For Constitution Day, a few days late

Or, what our dissenting soldiers might have thought of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

In Philadelphia that September, President Washington joined many signers of the Declaration of Independence to discuss revision of the Articles of Confederation, the document governing the way the country was put together. Many came with ideas: James Madison had drafted a “Virginia Plan” which contained a bill of rights, to spell out what was contained in “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”

By then. Pennsylvanian Jacob Ritter was a busy shoemaker/preacher, converting others to the Society of Friends while traveling to sell his shoes to southern Quakers. Matthew Lyon was representing Vermont in Congress, publishing Federalist newspapers. Daniel Shays had built a fortified village in Vermont for his family, and was in touch with Regulators back home (Alas, no one has turned up any records of interaction between Lyon and his accidental neighbor.). All three, one we can be reasonably sure, followed the Convention as it was reported in the newspapers — perhaps even in Lyon’s own  Fair Haven Gazette.

Ritter, Shays and Lyon likely noticed, if too politic to mention, how few of the 55 delegates had themselves been soldiers on the front lines; Lyon certainly noticed  his soon-enemy John Adams and his well-known medical militia waivers. There were storied generals, between Commander-in-chief Washington, Pennsylvania’s John Armstrong Sr. and Jr, and Pierce Butler, who’d mobilized southern patriots to retake Charleston from the British. But to find any of lower ranks, one must dig into the fine print of delegates’ biographies, e.g.  Connecticut’s Thomas Mifflin, Army Quartermaster General until 1780.  This was a gathering of politicians and intellectuals, from Alexander Hamilton to Benjamin Franklin.  Delegates were bankers, landowners, owners of small factories; some were slave-owners.

Among delegates’ few truly shared beliefs was that they did not want to put soldiers in charge. Indeed, very few topics consumed the convention more than that of how to simultaneously defend the new nation and avoid oppressive standing armies like those of the empire.  Lyon and Shays, having started as militiamen and small farmers, were likely cheered as the Second Amendment affirmed a “well-regulated militia” as the country’s the principal defender, and set some guidelines for those militias’ future.

But where in that scheme were the likes of Jacob Ritter, or the Quakers young Colonel Washington had admired, or other doves in uniform? “This was called the land of liberty, and yet we are going to make a respectable class of citizens pay for a right to a free exercise of their religious principles?” asked delegate Aedanus Burke, a South Carolina judge deeply affected by his own militia service.

The writers of the Constitution listened, at least at first. James Madison’s first draft of the Second Amendment contained explicit language to protect the rights of conscience: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, a well-armed and well-regulated militia being the best security of a free country; but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.” This “conscience clause” survived weeks of negotiations before it was jettisoned, its implied national jurisdiction over state militias unacceptable to many Southern legislators already angered by the Quakers’ explicit anti-slavery position.

Even Burke, the pacifists’ unlikely ally, said of the Friends’ antislavery petitions: “it gives particular umbrage that the Quakers should be so busy in this business. That they will raise up a great storm against themselves appears…very certain.” The centuries to come would not contradict him.

Quakers were among the interests represented at the state conventions then convened to discuss the new constitution. Their sessions were notoriously brutal, from Vermont to Virginia. Lyon covered in his Federalist newspaper the proceedings of that of his home state. Daniel Shays, still a fugitive, was also in Vermont, in the fortified village he’d built for his family, but some of his fellow regulators were aggressive participants the Massachusetts convention. On February 3, 1788, Madison wrote to Washington that “We have in the Convention 18 or 20 who were actually in Shay’s army,” naming them among the “three parties opposed to it—1. all men who are in favour of paper money & tender laws; those are more or less in every part of the State. 2. all the late insurgents & their abettors. In the three great western Counties [the insurgents] are very numerous.”[1]

Then John Hancock, recently elected governor of Massachusetts, brokered the “Massachusetts Compromise”, in which the bill of rights drafted by Madison was explicitly added to the published Constitution. Hancock was also in the process of negotiating a pardon for Daniel Shays, which became final in 1788.[2] No explicit mention was made, in either the Compromise or the pardon, of Shays’ possible role in the nation’s Constitution.

While Shays got to go back home and congratulate his peers on their victory, Matthew Lyon was about to test that constitution’s boundaries, even if it was from a jail cell.

 

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