Violence has again struck the streets of our nation, this time in Baltimore. How does this violence compare to Shay’s Rebellion? That rebellion helped topple a government formed under the Articles of Confederation. It birthed our Constitution and our strong, central government.
Time has buried Shay’s Rebellion, its negatives and positives. Without that violent rebellion, what would we be today but Balkanized countries separated by ethic, social, and economic differences?
Jefferson commented on Shay’s Rebellion with a quote often remembered and seldom understood. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Had we seen Shay’s disorganized and undisciplined army of 4,000 looting the countryside for food, we would have, as people did then, called them traitors, criminals and thugs. We would used whatever violence needed to stop them. We would have tried and convicted their leaders as was done then. Some would hang as they did then.
It is not the actions which separate a riot from a rebellion; it is whether the goal is justice or injustice.
To quote Jefferson’s reaction beyond the one line, “(Their motives) were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to liberty. And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their people (fail to) preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them.”
As Jefferson suggests, we must set ourselves “right as to the facts” before any trial, public judgement, pardon or punishment. If we act, and judgement in social media and cable TV is action; if we act without possession of facts, a summary of motivations, as well as review of the actions, then we will not pacify the rebellion or ever be able to pardon ourselves.
Michael W. Parker