Revolution from Below: The Sons of Shay’s Rebellion

The American revolution was a middle class revolution, in contrast to France’s poor peoples revolution or Haiti’s slave revolution. Attempts to push the promises of America to the lower-classes of society; farmers, and their sons most aptly, proved a failure in Shay’s Rebellion. Using a sociological and political framework, the “mob” of Boston’s successful and now venerated rebellion, can be contrasted with Shay’s attempted but ultimately unsuccessful revolution. image of Shay’s Uprising.

A comparative analysis of the interests of the ruling class or elite establishment in the state colonies pre-revolutionary war and post-revolutionary war offers a compelling explanation for the rejection of Shay’s Rebellion and in contrast, the celebration of the Boston Tea Party in the contemporary discourse of American history within education institutions.

The pre-war period was marked by the diffusion of egalitarian values brought from the old world to the new byway of protestant dissent with the religious conditions in England. The rhetoric of these ideas, captured and championed by the mob of the Boston Tea party, advanced the mobs interests against the crown’s colonial rule. British influence and control over the colonies acted as a common enemy for the mob and colonial elites opposed to this rule. This common enemy offered an advantageous opportunity for an accord between both the mob and elites. The elites accord with the mob included a, perhaps tacit, but generally open, favoritism and acknowledgement of democratic ideals and rhetoric. The unleashing of radical democratic fervor among the mob, who “by association” in a crowd, the mob, now as an organized or psychological group, “procure ideas with respect to their interests” and arrive at the “consciousness of their strength.”[1] This consciousness of the mob spurred them to fighting and dying for the revolutions victory over Great Britain.

This is naturally celebrated as a powerful moment of class compromise between two groups with extraordinarily different positions and interests, but nonetheless shaped the outcome of the war and post-revolutionary society. It offers a clean, brotherly spirit purged of antagonism between these two classes of citizens. The post-war period however, marked a new sort of antagonism. Instead of a class compromise held together by the common enemy of British rule, the post-war period saw the antagonisms between these groups develop and influence the new, federalized constitution that would take shape and seek to overrule the democratic fervor and state constitutions.

With British rule eliminated, commercial interests of the elite were to be secured not only from the British, but from the farmers and sons of farmers who constituted the mob and were still armed and fervent with democratic ideals. There was a “campaign to rein in what were considered the democratic excesses of the earlier constitutions”[2] and “The challenge was to conciliate popular feeling, while also limiting influence by the ordinary people who had taken up arms against the British”

Shay’s rebellion was a reactivation of the psychological crowd and the “consciousness of their strength” that materialized with the Boston Tea Party. However, the antagonism, no longer being the British abroad, but the domestic elites, sought to limit this with a combination of repression and conciliation. Shay’s rebellion, Michael Parenti may say, was a “struggle of the common people to ensure and confront oppression.”[3] The task of the elite establishment, past or present, but particularly in modern society, is to “disseminate history” in an “indoctrinating manner” that “captures, classifies, fabricates, and destroys history” at its “point of origin.” The quest of elites to shape contemporary discourse of historical periods and democratic trends, and limit or shadow instances of rebellion against continued elite rule, may offer the rationality behind limiting citizens contact with their radical history.

[1] Gustav Le Bon – “The Crowd”

[2] Frances Parenti – “The Mob & The State”

[3] Michael Parenti – “The Struggle for History”

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