Amidst Shay’s Rebellion and a Disintegrating Articles of Confederation .
The Constitution of Massachusetts was drafted in 1779, mainly by John Adams, and was ratified and became effective in 1780. It remains the oldest functioning written constitution in continuous effect in the world. The document had the most well-developed doctrine of separation of powers to date. It provided for a genuine...
The Constitution of Massachusetts was drafted in 1779, mainly by John Adams, and was ratified and became effective in 1780. It remains the oldest functioning written constitution in continuous effect in the world. The document had the most well-developed doctrine of separation of powers to date. It provided for a genuine system of checks-and-balances: a strong executive with veto power, an independent judiciary with life tenure, and a legislature “formed by two branches, a Senate and House of Representatives: each of which shall have a negative on the other.” This exact structure would later be the prototype for the U.S. Constitution, and Adams was justly proud of his Constitutional authorship. After its passage, he marveled that he had “been sent into life at a time when the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live. How few of the human race have ever enjoyed an opportunity of making an election of government, more than air, soil, or climate, for themselves and their children!”
I am certainly anxious about the wild projects of government both for the Confederation and for particular states that I am informed are in circulation.
In 1782, Adams was sent as Minister Plenipotentiary charged with the mission of negotiating treaties of amity and commerce with Great Britain and Holland. The assignment obligated him to travel to Europe and forced the Adams family to endure the hardship of separation for their nation’s well being. He spent time in both Holland securing recognition of the United States and France assisting with the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Paris. He took advantage of the opportunity that peace provided to reunite his family, with wife Abigail and daughter Nabby joining him to Europe in 1784. In 1785, he was appointed the first American minister to Britain. While in London, the Adamses had to suffer the stares and hostility of the Court; it was not a comfortable experience and he longed to be relieved of duty.
Being away, the Adamses were kept informed of developments by friends and correspondents, official and unofficial. Two of these were Richard and Mary Cranch. In 1762, Adams accompanied his old friend Cranch to visit Cranch’s fiancee, Mary Smith. At her home, he was introduced to Mary’s younger sister, Abigail. John was quickly attracted to Abigail Smith and she to him; they married and were henceforth John and Abigail Adams. Richard Cranch was now more than Adams’ old friend, he was his brother-in-law; and Mary Cranch was the sister and sister-in-law of the Adamses.
In August 1786, Shays’s Rebellion broke out in western Massachusetts. Initially, debt-ridden farmers petitioned the government in Boston to issue paper money, to halt foreclosure of mortgages on their properties, and end their own imprisonment for debt as a result of high land taxes. Anger was particularly high against the commercial interests who controlled the state senate, a body they condemned as aristocratic and inappropriate in a representative republic. When the state senate failed to undertake reform, a thousand armed insurgents in the Berkshire Hills and the Connecticut valley, under the leadership of Daniel Shays and others, began forcibly to prevent the county courts from sitting to make judgments for debt. In September they forced the state supreme court at Springfield to adjourn. Meanwhile, demonstrators and rioters protested high taxation, the governor’s high salary, high court costs and similar grievances. This revolt threatened to plunge the area into a full scale insurrection, and to spread; and while the poor were ready to fight, the wealthy classes were frightened.
As the inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation manifested itself at home with weakness if not paralysis of government, and economic conditions worsened, the Adamses in London began receiving reports that things were amiss and chaotic. In 1786, they learned that Virginia was asking for states to send representatives to Annapolis to consider revising the basis of government. This meant that the situation was indeed serious, but what would this type of action lead to, both Adamses worried. Then, late that year, they began getting alarming and alarmist reports of Shay’s Rebellion and heard of the outbreak of violence and the challenges to government in their own state.
His proudest work, his Massachusetts Constitution, was under attack at home. But that was not all, as something he had long feared used Shay’s Rebellion to rear its head: critics in Europe were saying that the American form of government could not work after all, and was breaking down. Others essentially supported Shay’s rebels by quoting the French philosopher A.R.J. Turgot, who had criticized bicameralism, thus agreeing with the farmers’ contention that the state senate was undemocratic. To counter these critics and attackers, and to influence trusted colleagues considering changing the Federal or state Constitutional system, in October 1786 Adams started his three volume work, “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America.” He worked on it all through 1787, and the magnum opus was published as it was completed in 1787-8. In it, Adams argued strongly in favor of separation of powers and used examples from other republics to show how the balance of power limits corruption and supports stability. On the question of whether the legislature should be separated into two chambers or should be a single body, he wrote:?“A single assembly …is to make a constitution and laws by its own will, execute those laws at its pleasure, and adjudge all controversies, that arise concerning the meaning and application of them, at discretion. What is there to restrain them from making tyrannical laws, in order to execute them in a tyrannical manner?”
In early 1787, as far as Adams knew, Shay’s Rebellion was still in full swing, with its end result unknown; and the Cranches were telling the Adamses that the Annapolis Convention had achieved nothing, yet an even greater convocation was being called for. This was to be the Constitutional Convention that would meet in Philadelphia in September 1787. And while we know that it produced a document Adams would gladly support, and resulted in stability and prosperity, Adams, sitting in London before the event, could only wonder and worry what it would all mean. He was personally dealing with the British who were hardly friendly at that time, and with critics of America, and was knee-deep in researching and writing his books defending his cherished Massachusetts Constitution.
Autograph Letter Signed as U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, two pages, London, February 21, 1787, to Richard Cranch, worrying about the nature of American government, but correctly predicting that anarchy would not prevail and that Shay’s Rebellion would end. ”I believe there is not another man in the world whose life has been such a series of removes as mine. It seems as of there was a destiny that I should never be paid. The time is drawing near, for eleven or twelve months will soon be round, when we are to embark for home. This is an irksome undertaking – to break up a settled habitation and remove a family across the seas, at any time of life, is no small matter. But when people grow into years and are wary of changes it is more disagreeable. It is in vain to murmur, and we must submit. In every point of view, it would be imprudent for me to think of remaining longer in Europe. It would be some expense to the public without any benefit, and a great torment to me, without any profit. I shall leave to future conversations at your fireside all further speculations upon the subject – it is idle to complain. If there is not some other plan pursued at home, no good can be done abroad.
I am certainly anxious about the wild projects of government both for the Confederation and for particular states that I am informed are in circulation. Yet I cannot but hope and trust that Massachusetts will get the better very soon of her difficulties. The people, I think, cannot be so weak and wicked as to continue their outrages against all government. I shall hardly find my homely home a scene of tranquility or of pleasure; but it cannot be worse for myself or others than to stay here. My tender affection to my sister and all our friends. Though I have not had a youth of pleasures, I must reckon on an old age of cares. These, however, will be softened by the neighborhood and society of my old friends, in the cheering hope of which permit me to subscribe myself your affectionate and obliged brother.”
Adams was right to be confident in the American people overall. The Constitutional Convention would adopt a document based on his own work, and he would refer to it as “the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen.” Its success soon silenced critics, domestic and foreign. And Shays Rebellion fizzled out soon after he wrote this letter, with no long-term damage to government. He was right, as well, about his service in London coming to an end. In another year he would return home.
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