rebellion. (In fact, the U.S. government records of the Civil War refers formally to “The War of the Rebellion.”)

Quote of the Day (Cardinal Newman, on God’s Mercy)

“It is our great relief that God is not extreme to mark what is done amiss, that He looks at the motives, and accepts and blesses in spite of incidental errors.” —John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), letter to his mother, Aug. 27, 1830, quoted in The Works of Cardinal Newman: Letters and Correspondence During His Life in the English Church, edited by Anne Mozley (1911)