The Era of the American Revolution: Studies Inscribed to Evarts Boutell Greene

By Richard B. Morris | Go to book overview

The Massachusetts Conservatives In the Critical Period

ROBERT A. EAST

The deliberate and firm manner in which she [ Massachusetts] has conducted her policy formed her laws regulated her finances and administered Justice since the peace . . . have given her a degree of respectability that every other State acknowledges.

NATHAN DANE to THOMAS DWIGHT, February 11, 1786

Time will make curious disclosures, and you, Sir, may be astonished to find the incendiaries who have fomented the discontents among the miserable insurgents of the Massachusetts, in a class of men least suspected.

MERCY WARREN to JOHN ADAMS, December, 1786

THE MOST publicized of the troubles encountered by an American state in the immediate post-Revolutionary years were the insurrections against the process of law in back-country Massachusetts in 1786. These were aggravated, however, by the conservative fiscal and social policies which were pursued in that state after 1780 and which eventually tended to break down of their own weight rather than because of radical opposition. The larger importance of the disturbances, moreover, is that they played into the hands of the strong nationalists, who used them as arguments to drive the more complacent of the Massachusetts conservatives, against their earlier desires and fears, into accepting a plan to reconsider the powers of the Federal union. The drift of conservative purpose and interest thus affords a study more revealing of the inner meaning of the so-called Critical Period in Massachusetts than do the activities per se of the "Reverend" Samuel Ely, the sturdy Captain Shays, and other colorful disturbers of the peace.1

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1
It is an interesting commentary upon the variety of historical interpretations existing for this period that, whereas modern writers place heavy emphasis upon such radical activities, George Bancroft, in his History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States of America ( 2 vols., New York, 1882), gave only a half-page to the events of Shays's Rebellion, and merely spoke of the husbandmen supporting the rebels as being otherwise law-abiding citizens. It is my own feeling that it is the strength of the conservatives which has been underestimated, but my definition of a conservative is rather broad. This is permissible in the absence of anything like well-formed parties, but it should be compared with the interpretation in Anson E. Morse, The Federalist Party in Massachusetts to the Year 1800 ( Princeton, 1909), chaps. i-iii.

-349-

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