Workers Vanguard No. 1021
5 April 2013
Gun Rights and Shays Rebellion
14 February 2013
Dear Workers Vanguard:
Issue No. 1015 of WV reprinted the 1989 Spartacist article on the Second Amendment concerning the right to form militias (usually mislabeled as the right to bear arms). The article states: “American colonial revolutionaries wanted the whole people armed...in order to be able to kill British soldiers and to forestall the threat of any standing army.”
Since the British surrender at Yorktown in 1783 effectively ended the American Revolution, it is not strictly true that the Second Amendment had to do with killing British soldiers. This telescopes historical events and leaves out the single most critical event in prompting the adoption of the Constitution (1787) and the Bill of Rights (1789): what is known as Shays’ Rebellion, in the winter of 1786-87.
Leonard Richards’ excellent 2002 book, Shays’s Rebellion: the American Revolution’s Final Battle, is based on a detailed demographic analysis of some 4,000 members of “Shays’ Rebellion.” Burdened by crippling taxes and lawsuits that put many people into debtor’s prison, much of Western Massachusetts rose up in the fall of 1786 and closed down court sessions whenever they were meeting. They referred to themselves as Regulators whose goal was “the Suppressing of tyrannical government in Massachusetts State” (P. 63).
Daniel Shays was a heavily decorated eight-year veteran officer of the American Revolution and had been presented with a gold-handled sword by Lafayette, under whom he served. The core of the Shays’ officer corps was long-time veterans of the Revolution, not a bunch of poor disgruntled debt-ridden farmers. The insurrection was extremely popular. In fact, when the State sent an army of about 1,000 men to suppress Shays, someone suggested they vote on supporting the insurrection. 800 men moved to the side of the road supporting Shays (12).
Prior to Shays’ Rebellion, efforts to adopt a centralized Constitution had failed. However, the specter of Shays’ Rebellion crystallized antidemocratic sentiment. Proponents of the Constitution justified it as necessary to limit the “excess of democracy” (134). Reports of the rebellion so concerned George Washington that he agreed to attend the constitutional convention in Philadelphia because, as Richards puts it, “the country desperately needed a stronger national government, one that could maintain order, one that could protect property holders like him, one that could suppress malcontents like those in Massachusetts.”
At first it was not at all clear that it would pass. In addition to the notorious “compromise” characterizing slaves as being only 3/5 of a person (which effectively gave control of the government to the South for the next 60 years), the Federalist supporters of the Constitution behind Alexander Hamilton succeeded in sticking a “Shaysites” label on all opponents of the Constitution.
One of the main arguments of those opposing the Constitution was that it had no Bill of Rights, a staple of English law, as the Spartacist article points out. The agreement to add a bill of rights to the constitution was probably the key factor in providing the narrow margin by which the Massachusetts convention approved it.
In short, Shays’ Rebellion was a key factor both in frightening the nascent bourgeoisie into adopting the Constitution and providing the impetus for the Bill of Rights. The Second Amendment is not about the right of an individual to go hunting or target shooting, but the right to organize an armed militia to “suppress tyrannical government.”
John H. points out that Shays’ Rebellion in Western Massachusetts helped convince leaders of both the Southern slavocracy and the Northern merchant bourgeoisie that a new centralized federal government was necessary. It is also true that in parts of Massachusetts a significant portion of the population both sympathized with Shays and distrusted the Constitution. As to the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms was widely accepted in the English-speaking world well before Shays’ Rebellion, as were the other rights codified in the Bill of Rights. And in fact, the Second Amendment did have to do with combating British military forces, which would continue to pose a threat to the young republic for some years after Yorktown.
The intent of the amendment was to provide for a people’s militia as against a standing army. At the same time, as the Spartacist article excerpted in WV No. 1015 (11 January) underlined, “The right to ‘keep and bear arms’ was universally recognized as an individual right” by American colonial revolutionaries. This was part of the heritage of the English bourgeois revolution of the mid 17th century. The article noted: “Carrying forward the English tradition, the American revolutionaries expanded on this right, in light of their own experience in struggle against the British king, when they drew up the Constitution.”
The roots of the right to bear arms go back to the Middle Ages. As early as the 13th century, England’s yeoman farmers, who served in wars for “king and country,” were encouraged to arm themselves with longbows, the preeminent weapon of the time. During the Hundred Years War, batteries of yeoman archers were decisive in defeating the French at the battles of Crécy (1346) and Agincourt (1415). Of note is that England had a substantial population of free peasants, i.e., not feudal vassals. As early as the 15th century, the peasants were compelled by royal decree to personally own a longbow and to participate in weekly target practice. This obligation was widely resented, particularly since it meant being available to serve in militias. The customary practice of bearing arms was formalized as a “true, ancient, and indubitable” right in the 1689 Bill of Rights that issued from the English bourgeois revolution.
The right to bear arms is bound up with social defense—that is, safeguarding the interests of a class, nation or other social entity. The American Revolution itself began when British soldiers tried to confiscate weapons in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1775. By 1777, several states had adopted their own declarations of rights guaranteeing the right to bear arms. Massachusetts followed suit in 1780, before Shays’ Rebellion.
But, as the Spartacist article noted: “As in any class society, there were some big, categorical exceptions to these ‘universal’ rights.” Like everything else about the American Revolution, the Second Amendment is particularly complicated by the fact that slavery was the bedrock of much of the country’s economy. The assumption was that white English-speaking Protestants were the ones wielding the guns. The Bill of Rights was adopted to placate much of the hostility toward the Constitution’s prescription of a strong national government, which came not only from supporters of Shays but from representatives of the Southern slavocracy. One of the first to suggest a Bill of Rights was Virginia planter Richard Henry Lee. With its protection of so-called states’ rights, the Tenth Amendment further codified the power of the slavocracy.
While the American War of Independence released a democratic spirit that resonated internationally, it fell to the Civil War to abolish slavery and affirm the basic democratic rights of citizenship and equal protection for the entire population, black and white. Yet in clearing the road for the development of capitalism, this Second American Revolution laid the basis not only for the growth of the working class but also for the consolidation of a central bourgeois state power. With the rise of U.S. imperialism by the end of the century, a standing army was firmly established. Fearful of an armed population and striving to maintain a monopoly of violence for its state, the ruling class has over the years sought to roll back the fundamental democratic right to bear arms.