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William B. Farrell is principal consultant at Swordfish Consulting International, LLC in Orono.
Starting late in the summer of 1786 and lasting into the following year, Massachusetts witnessed a wave of armed revolts in response to perceived issues of predatory governance and onerous taxation. Many of the hundreds of men involved in this series of revolts, including one of the leaders, Daniel Shays, were former Revolutionary War soldiers who had returned to their homes and land. Fearing their destinies were once again being controlled by unjust governing elites, these men blocked the courts from conducting debt processes and foreclosures and unsuccessfully attempted to storm the federal armory at Springfield. These actions sent shock waves of concern across the young United States.
At the height of this period of revolt, Thomas Jefferson, while serving as ambassador to France, wrote a letter to James Madison in which he calmly told his fellow founding father that the form of government that had emerged in the United States affords its citizens a certain level of freedom and happiness, but inevitably is also subject to occasional turbulence. It is this turbulence and constant dynamism that Jefferson contrasted with life in monarchies: “Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem” — “I prefer the tumult of liberty to the quiet of servitude.” Jefferson, unlike some of his compatriots, saw the benefit of dissent by the citizens, noting that it “prevents the degeneracy of the government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs.” Indeed, Jefferson famously attested that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
Unquestionably, 2020-21 has been a tumultuous year in the United States: Storming of the U.S. Capitol building, armed protests in Michigan, formation of the Seattle autonomous zone, and vandalism of the federal courthouse and buildings in downtown Portland, Oregon, are but a few of the manifestations of discontent. And while some would take issue with placing each of these events in the same sentence, potentially implying equivalent levels of legitimacy or illegitimacy, the intended point is that there is an outsized moment of popular dissatisfaction, distrust and skepticism of government that is emerging in pockets across the United States.
Political partisans and aligned journalists are using this moment to point fingers, dig for deeper plots and conspiracies, and galvanize their bases against each other. Terms like “radical left” and “extreme right” are used in equal measure to conflate lawful political divergence and actual criminal violence. Amplified dissatisfaction is emerging as a serious risk for the nation as our polarized leadership and their media megaphones are obscuring our need for dialogue, self-reflection and introspection.
In a letter written to William Stephens Smith, Jefferson wrote: “what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?” But Jefferson recognized that this “medicine” for our continued democratic experiment is also in need of a balanced response to preserve the union. “The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them.”
Indeed, in line with Jefferson’s prescription, most of those involved in Shays’ Rebellion, as it came to be known, were eventually pardoned or amnestied by Massachusetts Gov. John Hancock. And the legislature made progressive steps to ease the tax burden and other grievances that had been voiced, serving as a pacifying salve that dissolved further pockets of discontent. Shays’ Rebellion also played an important role in strengthening resolve for a more cohesive national construct by informing debate on the evolution from the Articles of Confederation to the United States Constitution.
As the United States faces the risks of further fracture in 2021, our national, state and local governments should be compelled to recognize this moment as our strategic inflection point. It is our responsibility to ask why these dynamics exist. We need to parse legitimate grievances, as well as the perception of legitimate grievances, in order to inform tangible action.
While difficult to do, we must work toward building a minimum shared set of accepted facts so that we can have some foundation for fruitful and necessary debate on our collective direction. In absence of this foundation, the legitimacy of our democratic institutions will continue to be called into question and debate will be relegated to arguments over divergent truths, rather than substantive issues.
Driving through western Massachusetts today, you will come across the Daniel Shays Highway. This road stands not as a celebration of a rebellion leader, but rather as a reminder that the integrity of our country depends on an honest even-handed approach to national reconciliation, rather than taking the easier, simplistic and uninspired path of unquestioning demonization.