Class War is in America's roots

"The U.S. has never been a society riven by class resentment."
 - David Brooks

 According to wealthy conservatives, class and wealth inequality has never been a factor in American history. Of course these are the same guys who believe that the Boston Tea Party was about high tea taxes when in fact it was a protest against government tax breaks for a huge multinational corporation.

   Can you imagine today's Tea Party movement protesting corporate tax cuts? I can't.

 Today's Tea Party, which is largely ignorant about the event that it is named from, would be shocked to discover the revolutionary spirit of America was founded on class war.

Bacon's Rebellion

  A century before the Declaration of Independence, America was undergoing a revolution. However, this revolution was not based on a desire for independence from England. This revolution was all about fighting class and racial oppression.

 Society in the Virginia Colony of the 1670's was beginning to resemble society of England. The Tidewater Gentry made up only about 5% of the population of the colony, but owned nearly all the best land. The lower classes were pushed into the interior country were Indian attacks were frequent and the land was rocky.

 The causes of the rebellion were included such items as lack of protection from native American attacks, high taxes, restrictions on the right to vote, and subordination to an aristocratic minority.

 The two protagonists were William Berkeley, already 70-years old during Bacon's Rebellion, and Nathaniel Bacon, 40 years younger than Berkeley.

  Both were members of the ruling class, but only Bacon fought for the interests of the lower classes.

 It became a rebellion of the poor and landless against the established planters of the day. Further intensifying this division, Bacon freed all servants who would agree to take up arms against their former masters.

 The Tidewater Gentry was temporarily expelled from Jamestown, their mansions burned. But when Bacon unexpectedly died from disease, the rebellion collapsed. The aristocracy was brutal in their return. Indentured servants were re-enslaved. 23 rebel leaders were hanged. The fallout had significant ramifications to the racial makeup of the future nation.

 these plantation-owning families came to realize that unemployed former indentured servants were a threat to social stability. They turned increasingly to the use of slaves, who were regarded as a safer source of labor and were less expensive.

Leisler's Rebellion

Nine years later James II decreed the creation of the Dominion of New England, which quickly expanded to include the colonies of New York and New Jersey. The creation of the Dominion was an attempt to enforce more central authority upon the restive colonies.

  This did not go over well.

 Sir Edmund Andros, the governor of the dominion in Boston, almost immediately clamped down on local legislatures and town meetings. His rule didn't last long. When news of the Glorious Revolution reached Boston on 18 April 1689, Andros had the messenger arrested, but it was too late.

 The people of Boston rioted. Andros dressed himself as a woman and tried to flee, but was captured. He was sent back to England to stand trial.

 Meanwhile, due to the distance involved, New York had been administered by a Lieutenant Governor of the dominion, Francis Nicholson.

 After the Boston Revolt, the dominion collapsed. In that collapse a immigrant merchant turned militia captain named Jacob Leisler took action. Like Bacon, Leisler was one of the few upper-class citizens who sympathized with the lower classes.

 When word of rebellion reached New York, the local militia took control of Fort James and renamed it Fort William. A popular revolt followed and the mob convinced Leisler to be their leader.

 The aristocrats opposed the rebellion. When they began fearing for their safety they fled to Albany.

 Leisler soon began making the laws more egalitarian.

 Backed by Dutch laborers and artisans who resented the English ruling elite, Leisler enacted a government of direct popular representation. By some counts, he also moved to redistribute wealth to the poor. Both policies earned him the scorn of New York's predominantly Anglican merchant and aristocratic classes.

On January 28, 1691, English Major Richard Ingoldesby and a large force of troops landed in New York and demanded the surrender of Fort William. Lesiler refused. Ingoldesby then attacked the fort and two soldiers died in the skirmish. Leisler and eleven others were arrested for treason. The trial was judged by personal and political opponents of Leisler.

  On the 16 May 1691, Leisler and his son-in-law were hung and then beheaded while still alive.

Shay's Rebellion

 Daniel Shays was an original patriot. He was a poor farmhand who fought at Lexington, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga. General Lafayette himself honored Captain Shays for his bravery. He was wounded and resigned from service in 1780.

 When he got home he soon found himself in court for unpaid debts, debts he couldn't pay because the military pay was in arrears. He soon discovered that he wasn't alone. Creditors demanded to be paid in "hard money", while most farmers had their money tied up in land and livestock. Dozens of towns petitioned for debt relief, but the government sided with the creditors. Thousands of armed men began organizing to disrupt business at the courts. They called themselves Regulators.

"I have been greatly abused, have been obliged to do more than my part in the war; been loaded with class rates, town rates, province rates, Continental rates and all rates...been pulled and hauled by sheriffs, constables and collectors, and had my cattle sold for less than they were worth...The great men are going to get all we have and I think it is time for us to rise and put a stop to it, and have no more courts, nor sheriffs, nor collectors nor lawyers."

 - Plough Jogger, a farmer

 By spring 1782, before the end of the Revolutionary War, there were near riots at courthouses across Massachusetts, the most notable being Ely's Rebellion.

 One of the men responsible for suppressing Ely's Rebellion was a man named Luke Day, another veteran of the Revolution. Ironically, Luke Day's financial fortunes would be crushed by taxes, inflation and recession. By 1785 Day was in a debtors prison for failing to pay 34 Pounds. Day would later escape debtor's prison and become a leader of Shay's Rebellion on August 29, 1786, when hundreds of men closed the Northampton courthouse by force.

  On September 19, Daniel Shay joined the revolt by leading a large contingent to Springfield to shut down the Supreme Judicial Court. Shay was able to parlay with the militia to avoid any bloodshed. The Massachusetts government considered it a direct assault on the sovereignty of the state.

 Within a month the state issued the Militia Act, which threatened court-martial and execution for any militia member taking part in the disturbance.

 A few days later the Riot Act was passed, which forbade a gathering of 12 or more armed persons. Samuel Adams himself helped draw up the Riot Act. Adams also wanted to arrest everyone who had been involved in the rebellion. The following month Habeas Corpus was suspended in Massachusetts.

"In monarchies the crime of treason and rebellion may admit of being pardoned or lightly punished, but the man who rebels against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death."
- Samuel Adams

 During the fall and winter Day and Shay were leaders of a bloodless revolt that closed several courthouses to keep the courts from seizing the property of indebted farmers. The Boston elites were mortified.

 The state government decided the time to act has arrived. Their target was Job Shattuck.

 Job Shattuck, a veteran of Bunker Hill, had been leading protests against the policies against the eastern financiers since 1782.

 In late November the government sent a company of men with an arrest warrant for Shattuck. They found him alone near his home. When they tried to arrest him he resisted and Shattuck suffered a deep cut in his knee from a saber. Shattuck and three other men were taken from their rural town to Boston where they were held in solitary confinement.

 Governor James Bowdoin decided to take a hard line. Unable to pay to mobilize the state militia, Bowdoin turned to the Boston aristocrats to fund it.

 In January 1787, 4,400 militia volunteers, under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln, marched out of Boston towards Springfield armory.

 Meanwhile, Shay realized that the poorly armed Regulators, some only armed with sticks and clubs, needed more leverage against the increasingly hard-lined Boston aristocrats. On January 25, Shays began a march of 1,400 men towards the Springfield armory.

 The militia already had 1,200 members under the command of William Shepard at the Springfield armory a week before Shay's Regulators arrived on the afternoon of January 25.

 So far there had been very little violence in the rebellion, and it appears that Shay's Regulators didn't expect any now. When the militia fired warning shots over their heads, they ignored them and continued to advance.

 Then Shepard gave the command to fire the cannon "at waistband height" into the advancing troupe. Three Regulators were killed instantly, and 20 wounded.

 The insurgents were shocked that their countrymen would fire on them. They broke and ran.

 Later that day Lincoln arrived with reinforcements. They pursued the Regulators to the town of Petersham, where they caught them by surprise on February 4 and captured nearly 1,000 of them without further bloodshed.

 Later on a violent encounter between Regulators and the militia occurred at the town of Stockbridge that left three dead. The rebellion was broken.

 In April the Supreme Judicial Court convicted and sentenced to death seven member of the rebellion. That same month Governor Bowdoin overwhelmingly lost the election to John Hancock, who supported a more lenient treatment of the prisoners.

  After an overwhelming response for leniency from the citizens of Massachusetts, all of the Regulators are pardoned in the next few months except for Shays and Day. Although several are given mock executions on the gallows.

  Shay and Day were pardoned the following year.

[Update: North Carolina also saw an uprising of poor, working class Regulators against the wealthy elite in the years leading up to the American Revolution. It ended with a pitched battle that saw nine killed on each side, and seven Regulators hung for treason.(h/t Deep Harm)

Lesson's Learned

 Much of America's early rebellious nature revolved around fighting the aristocracy at home. Americans weren't a new breed separated from the rest of human history. We were the same people who simply had a chance to start again.

 It didn't end with Shay's Rebellion. A few decades later Rhode Island witnessed Dorr's Rebellion. Then there was the Great Strike of 1877 which sparked a nationwide labor movement. By the early 20th Century most people in America discussed politics and economics in terms of class. Socialism was a viable alternative.

 It's only in the last half century that discussing class has been taboo. That doesn't mean that class is no longer an issue. It only means that it isn't discussed.

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Meteor Man's picture

Terrific history lesson gjohnsit. The class/racial divide in St. Louis is ready to explode again over the murder trial of a white police officer. This jumped out at me:

Missouri is no stranger to racial tension and violence. St. Louis is the murder capital of the United States, for the third year in a row. Missouri has one of the highest numbers of active hate groups in the country (24), and is home to four chapters of the Ku Klux Klan.

St. Louis is one of the most segregated cities in America. “The Delmar Divide” was coined to describe the stark class and race divisions along Delmar Boulevard, a street whose northern-border residents are 99 percent African-American with a median home value of $78,000, while residents to the south of that street are 70 percent white with a median home value of $310,000.

Officer Stockley waived his right to a jury trial. The city is still waiting for the judge's verdict:

On Labor Day, there was a candlelight vigil on the corner where Anthony Lamar Smith was killed. He was shot by Jason Stockley in 2011, who remained a St. Louis police officer until 2013. That’s the year the city paid out a wrongful death settlement to Smith’s family. Now, Stockley’s murder trial has concluded. The city has been waiting on a verdict since August 9.

It looks like violent rebellion is a real possibility.

16 users have voted.

"They'll say we're disturbing the peace, but there is no peace. What really bothers them is that we are disturbing the war." Howard Zinn

Pricknick's picture

of showing how our ancestors did not run away from tyranny. They ran away from the control that they couldn't achieve elsewhere.
The mission of the forefathers has now been accomplished. One class rules all.

11 users have voted.

Regardless of the path in life I chose, I realize it's always forward, never straight.

Centaurea's picture

One of my ancestors was among the leaders of the Regulators in North Carolina. This was a good-sized uprising, several hundred pre-revolutionaries who stood up to the British colonial governor and his 18th century oligarchy pals, who were economically oppressing the colonists.

The Regulators were a civilian militia, not professionally-trained soldiers. They went up against the British colonial army at the Battle of Alamance, and were soundly defeated. It was one of the last victories the British overlords enjoyed before the colonies declared their independence and started the Revolutionary War.

In an attempt to crush the spirit of the pre-revolutionary colonists and thus prevent any further displays of insubordination by the "riff-raff", the leaders of the Regulators were brutally executed. Here's the sentence pronounced on my ancestor, militia captain Benjamin Merrill:

"I must now close my afficing Duty, by pronouncing upon you the awful sentence of the law; which is that you, Benjamin Merrill, be carried to the place whence you came, you be drawn from thence to the place of execution, where you are to be hanged by the neck; that you be cut down while yet alive, that your bowels be taken out and burnt before our face, that your head be cut off, your Body divided in Four Quarters, and this be at His Majesty's Disposal; and the Lord have Mercy on your Soul".

Such civilized, high-class folks those 18th century oligarchs were, weren't they?

Capt. Merrill was 40 years old, and left a pregnant wife and a dozen children, one of whom, his son Jonathan, was my ancestor.

In doing genealogy research, I first came across this branch of my family tree during the summer of 2014. The next summer was the "summer of Bernie", when so many people woke up. As I was participating in the Sanders campaign and observing the "Second American" revolutionary spirit being kindled, I kept thinking about my six-great-grandpa, Capt. Benjamin Merrill, and comparing his time in history with ours.

What goes around comes around, and here we are again.

14 users have voted.

"Don't go back to sleep ... Don't go back to sleep ... Don't go back to sleep."

"If you want revolution, be it."
~Caitlin Johnstone

riverlover's picture

ry War, NY could not pay the ?conscripts, ?volunteers. Instead, they gave some platted land in the Western NY wilderness as payment. My 20+ acre property has two Military lot lines for partial boundaries. Random stone piles mark both (rocky Marcellus shale here). It may have been mostly clear-cut, although there are some big old spreading trees in the middle of 120-year growth. The original Military Lots were larger.

7 users have voted.

Hey! my dear friends or soon-to-be's, JtC could use the donations to keep this site functioning for those of us who can still see the life preserver or flotsam in the water.

Lookout's picture

contributed to the loss of the class discussion, and also made socialism a dirty word. To point out the inequality was "communist" or at least sympathetic to communists.

Thanks for the history lesson. We forget our roots.

6 users have voted.

“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Lily O Lady's picture


0 users have voted.

"The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?" ~Orwell, "1984"

dkmich's picture

True at the other place and truer here.

Correction, admire and enjoy your work.

5 users have voted.

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Not Henry Kissinger's picture

"In monarchies the crime of treason and rebellion may admit of being pardoned or lightly punished, but the man who rebels against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death."
- Samuel Adams

was born.

The Adams cousins (Sam and John) were both such hypocrites when it came to governing by the principles they claimed so important during the Revolution - especially that one about Liberty.

Once in power, they acted more like Sovereigns than the one they replaced.

Nothing's changed much since.

3 users have voted.

"Friends don't let friends Russiagate." - Caitlin Johnstone

Not Henry Kissinger's picture

was an important catalyst for the Constitutional Convention of 1787

Another impetus for the convention was Shays' Rebellion. A political conflict between Boston merchants and rural farmers over issues such as property seizures for tax debts had broken out into an open rebellion. This rebellion was led by a former Revolutionary War captain, Daniel Shays, himself a small farmer with tax debts, who had never received payment for his service in the Continental Army. The rebellion took months for Massachusetts to put down completely, and some desired a federal army that would be able to put down such insurrections.

A big reason the US Federal government was created in the first place was to help states more effectively suppress economic rebellion.

Shortly thereafter, the power of the new Federal government to quash economic protest was used with full effect during the Whiskey Rebellion, a tax revolt by farmers, war veterans and others in western PA.

Throughout Western Pennsylvania counties, protesters used violence and intimidation to prevent federal officials from collecting the tax. Resistance came to a climax in July 1794, when a U.S. marshal arrived in western Pennsylvania to serve writs to distillers who had not paid the excise. The alarm was raised, and more than 500 armed men attacked the fortified home of tax inspector General John Neville. Washington responded by sending peace commissioners to western Pennsylvania to negotiate with the rebels, while at the same time calling on governors to send a militia force to enforce the tax. Washington himself rode at the head of an army to suppress the insurgency, with 13,000 militiamen provided by the governors of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The rebels all went home before the arrival of the army, and there was no confrontation. About 20 men were arrested, but all were later acquitted or pardoned.

Washington sent 13,000 Federal militiamen to suppress a revolt of 500 tax protesters. Lesson learned.

3 users have voted.

"Friends don't let friends Russiagate." - Caitlin Johnstone

GreyWolf's picture

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